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THE RACE CARD IN A LEAGUE WITH MOSTLY BLACK PLAYERS, MOSTLY WHITE BOSSES AND FANS, AND STRONG CORPORATE SUPPORT, AN ASSAULT ON A COACH IS ALMOST INEVITABLY MORE THAN A STORY OF CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Dec. 15, 1997
Dec. 15, 1997

Table of Contents
Dec. 15, 1997

THE RACE CARD IN A LEAGUE WITH MOSTLY BLACK PLAYERS, MOSTLY WHITE BOSSES AND FANS, AND STRONG CORPORATE SUPPORT, AN ASSAULT ON A COACH IS ALMOST INEVITABLY MORE THAN A STORY OF CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

NBA coaches, you can breathe easy again. The league faces no
threat of players' suddenly thinking that they can throttle
their bosses with impunity. The Golden State Warriors and
commissioner David Stern made sure of that with their swift and
decisive action against Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell, who
choked and threatened coach P.J. Carlesimo at a practice on Dec.
1. Regardless of the result of the appeals that are sure to
follow, Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and
any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach's
windpipe will surely remember Sprewell's experience before he
acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident
raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA's future,
issues of power and money and--most dangerous of all--race.

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 1997 issue Original Layout

Feel free to take a moment here to wince, just as you might have
when you saw the names of attorney Johnnie Cochran and the Rev.
Jesse Jackson mentioned as potential advisers to the Sprewell
camp. (Jackson's representatives later said he had no plans to
become involved.) "Please, Lord, not another O.J.," one
African-American player said when he heard of Cochran's possible
involvement. This situation shouldn't be nearly that messy. But
the Sprewell incident is similar to the Simpson case in that it
began on a personal level and is mutating into something far
bigger, something that has little to do with the events of Dec.
1.

One of the NBA's greatest accomplishments--essential to the way
the league has flourished financially over the past two
decades--is the way it has not only handled the race issue but
also tamed it and used it to turn a profit. The NBA's marketing
machinery has sold a league that is 80% African-American to
white fans and corporate America by embracing the
culture--urban, inner-city, whatever code words for black you
prefer--in which many of its players grew up. Listen to the rap
music that is played in the arenas, watch the hip-hop dance
moves of the cheerleaders and the edgy sneaker commercials that
add to the celebrity of NBA stars. It has all given the league a
street credibility, a cachet, that no other league enjoys.

Don't think for a moment that the players don't recognize this,
that they don't realize that they are part of a slick, hip
package that is presented to the mostly affluent, predominantly
white crowds that fill the arenas. "You go diving into the
stands after a ball, and you land on some investment banker's
cell phone," says one black player. "Meanwhile, the fellas you
grew up with can't afford a ticket to get in. Yeah, you think
about those things."

But until now, until Sprewell, those issues were only discussed
in private by players. Multimillion-dollar contracts tend to
soothe feelings of resentment. One reason we have heard
qualified support for Sprewell among some of his
African-American peers is not because they think his actions
were justified but because some of them think the league had
more than one agenda in suspending him for a year after the team
terminated his $32 million contract. There is a sense that the
league was trying to do more than send a message that attacking
a coach is unpardonable, that by punishing Sprewell so severely
it was also trying to send a message to the public that the NBA
it knows and loves was not becoming too dangerous, "too black."

Whether the players are right--and they would have a hard time
fitting into their theory the relatively light punishments that
Dennis Rodman, Nick Van Exel and Magic Johnson, all
African-American, received last season for bumping white
referees--is almost beside the point. If they feel that way, the
league has cause to worry. The system that has made truckloads
of money for players and owners alike is threatened if the race
issue rises to the surface and the public gets the sense that
the NBA isn't the safe, harmonious place it has been for 20
years. This is not to say that race was a major factor in
Sprewell's attack on Carlesimo. Although Arn Tellem, Sprewell's
agent, has correctly pointed out that the issue can't be ignored
in light of Carlesimo's stormy relationships with several black
players, none of those players, including Sprewell, have
suggested that those problems had a racial basis. Many players
and coaches who have worked with Carlesimo say they have never
seen a hint of racial bias from him, and as an African-American
reporter who has dealt with him in difficult situations, I add
my name to that list.

But this situation is much bigger than Sprewell and Carlesimo.
It goes to the notion of power, and Stern has shown, at least
pending appeal, that contrary to the rantings of sports
talk-show callers the players do not run the league. He does. At
least one prominent agent--not Tellem--believes that for the
past year or so the league has been lying in wait for a case
with which it could make a statement about the character and
image of its players. When Sprewell presented that opportunity,
the league jumped at it, suspending him for a year and approving
the Warriors' decision to terminate his contract for violation
of the "moral character" clause in the standard player contract.
"I don't think it's unjustified for the league to be concerned
about the image of its players," says the agent. "The scary
thing for me is the precedent this sets. If the league can take
this action against Sprewell, what about the player who does not
choke or strike his coach but turns around and swears back at
him? What about a highly paid player who is underperforming? Can
a team or the league find some less than major transgression and
decide that he has violated his contract? If things go in this
direction, you have to ask whether a guaranteed contract is
really a guaranteed contract."

In other words, if Sprewell's punishment stands, little will
keep Stern or team executives from abusing their power other
than their own consciences. Of course, in a league where players
can prompt a coach's firing or force a trade, abuse of power can
go both ways. Talk to league executives and you'll find that
they miss the days when they felt a partnership with the
players, when stars like Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving
had a sense of the big picture and felt they had a stake in the
image of the NBA. They will tell you that feeling is not much in
evidence now. If it were, this Pandora's box of questions about
race and power might still be locked tight.

Then again, if it hadn't been Sprewell, it probably would have
been someone or something else, because these issues have been
moving increasingly close to the surface. A player throws a
towel in his coach's face, the league cracks down on shorts that
hang too low, a group of players orchestrates the ouster of a
coach. These are all battles for control, skirmishes in the
overall war. You get the feeling that the NBA will have a
difficult time continuing to package itself so attractively now
that it has so many players who feel no obligation to fit into
the package. The league has a battle on its hands, one that will
go on long after those red marks on Carlesimo's neck have
healed.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The Warriors' Joe Smith is not the only player to stand up for Sprewell. ['#15 SPREE' written on Joe Smith's ankle tape]