BACK IN THE GAME FINDING REFUGE ON THE COURT, THE SUDDENLY RESURGENT WARRIORS LEARNED THAT LIFE AFTER LATRELL SPREWELL HAS ITS BENEFITS

December 22, 1997

This was no safety-in-the-workplace issue, that became clear. As
soon as Latrell Sprewell clipped his hectoring coach, every
possible theme in modern-day sports was invoked: race, money,
the predisposition toward rebellion that cornrows imply and the
rightful authority of franchise owners (their rightfulness
inferred from their more traditional grooming) were summoned to
the public forum. Has it been six months already since Mike
Tyson bit off an ear (admittedly black--no race angle there)?

But anyone who seeks to define issues through this latest
outrageous event is probably doomed by the act's singularity. It
was the same with Tyson. There was no increase in ear-biting,
and the whole thing eventually died down when it turned out he
had just gone nuts. That's probably what happened with Sprewell
(page 150). His throttling of P.J. Carlesimo might be more than
careless behavior on the job site, but it's probably less than
the end of civilization .

Then again, with civilization continuing, things don't look too
good for the Golden State Warriors' season. Six players lined up
behind Sprewell, figuratively and photographically, for his
non-apology to Carlesimo last week. That's a team divided,
almost down the middle, in fact. For players to choose sides
this publicly, or appear to, suggested mutiny.

The day after Sprewell's non-apology, the Warriors, who had a
stranglehold on mediocrity if nothing else, beat the Los Angeles
Lakers. Two days after that, last Friday, they traveled to
Vancouver and played the Grizzlies tough before faltering down
the stretch. Then last Saturday night against
Sacramento--admittedly, the Kings being no more of a threat to
the Chicago Bulls' dominance than, well, the Grizzlies will ever
be--Golden State won its third straight home game.

At week's end the Warriors had gone 3-3 after Sprewell's
banishment. This is impressive, and baffling, since they were
1-13 with their go-to man. Losing Sprewell, the Warriors lost 21
points, one of the best defenders in the league and, for some of
the players at least, a friend. So the team begins playing its
best basketball all year. How do you figure that? "Chemistry?"
suggests Muggsy Bogues, the team's pint-sized backup point guard
(although he was not so tiny that he couldn't be seen standing
behind Sprewell at his press conference).

If this is chemistry, the team's recent schedule (with the
exception of the Lakers) has been a catalyst. The real miracle
is not that the Warriors are playing well, however relative that
term is for so troubled a franchise, but that they are playing
at all. Better teams than this have suffered meltdowns over far
less.

At the very least, you could call the Sprewell incident a
distraction. Neither the front office nor Carlesimo is
discussing it, citing legal ramifications, yet a laundry list of
Sprewell's priors was published in The New York Times. This
inspires pity for the hapless members of management who, had
they made this remarkable discovery of Sprewell's checkered past
just a little bit earlier, certainly would never have upgraded
his contract so vigorously. The players, however, have no shield
to stand behind and are questioned about the incident at every
stop. They are obliged to answer, and it has become tiresome.

"We kind of agreed not to keep talking about it," says Brian
Shaw, one of the veterans who made a show of support for
Sprewell, "but then everybody at home wanted to talk about it,
and people you ran into, and the media."

"It would be a relief," adds Joe Smith, one of Sprewell's
closest friends on the team, "if we could just focus on
basketball."

The truth is, the team may not have been focusing much on
basketball before the incident. As in any dysfunctional family,
the actual divorce creates more relief than pain. Forward
Donyell Marshall may sympathize with his banned comrade but
concedes that life has been easier without Sprewell--and his
simmering conflict with Carlesimo. "Spre and Coach just weren't
getting along," Marshall says, "plus we were losing. There was
tension."

How about the day after the split-up, when the team was
presumably divided in its loyalties? "Practices were more
relaxed," Marshall says. "Guys were laughing and giggling."

Several veteran players likewise overcame their allegiance to a
teammate--"You can't condone it," says Bogues, saying they
supported the player, not the play--and asked the rest of the
team to come together and produce something more presentable
than outright disintegration. Bogues, Shaw and guard Bimbo Coles
gathered the team after Sprewell had exploded to remind the
younger players that they had a responsibility to play out the
season and to generate more excitement than headlines along the
way. "This definitely could have destroyed us," says Coles. "I
mean, Spre was a teammate and a very good friend. It was tough
to watch a player and coach not get along. But we had to stick
together."

The six players who attended Sprewell's news conference may have
been misunderstood. No matter how it looked, they insisted, that
was more about sticking together than flying apart. "We were
there as much for P.J. as we were for Spre," says Shaw. "I
personally was there because I thought he needed to apologize.
That starts the healing. It wasn't choosing sides."

The players, for all their natural allegiance to other players
rather than management, do not excuse Sprewell's conduct. He was
flat-out wrong, and not one of them, not even Smith, who was
writing Sprewell's number on his ankle wrap by way of tribute,
would try to make a case against their coach.

For that matter, the picture of six guys lined up behind
Sprewell played logically in Carlesimo's mind. "I wasn't
frightened," he says. "This is something we all went through
together; they watched what happened with their own eyes. They
weren't supporting what happened but were taking up the issue of
severity."

It was a tough time all around, and the players, according to
Shaw, "found refuge in the 2 1/2 hours" they could actually play
basketball. That sense of relief showed up on the scoreboard
against the Lakers, finally. The Warriors were down by seven at
the half, and it occurred to Coles that this game might be there
for the taking. Considering that their first meeting of the
season, in Los Angeles, had been one of the most mortifying
mismatches in NBA history--with Shaquille O'Neal trying to play
point guard and everybody laughing at them--the Warriors' 93-92
win when they were presumably a fractured unit was their most
satisfying victory of the year. Of course, as they'd had just
one other win to that point, that wasn't saying much.

"All the same," says Marshall, "we were dancing and hugging in
the dressing room that night."

After the victory over Sacramento there was the usual talk, some
of it sensible, about everybody stepping up on offense to take
Sprewell's points. About how, according to Marshall, "the ball
may have been going into Spre's court too much anyway." The team
had long ago grown accustomed to Sprewell breaking his man down,
getting the most shots and the most points. But now the offense
was getting spread around and, maybe more important, was
pounding the ball inside more than ever before. Against
Sacramento, Smith scored 25 points, Marshall 16. Smith scored 23
the night before in Vancouver. "Well," says Shaw, "we'll be a
different team. I don't know if you can ever say we'll be better
without an All-Star player--that was 21 points and a lot of
defense--but we'll be different."

Adds Marshall, "We've got a very good attitude, a
nothing-to-lose attitude. We could become a very deadly team."

That might be a lot to ask. Without Sprewell the Warriors have
virtually no star power, are not exciting to watch and might not
fare as well in the tougher stretches of their schedule. Maybe
they can be better, maybe they can be happier. That ought to be
enough, considering what this team has gone through.

If that's the way it plays out, the Warriors could develop into
a remarkable team, in their own way. That little practice
mayhem, no matter how it seemed at the time, could turn out to
be nothing more than professional carelessness, like not wearing
a hard hat in a construction zone. It could turn out that there
was nothing much to read into it--mistakes were made, OSHA
investigated, fines were levied. Not that big a deal. The
Warriors could have a good season, Sprewell could learn his
lesson. Could.

COLOR PHOTO: SAM FORENCICH/NBA PHOTOS Coles (12) preached team unity, then helped practice it on the Lakers. [Bimbo Coles in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH "This is something we all went through together," says Carlesimo. [Muggsy Bogues, P.J. Carlesimo and Golden State Warriors players] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH "It would be a relief," says Smith (32), "if we could just focus on basketball." [Joe Smith in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)