Before last week, Latrell Sprewell was hardly a household name, but now he's joined Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman and O.J. Simpson as a poster boy for bad behavior.
Sprewell was a shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors until he attacked his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, during a stormy practice session. In a fit of anger, Sprewell choked Carlesimo, then left the gym and returned about 15 minutes later and threatened to kill the coach. He roughed up Carlesimo again.
Ever since this ugly incident, people who don't know a double latte from a double dribble have been weighing in on Sprewell.
After the Warriors suspended Sprewell for 10 games, then terminated his four-year, $32 million contract, National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern kicked Sprewell out of the league for a year. The punishment touched off much rejoicing in the land. Finally, someone had stood up for all that was good and decent and had told a whiny, petulant, belligerent sports superstar where to get off.
That's all well and good, and it certainly fits into the American need for simple, unvarnished justice, where the good guy rides high and the bad guy heads off to the pokey, but it's still wrong.
Let's start with a undeniable, uncontrovertible fact: Under no circumstance should Sprewell have put his hands on Carlesimo. It never has been, nor will it ever be, appropriate for a player in any sport to attack a coach or manager.
It's reasonable to presume that Sprewell knows this and he should have expected severe punishment, probably something on the order of an unpaid vacation for the rest of this season.
That said, the penalty Stern meted out - the strictest nondrug related sanction in the 51-year history of the NBA - was overly severe when you consider the following:
* Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Van Exel push referee into the scorer's table two seasons ago and received a seven-game penalty.
* Last year's Rookie of the Year, Philadelphia's Allen Iverson got a one-game suspension this year when the car in which he was a passenger was pulled over for speeding and a Virginia state trooper found marijuana and a loaded gun in the vehicle.
* A few years ago, Charles Barkley spat at another player and hit a spectator, a child. Sir Charles also has earned a reputation as a barroom brawler and just before e this season started, he tossed a man through a plate-glass window. The 6 foot 6 forward hinted that he would retire if the NBA sanctioned him for the last incident. The league blinked and left him alone.
* Last year, Rodman, who's become the symbol of basketball evil, head-butted an official and got a 11-game suspension. Rodman was involved in a series of transgressions before that incident.
* And, in a 1993 case that has similarities to the Sprewell matter, Detroit guard Alvin Robertson tried to choke then general manager Billy McKinney. Robertson was cut by the Pistons, but he received no further sanction from the league. He was on the roster of the Toronto Raptors two seasons ago, and was released after he was convicted of burglarizing his girlfriend's apartment, but not before he was charged with striking another woman.
Stern, hailed by many as the best chief executive in all of sports, deftly stepped around all that history and made his own, declaring that Sprewell had so violated our sensibilities that he .. had to pay a price above and beyond what anyone else had.
In so doing, Stern played to the court of public opinion and the ticket-buying populace rather than applying himself to what was fair and proper. In a sense, Sprewell was not only paying the price for his own transgression, but was doing penance for all the players who got off the hook scot-free.
Don't think Stern, who hears the public better than anyone else in a similar position, didn't hear the national outrage last fall when the Orioles' Roberto Alomar essentially wriggled out of spitting in the face of an umpire with a five-game suspension, the dictionary definition of a slap on the wrist.
Stern was determined that, in the most flagrant sports offense since Alomar's, he would get it right and assert his moral authority by throwing the book at Sprewell.
And Sprewell didn't help matters, first by going back on Carlesimo after the first fracas ended, then by pointedly failing to apologize to the coach until a week after the fact.
Although he was contrite at a news conference Tuesday, Sprewell, a three-time All-Star, wasn't apologetic enough when it counted, and his previous track record is hardly clean. He had run-ins with former coaches and teammates, including a fight with former Warrior Jerome Kersey, after which Sprewell returned with a 2-by-4 to do further battle.
So, clearly, we're not talking about a man who operates with total control of his faculties at all times. But even with all that as a backdrop, Stern dropped the ball by currying public favor rather than by doing what was right.
First off, the commissioner should have found time to meet with Sprewell. The league said it tried to reach Sprewell, and that its security chief called the player, but that's not good enough. You cannot separate a man from his chosen profession for a prolonged period, as Stern has done, without at least looking that man in the eye and giving him the chance to explain what made him temporarily take leave of his senses.
In addition, Stern's suspension may become an effective two-year ban, since, by the time Sprewell will be eligible to play at this time next year, the season will be a month old and rosters will have been set, leaving no room under the NBA's complicated salary cap to fit his salary.
It appears that Stern, ever conscious of the public mood, heard some building outrage, and wanted to make sure that the league, whose image he has carefully reconstructed from the drug-addled 1970s, didn't crumble under the weight of anger, didn't suffer for the misbehavior of one miscreant.
Understandably, Stern didn't want Sprewell to benefit from what he had done by causing havoc in one place and getting out of it by changing addresses. Indeed, a line of owners, including Abe Pollin of the Washington Wizards, had formed to pick up Sprewell as soon as he came off the original suspension.
But one of the responsibilities of a good leader is to do what is right, not what is popular. Stern failed that test miserably.
Milton Kent covers sports and the media for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/14/97