Village Voice on 16 December 1997

Suspension Tension

by Jeff Benedict

Suspension Tension

Latrell Sprewell’s by now infamous one-year suspension from basketball for assaulting his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, was neither harsh nor courageous. Unless the NBA wanted to accept that it’s okay to attack your coach, Commissioner David Stern could do little else. While it may or may not send a message to players, one thing the suspension does not do is address the deeper problem: what is the climate within the NBA that precipitated the confrontation between Sprewell and Carlesimo?

While coaches generally support the league’s stance, a consensus of players view Sprewell as the victim. On the surface, both players and coaches have much in common. Both groups are overpaid professionals with oversized egos playing a boy’s game. But an obvious chasm exists between the men wearing stylish suits and barking out instructions on the sidelines and the boys running up and down the hardwood in too-long shorts.

Examine the respective profiles of modern-day players and coaches. In a largely white-run superstructure, over 80 percent of the NBA’s players are black. An increasing number of today’s players are leaving college early. Of those who remain on campus for four years before entering the draft, fewer and fewer are graduating. They are superbly talented athletes raised in neighborhoods saddled with poverty and crime, turned, in some instances almost overnight, into stars. Case in point: Latrell Sprewell.

Players of this background gain their first exposure to higher education when a slick-talking, highly paid coach with national prominence pays them a home visit in hopes of recruiting them. The recruiter, who, more often than not, is white and affluent, stresses all the right concepts: academics, social life, support systems. He panders to the player, coddling him if that’s what it takes to sign him. But coaches don’t get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for having high graduation rates. Once these athletes arrive on campus, they become products whose backs some aspiring coaches step on in order to climb the employment ladder and land the next job. Some college coaches even leave the college ranks altogether when the multimillion-dollar NBA job is offered. Case in point: P.J. Carlesimo.

There is a built in tension between a growing number of professional players who have experienced this ugly side of the business and the coaches who are responsible for it. Simply calling it a racial gap oversimplifies the problem. It is about integrity, respect, common decency, and viewing people as human beings rather than commodities. One need not score 800 on the SAT to distinguish from hollow flattery.

Is it overstated to say that the chickens have come home to roost? In its climb to financial heavyweight status among professional sports leagues, the NBA has long been tolerating on-court thuggishness and off-court criminal conduct by players. Like well-intentioned but weak-willed parents, the league has consistently doled out tepid justice. Off-court example: the popular and gifted Allen Iverson was barred from playing opening night because he pleaded no contest during the summer to a charge of gun possession. On-court (and on TV) example: last April, Nick Van Exel threw a ref onto the press table and received a seven-game suspension and $25,000 fine. With that history, it’s no surprise some say the punishment does not fit the crime. Looking at the league’s past behavior, it doesn’t.

When Stern insists that “A sports league does not have to accept or condone behavior that would not be tolerated in any other segment of society,” he’s right, it doesn’t. But up till now the NBA has. GM Garry St. Jean talked about “the correct, moral, and ethical thing to do.” In a business that has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality, this sounds disingenuous.

Players who previously played under Carlesimo have echoed Sprewell’s complaints of repeated abuse. Dallas Mavericks head coach Don Nelson has said in response to the Sprewell incident, “The nature of the business is that it’s a yelling business. You have to get the players’ attention. Profanity is part of the game. Coaches are in a tough spot. We have to motivate. To do that, you have to get in people’s drawers.” When Nelson coached the Warriors, his rift with the star player Chris Webber grew so out of hand they both left the organization.

Some argue that for $32 million, a guy ought to shut up and take all the verbal abuse. But this is more about who is dishing out the abuse, not the substance of his words.

None of this excuses Sprewell’s violence. But it does explain it. “We are drawing the line,” St. Jean insisted, in defense of the Warriors firing Sprewell. This is strong medicine for players who have been playing without boundaries. Some of them will not likely walk away from this dispute without a fight.