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It’s Criminal If This Incident Is Dismissed as Being Routine

This was just another story about another millionaire thug, another hero gone to hell, yawn and move on, until you turned on the TV.

There, talking about Monday’s incident with his Golden State Warriors, was P.J. Carlesimo.

With bright red welts on his neck.

Talking about Latrell Sprewell’s attack as if talking about a zone defense, as if it were locker room stuff, insider stuff, routine stuff.

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The camera didn’t notice the welts at first. But like your eyes, it eventually zoomed in.

Soon, while you heard Carlesimo’s voice, all you saw were the welts.

Perhaps this is how we need to start dealing with this stuff.

Ignore the talk. Examine the welts.

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Ignore teammates babbling about a “great guy,” or officials talking about a “family problem,” or the NBA talking about “an isolated incident.” Examine the bright red reality of yet another criminal act rationalized by that all-purpose excuse known as sports.

If you attacked your boss the way Sprewell attacked Carlesimo on the practice court--choking him and then returning 20 minutes later to punch him--you would be reading this column from jail.

Our numbness should be transformed to anger, which is the only way to force anyone into action.

For the Warriors Wednesday, that meant voiding the rest of Sprewell’s contract worth $23.7 million.

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Now is the time for others to act. For the rest of the NBA teams, that could mean a one-year blackball of Sprewell. For the league office, that could mean a one-year suspension for the player.

But, alas.

Maybe there is no way 28 other NBA teams would pass on a 27-year-old star who has made more baskets in one game this season (18) than anybody but Michael Jordan.

And maybe David Stern is too busy measuring hem lines.

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The saddest part of this very sad event is that the winner will still be Latrell Sprewell.

He has been begging to leave the Warriors. He has gotten his wish.

He has been pleading to be sent to a contending team. He will probably be picked up by one.

“I thought about Sprewell yesterday when I heard that the Miami Dolphins had picked up Lawrence Phillips,” said Dr. Eric Denson, a psychologist at Western Washington University who has worked extensively with athletes. “This is what tells players they are special, that they can do anything they want. If one team drops them, another will pick them up. Rarely are any great athletes truly accountable for anything.”

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And now, that includes respect for their coaches.

This is what makes this simple fight so scary.

It was not teammate versus teammate, or competitor versus rival.

It was student versus teacher. Employee versus boss. Son versus father.

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When Latrell Sprewell put his hands on the neck of his head coach, he was putting a chokehold on every authority figure fighting a losing battle against a generation that wants things its way, or no way.

“I think a lot of it has to do with what you see in society in general,” Denson said. “I see a lack of respect for authority figures everywhere, and sports is a reflection of that. People in this generation feel ‘dissed’ when they don’t get their way. They are quicker to take it personally. That’s the way they’ve been socialized.”

This is not to say that one miscreant acts for an entire age group, but you get the point.

One day, Robert Horry is throwing a towel at his coach. The next day, Nick Van Exel is shoving a referee. Now, this.

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“What did the player do?” asked an earnest newspaper librarian when I requested information about a player-coach incident. “Murder him?”

No, but bench a guy long enough, and maybe that’s next.

That’s how this latest scrum started, you know. Although Sprewell has never dealt well with his coaches, he became particularly incensed with Carlesimo when he was benched during the second half of the season’s sixth game, against the Lakers. Sprewell openly laughed during the blowout, and later called Carlesimo a “joke.”

Two days later Sprewell was thrown out of practice for insubordination, then benched at the start of the next game, then showed up late at the team hotel during a later trip to Salt Lake City.

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Carlesimo is known as a noisemaker. Rod Strickland and Isaiah Rider rebelled under his loud reign as coach in Portland.

There is no reason to think he was any easier on Sprewell Monday, when Carlesimo began scolding him, Sprewell resisted, and the fight began.

But amazingly, some folks in the Bay Area actually think Carlesimo asked for it.

“There is a small sentiment out there that maybe Sprewell was being harassed,” said Gary Radnich, a noted Bay Area TV personality and radio talk show host. “As with everything else these days, some people think race is an issue.”

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Denson, who is black, disagreed. “How long has the NBA had predominately black players and white coaches?” he asked. “How come we never heard about this sort of thing until lately?”

So here we sit, knocked flat by another pro athlete without a moral compass, hoping the children aren’t watching, knowing they are.

I wasn’t the only one who yawned. In this section, the news that Sprewell put his hands around Carlesimo’s throat and reportedly threatened to “kill” him appeared Wednesday on Page C8 at the beginning of a roundup that included other league news.

I would suggest to my editors that the next time a pro athlete chokes his coach, it is played on the front, leads the section, big pictures, highlight the welts. Even if we aren’t horrified, we could at least fake it.

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Soon enough that story will be in the transactions agate, and heaven help us all.


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