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Sprewell’s Best Policy Isn’t Honesty

In baseball, there’s a joke about a ballplayer who’s walking down the street with his girlfriend when he runs into his wife.

“Who are you going to believe?” he asks his spouse, “me or your eyes?”

This may also describe Latrell Sprewell’s state of mind. After taking a week to regret the consequences of choking P.J. Carlesimo, if not the act itself, and inform his high-priced defense team how he intended to handle this, he announced that he had omitted Carlesimo in his apologies because he didn’t want to do it through the media.

Since he had waited until two days before his news conference to make the call--and had vowed privately he would never apologize to

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Carlesimo--let’s just say the first thing Sprewell said as he began telling his side of the story might not have been completely true.

Why not, “I was upset with P.J. but I realize I did something wrong, no matter what the circumstances?”

A source from his defense team says this tack was all Sprewell’s idea. No wonder he left laughing. After having all his other lame excuses accepted over the years, he thinks reality is whatever he says it is.

This was the kind of news conference that makes you fear for America, not to mention a clinic in modern stardom, attended, as it was, by a coterie of Sprewell’s retainers: his celebrity counsel, Johnnie Cochran; his agent, Arn Tellem; his Bay Area lawyer; his tax lawyer and his accountant, all of whom were introduced beforehand. How we missed meeting his masseur and his acting coach is a mystery.

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Unfortunately, this wasn’t merely a farce. As the sun tends to rise in the East, incidents involving an African American and a Caucasian tend to become racial. This was a highly charged moment, with one questioner charging:

“This is 40% an African American city that wants to know if the Golden State Warriors are a racist organization and did P.J. Carlesimo use the ‘N’ word to cause Latrell Sprewell to snap! We want to know that!”

To which Billy Hunter, the director of the NBA Players Assn., replied:

“OK, let me tell you, since you want to know! There’s no evidence of that! I don’t know if that’s the answer you want to hear but just let me tell you to clean the record up, there’s no evidence of anything like that occurring.”

Moments later, someone else asked:

“What do you say to African American fans who look at, for example, the National Hockey League, and they see white hockey players involved in fisticuffs and in defiance of authority--i.e. referees. . . . “

Hunter explained that hockey is a different game with different rules. The union leader, the one man gaining stature in this mess, was an unknown when it started, but he’s the best reason the defense veered away from a race-based argument. Hunter threw his body across the track in front of that train, something not every fledgling leader of a heavily African American union might have done.

What we’re left with is an indefensible defendant . . . who has a case. As Hunter notes, this was not without precedent. In 1994, the Pistons’ Alvin Robertson choked General Manager Billy McKinney--and was not penalized by the league.

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Another time, Allan Bristow, then Charlotte’s general manager, choked an agent--coincidentally, it was Tellem--and got a letter of reprimand.

It’s not hard to guess what Commissioner David Stern was thinking in this case. Morally, he had to act. PR-wise, he was more than willing to. Merely terminating Sprewell’s contract would have given the offending party what he wanted all along, a ticket to a better team. After that, you could argue what a proper suspension was, a month, two, three, six, 12?

Happily for Sprewell, he’s still a precious commodity. However scary things must look to him, he’ll get his career back if he does the right thing. In his case, that’s no sure thing.

He not only doesn’t get it, he seems psychologically incapable of getting it. He has been out of control for years and is no more obliging now. Union officials had to wait two days before he would talk to them. He did interviews without consulting Tellem, his fourth agent in a six-year career; when Tellem was told by a news service reporter, he exclaimed, “Oh my God!”

Then, to the dismay of other members of the defense, Sprewell’s Bay Area lawyer told a local TV station about the apology--denying Sprewell the chance to announce it. It just goes to show, it’s hard to find good courtiers these days.

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION? UH, NO

Of course, there’s a difference between backing the union and approving Sprewell’s actions and explanations.

In Chicago, his former Alabama teammate, Jason Caffey, stomped out of the TV lounge when Bull players, watching the news conference, made wisecracks about Sprewell.

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“He’s an OK dude,” Caffey said. “I feel bad for him. That’s why I left, because people were in here saying stupid negative stuff about him.”

Said the eminent Michael Jordan, “A suspension and psychiatric help might have made a big impact on [Sprewell]. But to penalize him that much and a year’s suspension, that’s quite a bit.”

Said the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Sam Mitchell, “We have a good league. We’ve got great jobs. We’ve got a good thing going. I hope we don’t screw it up and do something stupid that turns the fans off.”

Seattle players, gathered in front of a TV when the report came over that Charles Barkley had threatened an all-star boycott in support of Sprewell, burst out laughing.

FACES AND FIGURES

Son of scion meets the wily Don Nel$on: Last spring, Dallas owner Ross Perot Jr. said he couldn’t “envision a scenario where it would be best for Nellie to be general manager and coach.” This fall, he suddenly envisioned it, just as Nelson’s friends had all along. Nelson, who could jump out of a burning building and land in greenbacks, got an estimated $3-million bonus after the Warriors were sold in 1994, was fired in the first year of a multimillion-dollar deal with the Knicks, was making $1.4 million a year as the Mavericks’ general manager and will now go over $4 million for taking on added responsibility.

Sure: Nelson said he was going to promote Charlie Parker, the former USC coach who was on Jim Cleamons’ staff. One can just see the wheels spinning in Nelson’s head: Let’s see, should I let Charlie do it or should I take an extra $2.6 million a year? . . . Not that Maverick players minded. Said Dennis Scott of Nelson, “He released me. He got me out of jail. I can be free now.”

Today’s likable young man is tomorrow’s scapegoat: Knick Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who had done a good job of drawing out his aging team’s time, made two bad mistakes, announcing after a loss to the woeful Philadelphia 76ers, “I’m disgraced with myself.” No. 1 was grammatical; he should have said, “I’ve disgraced myself.” No. 2 was more significant; he made himself look pathetic at a bad time, or as the New York Post put it in a banner headline, “The Whiner Within.”

Meanwhile, far from the headlines (thanks again, Spree), the Scottie Pippen crisis is fading. No formal announcement has been made, but the Bulls now are talking about when Pippen returns, not if.

Priced to move: 76er President Pat Croce says his team needs a shake-up, meaning he may be ready to take a PR hit by trading one-time franchise hope Jerry Stackhouse to the San Antonio Spurs for slow-footed career backup Will Perdue. Adding to the intrigue, Coach Larry Brown is exasperated with his new team and the players are getting exasperated with him. Insiders say Allen Iverson, the current franchise hope, is chafing at being criticized.

In Oakland, Joe Smith’s agent, Eric Fleischer, told Golden State his client isn’t coming back and should be traded while they can get something for him. . . . The Atlanta Hawks, short on firepower and depth, want Alan Henderson to return from injuries faster. General Manager Pete Babcock recently mused that if everyone waited to feel his best, no one would ever go to work. Henderson: “Can I play? Maybe.”

The machines must miss Isiah Thomas too: In keeping with their sorry season, the Toronto Raptors’ telephone system melted down last week. Then their computer crashed, wiping out their database for pregame notes.


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