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Line of Losers in Sprewell Case Starts at Stern

Well, that concludes a disaster for the ages.

Latrell Sprewell, the perpetrator, who supposedly triumphed Wednesday, improved his situation only to the extent that he forfeits a mere $6.4 million, rather than being nuked to the tune of $23.7 million.

Of course, he also loses something more precious--his good name. Let’s see him get that back. For sure, an arbitrator can’t give it to him.

P.J. Carlesimo, the victim, is a dead coach walking, with his players muttering about him and the league’s grapevine destroying his chance of recruiting free agents.

Then there’s the invincible David Stern, the last real commissioner. In essence, what happened Wednesday was that the arbitrator, John Feerick, choked him.

It wasn’t the decision, which was fair enough. Big penalties for outrages, even in this hard-hitting league, run $10,000 or $20,000. Where did they get off, thinking the tab for this offense, however horrific, should be $23.7 million?

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It was, instead, the way the decision capsized the unsinkable Stern. The great spin doctor sounded absolutely crestfallen in a telephone news conference, saying Feerick had made his league a place where you can “strike your boss and still hold your job.”

In the NBA, it’s a challenging new day . . . and a frustrated-looking Stern.

In a rare aside at the All-Star game, he said that if the owners didn’t like his new get-tough, commissioner-decides disciplinary policy, they could change the constitution or fire him.

The owners, who used to give Stern carte blanche, reportedly are resisting his lead on labor. Stern wants to rock and roll this summer, lock the players out, perhaps even give up a month or two of next season, to forge a better deal, because the present one works strictly for glamour teams, superstars and post-teen prospects.

The problem is, the big belters reportedly don’t want to line up behind their leader.

A straw vote on reopening collective bargaining at a board of governors meeting last fall in New York reportedly passed by only 20-9. Reopening should be a pro forma 29-0, since all it means is the owners want to begin negotiations. If Stern can get only 20 votes for reopening, how many can he get for locking the players out July 1? How many can he get if it goes beyond that?

And now, a commissioner can’t even flex his muscles in a massive show of power?

Sprewell’s behavior was indefensible and that wasn’t even the worst of it. The worst part was, because he was a talented player, he would suffer few real consequences. The Warriors could void his contract and, because he was so talented, teams would line up to offer millions more. Bloomberg News recently polled NBA general managers; nine of 29 said they’d consider signing him.

So the Warriors, perhaps encouraged by the NBA lawyers, and Stern swung for the fences.

And, as they learned Wednesday, popped to short.

This is still a nation with laws. Precedents apply. Stern, a great trial lawyer, and his entire office of lawyers, rushed pell-mell past due process. The next thing you knew, they had big trouble.

In the spring of 1993, at the end of a dreary season, the Detroit Pistons’ Alvin Robertson got into an argument with the team’s general manager, Billy McKinney, and wound up grabbing him by the throat. The incident was little remarked upon. Robertson, a former all-star who was by then a journeyman, was soon released. McKinney was about to be fired himself. And it was before Stern had taken over the role as top cop.

Bottom line: The league took no action. Not light action, not a token slap on the wrist. In a similar case, the league did nothing.

This is what a lawyer might call an opportunity.

There were others, such as the time Charlotte General Manager Alan Bristow choked an agent, Arn Tellem (who, ironically, is Sprewell’s agent). This time the league took action. It sent Bristow a letter of reprimand.

Wednesday’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise, even if it seemed to catch Stern in the breadbasket. But nobody had better be celebrating. The final score was, no winners, all losers, and perhaps the most ringing reminder yet that this once-glowing league has lost its way.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sprewell Chronology

Chronology of events stemming from the attack by Golden State Warrior guard Latrell Sprewell on his coach, P.J. Carlesimo:

* Dec. 1--Sprewell attacks Carlesimo at a practice; the Golden State Warriors suspend Sprewell without pay for at least 10 games.

* Dec. 3--The Warriors terminate Sprewell’s $32 million contract.

* Dec. 4--The NBA suspends Sprewell for one year, with Commissioner David Stern saying, “A sports league does not have to accept or condone behavior that would not be tolerated in any other segment of society.”

* Dec. 5--The players’ association files grievances against the NBA and the Warriors.

* Dec. 9--In his first public comments on the attack, Sprewell says his conduct was unacceptable. “I am a good person and I’ve never had any situation like this come up before,” he says. “I feel 10 years of hard work shouldn’t be taken away for one mistake. My career didn’t happen overnight and I don’t feel it should be taken away overnight.

* Jan. 23--In an interview with the New York Post, Sprewell expresses remorse for attacking Carlesimo and says: “I’m not as bad as everyone has made me out to be. It’s as if I’m another O.J. Simpson. Yes, I was wrong, but I didn’t kill anybody. I’m not a double murderer.”

* Jan. 27-30--Four days of hearings are held in Portland, Ore., with arbitrator John Feerick, a Fordham law professor.

* Feb. 2-5--The hearing phase concluded after four days of testimony in New York. Twenty-one witnesses testified, ending with Stern undergoing four hours of questioning on the final day.

* Feb. 7--Sprewell told his side of the story to the NBA Players Assn., and union director Billy Hunter said he had unilateral support from fellow players.

* Feb. 16--The arbitration hearing ended with 7 1/2 hours of closing arguments, most of which focused on the player’s grievance against the NBA for suspending him for one year.

* March 4--The arbitrator ruled that the Warriors must reinstate Sprewell’s contract and the NBA must reduce the player’s year-long suspension by five months.


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