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Phil Taylor
December 15, 1997
In a league with mostly black players, mostly white bosses and fans, and strong corporate support, an assault on a coach is almost inevitably more than a story of crime and punishment
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December 15, 1997

The Race Card

In a league with mostly black players, mostly white bosses and fans, and strong corporate support, an assault on a coach is almost inevitably more than a story of crime and punishment

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NBA Coaches, you can breathe easy again. The league faces no threat of players' suddenly thinking that they can throttle their bosses with impunity. The Golden State Warriors and commissioner David Stern made sure of that with their swift and decisive action against Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell, who choked and threatened coach P.J. Carlesimo at a practice on Dec. 1. Regardless of the result of the appeals that are sure to follow, Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach's windpipe will surely remember Sprewell's experience before he acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA's future, issues of power and money and—most dangerous of all—race.

Feel free to take a moment here to wince, just as you might have when you saw the names of attorney Johnnie Cochran and the Rev. Jesse Jackson mentioned as potential advisers to the Sprewell camp. ( Jackson's representatives later said he had no plans to become involved.) "Please, Lord, not another O.J.," one African-American player said when he heard of Cochran's possible involvement. This situation shouldn't be nearly that messy. But the Sprewell incident is similar to the Simpson case in that it began on a personal level and is mutating into something far bigger, something that has little to do with the events of Dec. 1.

One of the NBA's greatest accomplishments—essential to the way the league has flourished financially over the past two decades—is the way it has not only handled the race issue but also tamed it and used it to turn a profit. The NBA's marketing machinery has sold a league that is 80% African-American to white fans and corporate America by embracing the culture—urban, inner-city, whatever code words for black you prefer—in which many of its players grew up. Listen to the rap music that is played in the arenas, watch the hip-hop dance moves of the cheerleaders and the edgy sneaker commercials that add to the celebrity of NBA stars. It has all given the league a street credibility, a cachet, that no other league enjoys.

Don't think for a moment that the players don't recognize this, that they don't realize that they are part of a slick, hip package that is presented to the mostly affluent, predominantly white crowds that fill the arenas. "You go diving into the stands after a ball, and you land on some investment banker's cell phone," says one black player. "Meanwhile, the fellas you grew up with can't afford a ticket to get in. Yeah, you think about those things."

But until now, until Sprewell, those issues were only discussed in private by players. Multimillion-dollar contracts tend to soothe feelings of resentment. One reason we have heard qualified support for Sprewell among some of his African-American peers is not because they think his actions were justified but because some of them think the league had more than one agenda in suspending him for a year after the team terminated his $32 million contract. There is a sense that the league was trying to do more than send a message that attacking a coach is unpardonable, that by punishing Sprewell so severely it was also trying to send a message to the public that the NBA it knows and loves was not becoming too dangerous, "too black."

Whether the players are right—and they would have a hard time fitting into their theory the relatively light punishments that Dennis Rodman, Nick Van Exel and Magic Johnson, all African-American, received last season for bumping white referees—is almost beside the point. If they feel that way, the league has cause to worry. The system that has made truckloads of money for players and owners alike is threatened if the race issue rises to the surface and the public gets the sense that the NBA isn't the safe, harmonious place it has been for 20 years. This is not to say that race was a major factor in Sprewell's attack on Carlesimo. Although Arn Tellem, Sprewell's agent, has correctly pointed out that the issue can't be ignored in light of Carlesimo's stormy relationships with several black players, none of those players, including Sprewell, have suggested that those problems had a racial basis. Many players and coaches who have worked with Carlesimo say they have never seen a hint of racial bias from him, and as an African-American reporter who has dealt with him in difficult situations, I add my name to that list.

But this situation is much bigger than Sprewell and Carlesimo. It goes to the notion of power, and Stern has shown, at least pending appeal, that contrary to the rantings of sports talk-show callers the players do not run the league. He does. At least one prominent agent—not Tellem—believes that for the past year or so the league has been lying in wait for a case with which it could make a statement about the character and image of its players. When Sprewell presented that opportunity, the league jumped at it, suspending him for a year and approving the Warriors' decision to terminate his contract for violation of the "moral character" clause in the standard player contract. "I don't think it's unjustified for the league to be concerned about the image of its players," says the agent. "The scary thing for me is the precedent this sets. If the league can take this action against Sprewell, what about the player who does not choke or strike his coach but turns around and swears back at him? What about a highly paid player who is under-performing? Can a team or the league find some less than major transgression and decide that he has violated his contract? If things go in this direction, you have to ask whether a guaranteed contract is really a guaranteed contract."

In other words, if Sprewell's punishment stands, little will keep Stern or team executives from abusing their power other than their own consciences. Of course, in a league where players can prompt a coach's firing or force a trade, abuse of power can go both ways. Talk to league executives and you'll find that they miss the days when they felt a partnership with the players, when stars like Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving had a sense of the big picture and felt they had a stake in the image of the NBA. They will tell you that feeling is not much in evidence now. If it were, this Pandora's box of questions about race and power might still be locked tight.

Then again, if it hadn't been Sprewell, it probably would have been someone or something else, because these issues have been moving increasingly close to the surface. A player throws a towel in his coach's face, the league cracks down on shorts that hang too low, a group of players orchestrates the ouster of a coach. These are all battles for control, skirmishes in the overall war. You get the feeling that the NBA will have a difficult time continuing to package itself so attractively now that it has so many players who feel no obligation to fit into the package. The league has a battle on its hands, one that will go on long after those red marks on Carlesimo's neck have healed.