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Hell Week
Michael Farber
December 15, 1997
Latrell Sprewell's misdeed was only the most notable in a series of diabolical acts
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December 15, 1997

Hell Week

Latrell Sprewell's misdeed was only the most notable in a series of diabolical acts

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Latrell Sprewell admitted last week that he had made "a mistake," which, if you're up on your NBA vernacular, is a phrase that means "assault and battery." Since league commissioner David Stern has banned him for a year, Sprewell is thinking about playing in Europe. This is a swell idea. It would give him the opportunity to sample Old World customs and grand cuisine, not to mention anger-management courses in exotic languages.

Of course, Sprewell can't go without a posse. His main sidekick could be Scottie Pippen, who last week still wanted out of Chicago because of all the disrespect the Bulls show him on the first and 15th of each month, paying him installments on the paltry $2.8 million salary for which Pippen happily signed six years ago.

Sprewell's posse will need muscle, which means Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer can ride shotgun. Or handgun. Switzer pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor weapons charge and was fined $3,500 and ordered to perform 80 hours of community service. He offered a perfectly fine reason for sticking that .38 Smith & Wesson revolver in his travel bag in August—couldn't leave a piece lying around at home with kids who might not be as up to speed on firearm safety as he—but no explanation is necessary for owning a handgun. Everyone knows guns don't kill Cowboys. Tennessee Oilers do.

If things get really ugly, Sprewell can call on Edmonton Oilers defenseman Bryan Marchment, who has some free time after receiving a three-game suspension last week for his knee-on-knee hit on the NHL's leading scorer, Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars. For financial counsel Sprewell can recruit Edward DeBartolo Jr.—who last week quit as chief executive officer of the San Francisco 49ers because he had been warned by the feds that he may soon be indicted for gambling fraud—or maybe former Arizona State basketball players Stevin (Hedake) Smith and Isaac Burton Jr., who last week admitted to having taken bribes for shaving points in four games in 1994.

And that wasn't all the bad news last week. A former lightweight boxing champion, Edwin Rosario, died from what are believed to have been cocaine-related causes; running back Lawrence Phillips received his 23rd second chance, this time courtesy of the Miami Dolphins; and yet another middling baseball player, Wilson Alvarez, was handed a five-year, $35 million contract, by the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, while major league owners continued to bemoan outlandish payrolls and to try to blackmail taxpayers into building them new ballparks.

Then there was Sprewell. The one-year ban was an easy call for Stern. If the NBA needed someone on whom to exercise summary judgment, Sprewell was perfect: an All-Star, which gave Stern's edict some hair, but one who played on a dreary team, the Golden State Warriors. When a hot-button player like Charles Barkley throws a guy through a plate-glass window, as he did in October (the case was settled out of court last week), the NBA recommends that he get bodyguards—even if it seems that Barkley's victim is the one in need of protection. But when Sprewell snapped, Stern pounced. The commissioner's widely praised response turned Sprewell into the poster boy for malfeasance, the face of everything wrong with sports.

Sprewell, of course, isn't the personification of all these problems. He's just another in the long line of friendly reminders—Tonya Harding, Roberto Alomar, Mike Tyson—that sports stand at a precipice. There's no guardrail. There's no abiding sense of right or wrong, at least beyond what the various leagues' vice presidents for violence impose on yesterday's headline makers. The industry of sports has gone to hell in a handbasket, but as long as a team or corporate logo is on the handbasket, it's O.K.

This is a house of cards constructed ever higher on a shaky foundation of money and marketing. What will it take to topple it? Ticket prices are too high, the quality of most games too low, the behavior of athletes and owners too outrageous. Wherein lies salvation? In luxury boxes, which segregate fans and rob them of the shared experience that's the only reason to go to games in a TV-saturated age? In new arenas such as the MCI Center in Washington, where the Capitals played their first game in front of several thousand empty seats?

Maybe we should try to grasp all this as firmly as Sprewell grasped P.J. Carlesimo's windpipe.

And, oh, how was your week?