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Back In the Game
Richard Hoffer
December 22, 1997
Finding refuge on the court, the suddenly resurgent Warriors learned that life after Latrell Sprewell has its benefits
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December 22, 1997

Back In The Game

Finding refuge on the court, the suddenly resurgent Warriors learned that life after Latrell Sprewell has its benefits

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How about the day after the split-up, when the team was presumably divided in its loyalties? "Practices were more relaxed," Marshall says. "Guys were laughing and giggling."

Several veteran players likewise overcame their allegiance to a teammate—"You can't condone it," says Bogues, saying they supported the player, not the play—and asked the rest of the team to come together and produce something more presentable than outright disintegration. Bogues, Shaw and guard Bimbo Coles gathered the team after Sprewell had exploded to remind the younger players that they had a responsibility to play out the season and to generate more excitement than headlines along the way. "This definitely could have destroyed us," says Coles. "I mean, Spre was a teammate and a very good friend. It was tough to watch a player and coach not get along. But we had to stick together."

The six players who attended Sprewell's news conference may have been misunderstood. No matter how it looked, they insisted, that was more about sticking together than flying apart. "We were there as much for P.J. as we were for Spre," says Shaw. "I personally was there because I thought he needed to apologize. That starts the healing. It wasn't choosing sides."

The players, for all their natural allegiance to other players rather than management, do not excuse Sprewell's conduct. He was flat-out wrong, and not one of them, not even Smith, who was writing Sprewell's number on his ankle wrap by way of tribute, would try to make a case against their coach.

For that matter, the picture of six guys lined up behind Sprewell played logically in Carlesimo's mind. "I wasn't frightened," he says. "This is something we all went through together; they watched what happened with their own eyes. They weren't supporting what happened but were taking up the issue of severity."

It was a tough time all around, and the players, according to Shaw, "found refuge in the 2� hours" they could actually play basketball. That sense of relief showed up on the scoreboard against the Lakers, finally. The Warriors were down by seven at the half, and it occurred to Coles that this game might be there for the taking. Considering that their first meeting of the season, in Los Angeles, had been one of the most mortifying mismatches in NBA history—with Shaquille O'Neal trying to play point guard and everybody laughing at them—the Warriors' 93-92 win when they were presumably a fractured unit was their most satisfying victory of the year. Of course, as they'd had just one other win to that point, that wasn't saying much.

"All the same," says Marshall, "we were dancing and hugging in the dressing room that night."

After the victory over Sacramento there was the usual talk, some of it sensible, about everybody stepping up on offense to take Sprewell's points. About how, according to Marshall, "the ball may have been going into Spre's court too much anyway." The team had long ago grown accustomed to Sprewell breaking his man down, getting the most shots and the most points. But now the offense was getting spread around and, maybe more important, was pounding the ball inside more than ever before. Against Sacramento, Smith scored 25 points, Marshall 16. Smith scored 23 the night before in Vancouver. "Well," says Shaw, "we'll be a different team. I don't know if you can ever say we'll be better without an All-Star player—that was 21 points and a lot of defense—but we'll be different."

Adds Marshall, "We've got a very good attitude, a nothing-to-lose attitude. We could become a very deadly team."

That might be a lot to ask. Without Sprewell the Warriors have virtually no star power, are not exciting to watch and might not fare as well in the tougher stretches of their schedule. Maybe they can be better, maybe they can be happier. That ought to be enough, considering what this team has gone through.

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