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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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This was no safety-in-the-workplace issue, that became clear. As soon as Latrell Sprewell clipped his hectoring coach, every possible theme in modern-day sports was invoked: race, money, the predisposition toward rebellion that cornrows imply and the rightful authority of franchise owners (their rightfulness inferred from their more traditional grooming) were summoned to the public forum. Has it been six months already since Mike Tyson bit off an ear (admittedly black—no race angle there)?

But anyone who seeks to define issues through this latest outrageous event is probably doomed by the act's singularity. It was the same with Tyson. There was no increase in ear-biting, and the whole thing eventually died down when it turned out he had just gone nuts. That's probably what happened with Sprewell (page 150). His throttling of P.J. Carlesimo might be more than careless behavior on the job site, but it's probably less than the end of civilization.

Then again, with civilization continuing, things don't look too good for the Golden State Warriors' season. Six players lined up behind Sprewell, figuratively and photographically, for his nonapology to Carlesimo last week. That's a team divided, almost down the middle, in fact. For players to choose sides this publicly, or appear to, suggested mutiny.

The day after Sprewell's non-apology, the Warriors, who had a stranglehold on mediocrity if nothing else, beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Two days after that, last Friday, they traveled to Vancouver and played the Grizzlies tough before faltering down the stretch. Then last Saturday night against Sacramento—admittedly, the Kings being no more of a threat to the Chicago Bulls' dominance than, well, the Grizzlies will ever be—Golden State won its third straight home game.

At week's end the Warriors had gone 3-3 after Sprewell's banishment. This is impressive, and baffling, since they were 1-13 with their go-to man. Losing Sprewell, the Warriors lost 21 points, one of the best defenders in the league and, for some of the players at least, a friend. So the team begins playing its best basketball all year. How do you figure that? "Chemistry?" suggests Muggsy Bogues, the team's pint-sized backup point guard (although he was not so tiny that he couldn't be seen standing behind Sprewell at his press conference).

If this is chemistry, the team's recent schedule (with the exception of the Lakers) has been a catalyst. The real miracle is not that the Warriors are playing well, however relative that term is for so troubled a franchise, but that they are playing at all. Better teams than this have suffered meltdowns over far less.

At the very least, you could call the Sprewell incident a distraction. Neither the front office nor Carlesimo is discussing it, citing legal ramifications, yet a laundry list of Sprewell's priors was published in The New York Times. This inspires pity for the hapless members of management who, had they made this remarkable discovery of Sprewell's checkered past just a little bit earlier, certainly would never have upgraded his contract so vigorously. The players, however, have no shield to stand behind and are questioned about the incident at every stop. They are obliged to answer, and it has become tiresome.

"We kind of agreed not to keep talking about it," says Brian Shaw, one of the veterans who made a show of support for Sprewell, "but then everybody at home wanted to talk about it, and people you ran into, and the media."

"It would be a relief," adds Joe Smith, one of Sprewell's closest friends on the team, "if we could just focus on basketball."

The truth is, the team may not have been focusing much on basketball before the incident. As in any dysfunctional family, the actual divorce creates more relief than pain. Forward Donyell Marshall may sympathize with his banned comrade but concedes that life has been easier without Sprewell—and his simmering conflict with Carlesimo. "Spre and Coach just weren't getting along," Marshall says, "plus we were losing. There was tension."

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