Fog hasn't lifted Basketball: It has been nearly three weeks since Latrell Sprewell attacked P. J. Carlesimo, but the Golden State Warriors are still in a state of flux: They're winning more, but the incident follows the team everywhere.

December 19, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- As P. J. Carlesimo approached the microphone at the end of the Golden State Warriors' holiday party for the homeless, it seemed that the club finally -- after two weeks of intense media scrutiny -- was going to get through a public event without hearing about Latrell Sprewell.

But seconds after Carlesimo thanked the more than 500 people in attendance, a chant was starting in the back of the room: "Sprewell, Sprewell." Carlesimo later said he didn't hear it. However, it was a sign that the Warriors' scars are far from healed.

It was two weeks ago Monday -- just upstairs from where Sunday's Christmas party was held -- that All-Star guard Sprewell grabbed coach Carlesimo by the neck and threatened to kill him. Later, Sprewell came back and allegedly took a punch at his coach, although Sprewell denied that. He said his reaction resulted from the actions of a confrontational coach who has a reputation of being verbally abusive. Sprewell's contract was voided by the Warriors -- costing him $25 million -- and he was suspended for a year by the NBA.

The red marks on Carlesimo's neck have healed. And there are signs of healing among the team, which has gone 4-4 since Sprewell's suspension.

But the aftershocks continue for a franchise that, since the trading of Chris Webber in 1994, has been in disarray.

"We had so many television cameras and reporters out here right after it happened, so this is quiet now," said Joe Smith, the former All-American at Maryland. "But just like you're asking questions about it, we know tomorrow it's going to be the same. That's all anybody wants to talk about. It's not going away anytime soon."

On the rise

As recently as the 1993-94 season, the Warriors were on the rise. The 1993 draft-day trade for Webber helped the team to a 16-game improvement from the previous season.

A combination of past and future all-stars such as Webber, Sprewell, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Chris Gatling led to a 50-32 season. Sprewell, at 23, was named an All-Star and to the All-NBA first team. Webber, the youngest player in the league at 21, was the Rookie of the Year. Coach Don Nelson was selected to coach Dream Team II.

But even as that team was jelling, it was unraveling. Webber, unhappy with his treatment by Nelson and not thrilled about playing center, was eventually traded during the 1994-95 season to the Washington Bullets. Later that season, Nelson quit. And twice during a season in which the team won 26 games, Sprewell was suspended -- once for an unexcused absence and once for conduct detrimental to the team.

After three straight losing seasons, Carlesimo was hired this past summer, after he had spent three seasons as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. "No more Mr. Nice Guys" was the team's new slogan, with Carlesimo and his coaching staff -- and not any of the players -- featured on billboards throughout town.

But Carlesimo and Sprewell, 27, the team's best player, clashed from the start. None of Carlesimo's former players condoned the Dec. 1 attack, but they weren't surprised.

"It's just his coaching style," said Portland forward Gary Trent, who played under Carlesimo last season. "You can't talk to grown men like that, day in and day out, and expect nobody to be upset. You can't be coming to a dude's face, calling him a [expletive] every day."

Sacramento Kings guard Terry Dehere, who played for Carlesimo at Seton Hall, said the coach used his abrasive style as a motivational tactic.

"P. J. is a coach who will scream and get after his players, and he always tries to make his best players, which Sprewell was, to get them to drive the team," Dehere said.

A celebrity

The attack has made Carlesimo a mini-celebrity in the Bay area. Even the non-basketball fans in attendance at the team holiday party recognize him.

"Hey," one man says, just after Carlesimo shakes his hand and walks away, "ain't that the guy from Portland that just got choked?"

Taking a break after working the room for about two hours nonstop, Carlesimo, wearing a red Santa Claus hat, is asked whether the Sprewell incident has made him re-evaluate his coaching style.

"No, I don't think it's about re-evaluating," Carlesimo said. "I've been doing this for 27 years, and I think I'm pretty confident that what I do and how I do it, I'm doing it to the best of my ability and I'm trying to be fair. Anytime I criticize and anytime I get on people, it's to try to make them better and make the team better.

"You certainly don't ever want to be confrontational and be involved in incidents. But you have to be yourself. You have to believe in what you're doing."

Because an arbitrator will hear the case next month, neither Carlesimo no anyone else in the organization is allowed to discuss the specifics of the incident.

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