Hoop Nightmare

When a basketball star choked and tried to punch his coach, it highlighted a growing culture clash in the NBA. Are the game's bad boys, old-guard coaches or the hype-hungry endorsement industry to blame?

In pro sports ugly usually begets uglier. And the incident in Oakland where Golden State Warriors star Latrell Sprewell assaulted his coach, P. J. Carlesimo, during a practice was plenty ugly from the start. After the coach scolded him for a lacklu ster effort, a teammate told NEWSWEEK, Sprewell ""went straight playground" on Carlesimo: ""Bitch, you're gonna trade me or I'm gonna kill you." Then he apparently decided not to wait for that first option, seizing the coach's throat. Players pulled Spre well off, and the 27-year-old all-star guard was ushered out of the gym. But 15 minutes later he returned and lunged at Carlesimo again, striking him a glancing blow to the neck. ""You prepare for a lot of things in the course of a career," said Carlesim o, who has had strained relations with players in the past, ""but no one prepares for something like this."

The attack heightens already growing concerns about the lack of discipline among the game's younger stars. The NBA generation gap was on full display last season when Dream Teamers Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley all criticized th e lack of respect young players show the game--and pretty much everyone and everything. This lack of respect for authority appears endemic to all of today's big-dollar sports. Fans have puzzled over how Baltimore Orioles star Robbie Alomar could have spi t in an umpire's face and walked away with just a slap on the wrist. Or how the Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman could have head-butted a referee and lost only a few paychecks.

Yet over the next couple of days, the Sprewell episode triggered a stern response, as if everyone had suddenly decided that enough was enough. First Sprewell's union refused to ""condone violence of any kind," and his shoe company, Converse, called his act ""inexcusable" and severed its endorsement deal. Even Sprewell's agent, Arn Tellem, who has mustered defenses of criminal and boorish behavior on behalf of clients like the NBA's Isaiah Rider and baseball's Albert Belle, was left temporarily spe echless. Only Sprewell didn't seem to get it, apologizing to his fans and family but not to his coach or team. So Golden State, which just last year had shown Sprewell the money to the tune of $32 million for four years, showed him the gate--firing him f or violating the ""good moral character" clause of the NBA contract.

The league was equally anxious to send a message: it suspended Sprewell for a full year, the longest boot in league history. ""A sports league does not have to accept or condone behavior that would not be tolerated in any other segment of society," said NBA Commissioner David Stern.

The NBA, which has emerged over the past two decades as America's hottest sports enterprise, is a complex economic model. Its stars often hear two equally lucrative--and sometimes contradictory--messages. Their teams hail discipline; their shoe com panies prize the street cool that moves the merchandise. The post-Jordan era figures to be an anxious one for the league. Sprewell, who once attacked a teammate with a two-by-four, is part of a new NBA generation that is, like many of the kids in the nei ghborhoods where they come from, more confrontational. ""Older players in the league, because of racism, know how to be more accommodating when situations aren't to their liking," says Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor who is writing a book entitled ""The Code of the Streets." ""This new generation has no patience for anything they think isn't fair. They won't take it."

Many of these young players have grown up with a strange mix of economic deprivation and royal treatment. ""When's the last time these kids heard "No, you don't do it that way'? When they were 12?" says Mike Brown, head coach at Hunter College in N ew York and a former assistant to Carlesimo at Seton Hall. ""They sure ain't going to hear that when they got $20 million in the bank and two Benzes in the drive."

Until Sprewell's meltdown, Allen Iverson was the most notable embodiment of the NBA's youth dilemma. Last season's rookie of the year had a string of run-ins with other players, management, the league and the law. As proud and sensitive as he is ta lented, he told NEWSWEEK last season, ""I can't change and I don't want to. There is a certain way I carry myself and a certain way I expect to be treated." Players like Iverson won't tolerate being ""dissed" publicly, not even by their coach. Harvard Un iversity psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint says many simply don't have problem-solving skills to cope with any perceived disrespect. One NBA star says that with certain players there is at least an implicit threat of violent retaliation. ""Believe me, the coa ches with smarts know who not to f--k with," he says. ""I guess Carlesimo missed his memo on Latrell."

In response, the league has turned to higher-profile, higher-paid coaches with more clout. The result can be a culture clash between authoritarian, mostly white coaches and their brash, young, mostly black talent. ""There may be a need for all coac hes, black or white, to learn to have better insight into this new generation, or we may see more of this," says sociologist Anderson.

Carlesimo, a successful college coach at Seton Hall, has a profane, in-your-face style that has infuriated some of his pro players. ""I felt like choking him many times," says Washington Wizards guard Rod Strickland, who walked off Carlesimo's Port land team in 1996 to force a trade. ""He has a way of dealing with you that's very condescending and degrading. As grown men, we don't deserve that, and sooner or later someone was going to step to him about it." Sprewell told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had ""snapped" after repeated and relentless tirades. ""How many grown men, particularly young blacks with their position in society, are going to take that kind of verbal abuse?" asks Poussaint.

The best coaches will master the new requisite skills. In recent seasons L.A. Lakers coach Del Harris had several confrontations with his volatile guard Nick Van Exel, who in 1996 was suspended for seven games for shoving a ref. While Harris consid ers their problems ""overblown," he admits that he has altered his style. ""I used to yell, but I don't anymore," says the Lakers coach. ""I learned you have a much better success rate when you treat the players with respect." 76ers coach Larry Brown, no w with his sixth NBA team, is trying a different--and gentler--approach, too, especially with Iverson. ""He realizes my directions to him are not criticisms but teaching," explains Brown. ""I told him whenever there's a problem, we can talk."

By last weekend the universal condemnation of Sprewell had begun to subside, and everyone was again stepping to the beat of self-interest. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown demanded an NAACP investigation of Sprewell's treatment by the team and leag ue, suggesting, ""Maybe his boss needed choking." Many players saw the league penalty as a hasty overreaction. ""You got a league that looks the other way at drugs and any number of things," says Shawn Kemp, whose problems with Seattle management last se ason earned him a trade to Cleveland. ""And then to hand down something like this, it's totally unfair." Union executive director Billy Hunter said depriving a player of his livelihood for a year because of ""one isolated incident" was unreasonable; he p lans an appeal. Some black fans, while not defending Sprewell, considered the severity of his public condemnation racist. ""I think they hate these guys making a lot of money," said a typical caller on Tom Joyner's nationally syndicated radio show, the m ost popular black radio show in the country. ""It's clear they don't like the power these young boys have." Temple University basketball coach John Chaney, who is black, is disgusted that there's any divide on the incident. ""To hear people are split on this," the 41-year coaching veteran said, ""well, goddammit, there was nothing right about it!"

Sprewell's best hope may be in court, but probably not the court of public opinion. Sports fans have been waiting for somebody, anybody with authority to stand up to America's new class of spoiled millionaires and draw that proverbial line in the s and. And athletes, unlike politicians, haven't yet discovered the power of an unfettered apology. Sprewell might have been back playing next month if he could have simply feigned remorse. But even as he explained his actions to the Chronicle, Sprewell co uldn't resist a touch of bad-boy macho. ""If I really went after P.J., he'd look a lot worse than he did on TV," Sprewell said.

Nobody appears to be in worse shape right now than Sprewell. He is the designated scapegoat for a generation of athletes and a multitude of sins. The price he's paying is indeed high. The payoff would be if all sports is better for it.

CHARLES BARKLEY AGE: 34 TEAM: ROCKETS OFFENSE: Leads league in bar altercations. Accused of throwing (shoving says Sir Charles) one bar patron through a plate-glass window. DERRICK COLEMAN AGE: 30 TEAM 76ers OFFENSE: No stranger to bar fights. Once brought to trial for refusing to move his truck, which was blocking traffic. The jury hung. NICK VAN EXEL AGE: 26 TEAM: LAKERS OFFENSE: Suspended for seven games in 1996 for shoving a ref into the scorer's table after getting a foul. Has yelled at his coaches during games. ISAIAH RIDER AGE: 26 TEAM: TRAIL BLAZERS OFFENSE: Recently spat on a fan. Convicted on drug charges and pleaded no contest to illegal cell-phone possession. DENNIS RODMAN AGE: 36 TEAM: BULLS OFFENSE: Has insulted interviewers, Mormons and female refs, as well as kicked a cameraman in the thigh. And that's just in the last 12 months. ALLEN IVERSON AGE: 22 TEAM 76ers OFFENSE: On probation for carrying a concealed gun. Did time as teen because of a bowling-alley brawl (granted clemency after five months).