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Sprewell Gives Coach Public Apology for Choking Him

Sports: Player indicates he will appeal NBA's one-year ban. Union chief also lends support at news conference.

December 10, 1997|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — With six former teammates behind him and famed attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. at his side, fired pro basketball star Latrell Sprewell apologized publicly Tuesday to his former coach for choking him last week.

Sprewell's first extended remarks, eight days after the attack, drew fresh attention to an incident that has not only rippled through the sports world but has also become the latest symbol of society's concern over respect for authority and the tarnished image of many high-paid athletes.

Sprewell--banned for a year by the National Basketball Assn. in the wake of the attack on Golden State Warriors Coach P.J. Carlesimo during a Dec. 1 practice--indicated that he will appeal the ban by claiming he was denied due process, given no chance to tell his side of the story and handed a punishment that Cochran called "arbitrary and capricious."

Another NBA star suggested that a boycott might be called to support Sprewell, a three-time all-star guard who was being paid about $7 million a year.

In a news conference at a downtown Oakland hotel with new members of his defense team, Sprewell apologized to Carlesimo and to the Warriors' general manager, Garry St. Jean, and said he had spoken to them by phone Sunday and Monday. "I think both conversations went well. I think we all feel good about what was said," Sprewell told reporters.

Sprewell said he withheld a public apology until he could first speak to the two men. "I didn't feel like I could go out and give them an apology through the media. I didn't think that would be the right thing to do. I just wanted to do it personally before I did it publicly," he said.

There was no response from Carlesimo. On the advice of their attorneys, Warriors officials said nothing, and on the advice of his, Sprewell took no questions.

Two days after the incident, Sprewell, in several interviews, apologized to his family, friends and fans--but pointedly not to Carlesimo. He said the coach had heaped "verbal abuse" on him, provoking the attack, and indicated privately that he had no intention of apologizing to him.

Over the weekend, Sprewell's agent, Arn Tellem, suggested that the incident between the white coach and African American player was racially motivated. On Tuesday, NBA Players Assn. Director Billy Hunter, also appearing with Sprewell, said he didn't think it was, and was joined in that assessment by Cochran.

It remains unclear whether Cochran, who gained national fame as the lead attorney in O.J. Simpson's criminal defense, is actually representing Sprewell. At the news conference, he said he was. But asked about it later, Cochran said the issue was between his client and him.

Tellem, asked about the arrangement, said only: "At this point, we're open to getting support from all the people that can help."

If race seemed to subside as an issue, it was replaced by labor. In Houston, the Rockets' Charles Barkley said players are ready to boycott the league's all-star game to support Sprewell. Hunter would not comment directly but noted, happily, that as the league prepares to reopen its collective bargaining agreement, it has created an issue with Sprewell that "has helped galvanize the players."

After the incident, the Warriors terminated Sprewell's contract, with its $23.7-million balance. The league then banned him for a calendar year.

The union has filed a grievance that an arbitrator will hear no sooner than Jan. 4.

In criticizing the severity of Sprewell's punishment, Hunter alluded to a 1994 incident in which the Detroit Pistons' Alvin Robertson physically assaulted general manager Billy McKinney. Robertson was released from the team soon thereafter but incurred no penalty from the league.

The Warriors' first response to Sprewell's attack was to suspend him for 10 games. Hunter did not contest that action, which would have cost Sprewell almost $1 million in pay, declaring that the players association would only mediate between the player and the team.

However, the league's one-year suspension brought the union into the fight.

"I think the league used the public reaction as a pretext to come down and become somewhat heavy-handed," Hunter said during the news conference.

"It was the league that then interloped and in the process of interloping, they then informed the team that they were going to expel him." Hunter charged that when the Warriors were unable to trade Sprewell to another NBA team, "they elected to terminate his contract so that they would have room next year under the [league's] salary cap. And as you're aware, they now have $16 million that they will be able to spend to secure the services of other players."

The league tried to talk to Sprewell, but he reportedly hung up on NBA security director Horace Balmer. Hunter confirmed the incident but said the contact was improper.

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