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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

The Sins of Latrell Sprewell

December 10, 1997|PETER H. KING

OAKLAND — It is difficult to convey the ugliness that surrounds the matter of Latrell Sprewell, the Golden State Warrior who took the team nickname a bit too literally last week and applied a chokehold to his coach. The reaction to this incident has been extraordinary and, at least in the sporting media, extraordinarily rabid.

The typical commentary--and sports radio has been filled with nothing but for eight days running now--goes something like this: This guy is an animal, a hoodlum, a gangsta, a cancer. I don't care about his background, he's making $8 million a year to play a game, he should control himself. They get away with it, but if we did that to our bosses we'd all be in jail. And what kind of message does this send to the kids?

To understate, "Spree"--as his former coach P.J. Carlesimo continues, strangely, to call him--has not won the public relations battle. He also has lost his job, forfeiting a $32-million, four-year contract. The 27-year-old has been banished from basketball for a full year, and it is not difficult to imagine repercussions extending much longer: bad boy, no more shoe contracts.

All this might be passed off as simply more evidence of the evils of testosterone, yet another dreary round of boys being boys and all sport degrading into one big hockey brawl--except for the wicked undercurrent that keeps seeping into the controversy, despite vigorous efforts by Sprewell detractors to dismiss it as irrelevant.

That issue, of course, is race.

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"Of course," because in this time and place race has come to dominate the public stage. Once again, California is America, only more so. President Clinton can hold his town meetings on the topic. The golden land already is deep into the nitty-gritty of hashing out the racial divide. It has not been pretty, watching race crash angrily over everything from murder trials to public university admissions policy. And yet, there's at least a sort of brutal honesty to it. To answer Rodney King's question, maybe we can all get along, but we don't just yet.

Into this melee dribbled Spree, son of Milwaukee, with his cornrows and his moodiness and his "street game" of shoot, shoot and shoot again. He made the mistake of failing to control his anger in a basketball gym, of putting his hands around a coach's neck, and he has been running from the hot hounds of opinion ever since. Judging by the uproar, one might think he had stabbed his wife to death.

"I've seen more violence during actual NBA games," William J. Drummond, a former Times reporter and now professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, wrote Tuesday in the San Francisco Chronicle, "and the only punishment was a simple ejection, if that. Instead, Sprewell stumbled over a trip wire and set off a 50-kiloton explosion of society fears about the African American male."

Drummond suggested that Sprewell had become the '90s archetype of "a familiar stereotype that has been lurking in American history for at least a century." To wit: "the ungrateful millionaire athlete Negro, living large in the Hayward hills, with his fine cars and gold chains, who turns around and 'bites the hand that feeds him,' a phrase heard over and over on talk radio. . . . The imagery and the story line go back to D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation.' "

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Interestingly, the Sprewell story broke the same day as reports that Eddie DeBartolo, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was under federal investigation in Louisiana for alleged improprieties involving a casino license. Needless to say, DeBartolo has not been called a "gangsta" on talk radio. As Drummond put it, in the sporting press, "Sprewell has committed a 'big bad mistake,' but DeBartolo has 'problems in Louisiana.' "

Well, Sprewell made many mistakes. For starters, he failed to emulate the subtle tactics of young Magic Johnson, who at age 22 went to the news media in a successful campaign to be rid of his coach. And, if he insisted on physical action, there were more creative targets. Clobber a referee, spit on a fan, hurl one through a plate-glass window, hold a gun to a girlfriend's head, kick a cameraman--these are but a few of the methods employed by NBA players still happily playing their hoops.

Finally, Sprewell overestimated himself. No Michael or Shaq, he was merely the high point man on a team even worse than its 1-13 record would indicate. In short, a loser. Losers don't draw crowds, don't build Q-ratings, and don't get away with bad behavior. Let's see who makes it back to the NBA first, Sprewell or Marv Albert. And, oh, what a message that will send to the kids.

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