Saturday, December 4, 2010

December 4, 1997: Choke

OAKLAND, Calif. - Latrell Sprewell had already developed a reputation as a hothead. Nobody involved with the Golden State Warriors could forget the time he got into an argument with a player at practice, stormed off, and returned with a two-by-four. Or the time he took a swing at a teammate who outweighed him by more than 50 pounds. So to hear that he had been involved in another violent altercation wasn't completely shocking.

But even this seemed extreme. When everybody saw the pictures of the wounds on coach P.J. Carlesimo's neck, though, Sprewell's reputation changed. He was no longer a hothead, a player with a short fuse. Now he was a violent, dangerous man.

On December 1, 1997, Carlesimo yelled at Sprewell to pass with more authority during a Warriors practice, specifically telling him to put some mustard on the ball. Sprewell shot back that he wasn't in the mood to be critized that day, telling Carlesimo to leave him alone. Carlesimo approached Sprewell, who then attacked his coach, knocking him to the ground and choking him for 15 seconds before teammates could pull him away. After leaving the court, Sprewell returned moments later to try to attack his coach again.

People around the NBA were justifiably outraged. The Warriors immediately suspended Sprewell without pay for 10 days, then later terminated his contract. The NBA acted swiftly, too. On December 4, the league suspended Sprewell without pay for an entire year. After an appeal, the suspension was reduced to the remainder of that season and the Warriors' act of voiding Sprewell's contracted was reversed. Still, the resulting 68-game suspension was the longest in NBA history for an on-court altercation.

Sprewell understandibly never played for Golden State again, finally returning to the NBA as a member of the Knicks in 1999. He started slowly regaining the trust of people around the league, trying to convince people that he had changed, that his suspension had humbled him. He was the star player when the Knicks made a surprising run to the NBA finals in 1999, then teamed with Kevin Garnett to lead Minnesota to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. He was starting to get back into the NBA's good graces.

But, nobody could forget what had happened in 1997, so when Sprewell turned down the Wolves' three-year, $21 million contract offer in 2004, doing so by saying he had a family to feed, that was it. In the eyes of the NBA, he had burned his last bridge. He finished out his contract with the Wolves in 2005, then waited for the next contract offer that wouldn't be insulting. The offer never came, and he never played in the NBA again.

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