Coach's Corner

The media has dismissed both Latrell Sprewell and Allen Iverson as bad citizens, but that says more about the media than it does about the two young stars.

Reflections on two media monsters: Exhibit 1 -- Latrell Sprewell. In the aftermath of Sprewell's universally publicized attack on coach P.J. Carlesimo during a practice a few years ago, Sprewell suffered a painful and lengthy electronic/print crucifixion. He was portrayed as dangerous, violent thug, out of control, selfish, spiteful, unrepentant ... a raving lunatic of a young man. A hoops equivalent of Mike Tyson. After the league acted and justifiably suspended Sprewell for 60 days, costing him millions of dollars, most of us thought this dangerous scumbag got off easy. Send him to jail or better, expel him for life, was the common public sentiment. As is often the case in America today, this story and the ensuing long-running media feeding frenzy had unspoken racial overtones; the coach, white with a coat and tie, and the player, black and unrepentant. Carlesimo, a notorious hothead himself (with a well-established reputation of verbally attacking his players) wasn't physically hurt. His actions were never examined by anyone.

Though I should know better, these descriptions of Sprewell are mine. This is what I thought. To be honest, I barely knew who Latrell Sprewell was. He played for Golden State. Enough said. I saw this snarling black man in dreadlocks and I believed. When Sprewell's suspension ended, very few teams wanted to touch him; a 28-year-old, three-time All-Star, who could defend, score, dish out assists, and rebound. The fact he'd played over 16,000 minutes (400 games) in six years for a lousy team with only three game ejections was an indication something might not be right here. In the hang-him-high sentiment of the time, facts were ignored.

Gregg Popovich in San Antonio wanted Sprewell badly, but couldn't make the sell to the Boy Scout-clean Spur management. In retrospect, a bad mistake. When New York picked up Sprewell for almost nothing, we all snickered. The Knicks, we all thought -- it figures. It was at this point that Latrell Sprewell, the person and player, actually became visible on the radar screens of sports fans. The Knicks are, I don't have to tell anybody reading this column, a heavily exposed basketball team.

I've never once seen the Sprewell I thought I'd see ... and I've looked. My first shock was Sprewell the player. Far from being the selfish Me-Me-Me athlete I expected, what I saw -- many times over the past two years -- was the absolute embodiment of the team player. The greedy, ball-hogging Spre was in fact a tenacious defender, a player who looked to pass, had no problem with sacrificing his own game and body for the team's benefit, and with a respectful on-court demeanor. Sprewell was an all-around, all-court basketball player. The second surprise was that this was not a semi-literate, raving madman. Sprewell is clearly an intelligent, well-spoken young man.

I don't know what happened that day out in San Francisco. I don't know what led up to Sprewell's attack on an overbearing coach. It was wrong, of course. His suspension was justified. But we should all remember (though we won't) the next time the media aims all its guns at an individual, that we ought to hesitate before buying totally into what some loudmouth talk show host says is true.

Exhibit 2: If there's a poster child, a lightning rod for all that's wrong with pro basketball today, is has to be Allen Iverson. He's been portrayed by the media (again, subtle racial overtones can't be ignored) as sullen, a punk, selfish, stupid, arrogant, a talented child/player who cares only about himself. Overpaid and overindulged. Everything that's wrong with pro sports today. A player surrounded by a dangerous entourage of criminal homeboys. Iverson, tattooed, not very verbal, proudly (defiantly?) wearing his distinctive cornrow hairstyle, personified the gangsta/rap/black man the white world is so afraid of. Like Sprewell, Iverson's image suffered from playing on a terrible team which nobody ever saw. My image of Iverson came 100% from what the media said about him.

With the 76ers' surprisingly successful season, which saw Philadelphia get more TV exposure and push deep into the Eastern Conference semifinals, I saw him play. I heard him talk. Who was this guy? Was this the same Iverson -- competing with a broken foot, shattered ribs and a plethora of other injuries incurred because a 170-lb. star is going to take a terrible beating in the NBA -- was this the Poster Boy of Greed? He looked like the Poster Boy of Heart to me. The player I saw was clearly the inspiration and soul of his team. His teammates looked to him for leadership and production ... which he provided in abundance. He played and excelled when most other players would be in street clothes on the bench. Who I saw was Bob Cousy, Lenny Wilkins, and Dennis Johnson. I saw Maurice Cheeks, Walt Frazier, and Jerry Sloan. I saw Jerry West and Sam Jones and John Stockton. I saw a tough, hard-nosed kid. One who would've been welcomed by any team in any era. I saw a basketball player.

Two stories. Two outstanding talents. Two athletes portrayed, for whatever reasons, in the most negative way possible. Two reasons to remind ourselves not to trust everything those supposedly in the know tell us is true.

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