|Thursday, December 5
Warriors escape from franchise's dark ages
By Marc J. Spears
Special to ESPN.com
OAKLAND, Calif. -- In efforts to improve the organization's long-suffering morale, new Golden State Warriors coach Eric Musselman changed the downtown practice facility in many ways. The lights in the once dim and gray place are police-light bright. Soundboards are in place aiding once muffled communication. Each of the franchise's jerseys from the Philadelphia Warriors days to now is showcased on the walls along with a huge banner commemorating the 1974-75 NBA world championship. Last but not least is a long list of every Warrior who was an All-Star.
Listed last on the honor roll is guard Latrell Sprewell, who made the Western Conference squad in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Ironically, the site where the Warriors are trying to change their image is also the place where the franchise reached an all-time low five years ago when Sprewell choked then-coach P.J. Carlesimo during a practice.
While the Warriors have done their best to put the ugly incident behind them, it is far from forgotten.
''It's always going to be there. When everybody thinks about the Warriors they always think about Spree choking the coach. It is definitely something that will never be forgotten. People will always remember Spree and what he did.''
During the 1997-98 season, Sprewell averaged 21.4 points through 14 games. As for the Warriors, they got off to a horrendous 1-13 start. It was no secret that Sprewell didn't see eye-to-eye with Carlesimo, and it was just a matter of time before their souring relationship reached a boiling point. After some verbal jarring during that fateful Dec. 1, 1997 practice, Sprewell retaliated by shockingly grabbing his coach by the neck. Sprewell left the gym but 20 minutes later returned to throw punches at Carlesimo.
Three days later, the NBA suspended Sprewell for one year, the longest suspension in league history. The Warriors also terminated his contract, which had two-plus years and $25 million remaining.
''I was in the new practice facility at the far end, so I really didn't know what was happening,'' Dampier said. ''When I looked around, I noticed that all the players were running toward Spree and P.J.''
Before the incident, the media gave little coverage to the laughable team in jeopardy of becoming the NBA's worst ever. But this story hit the national spotlight, and a media circus ensued as Sprewell was chastised as a wild man in a high-profile case of workplace violence.
''I have not thought about that for a while,'' Foyle said. ''I remember just the chaos, dealing with everything that ensued after that. Media. ... We weren't getting a lot of attention because we weren't winning a lot of games. And then all of the sudden we're getting attention for not winning games.
''That's what I remember, the craziness of the situation. That's all everyone talked about. It was very much a distraction to the team. We tried to stay focused and kind of make it through the season.''
'It was a little odd,'' Mills said, looking back on the deal. ''I was just getting comfortable with the Knicks. The one good thing I knew was that I was closer to home (Los Angeles). I wasn't sure about the organization. I knew it could change and turn around.''
Sprewell went from being ridiculed in the Bay Area to a fan favorite in Madison Square Garden. Last season, he averaged 19.4 points for the Knicks and was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. (Of course, Sprewell has experienced his share of drama with the Knicks organization over his controversial hand injury this past offseason.) In return for Sprewell, Golden State got little other than a sense of closure.
Cummings was a great mentor for the young players and played a reserve role, but he retired in 2000. Starks contributed some scoring, averaging 14.7 points per game during the 1997-98 season, but he left the team the next year. The only player left from the trade is Mills, who has been plagued by injuries in Oakland. This season has been no different; Mills is on the injured list with left Achilles tendonitis.
The fact that five years has passed since the Sprewell incident surprised Mills. What he remembers most is Sprewell's fiery return to Golden State during New York's 86-79 win on Nov. 20, 1999. Along with trading expletives with disgruntled and taunting fans that led to his being fined, Sprewell got into a jawing match with Mills.
"He got out there and was physical with the players and his emotions were really taking him over," Mills said. "It was funny that night, but after that it kind of calmed down.''
The Warriors' brass declined to talk about Sprewell and Carlesimo. "I think we pretty much put it behind us. Spree has moved on and the organization moved on,'' Dampier said.
While the controversy hurt an already ailing franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs or had a winning season since 1994, the Warriors now seem to be heading in the right direction.
Musselman has the young players' ears, is a great motivator, hates losing and is getting the most from a team that has five players age 22 and under. Forward Antawn Jamison is enjoying an All-Star season thus far, guard Gilbert Arenas, forward Troy Murphy and guard Jason Richardson have potential for great careers, and there are two promising rookies in Mike Dunleavy and Jiri Welsch.
Yes, the Sprewell incident is an old one now. But with every new player who puts on a Warriors uniform, seeing the name Latrell Sprewell on the All-Star wall of fame makes it inevitable that the curious will eventually ask Foyle or Dampier what exactly happened during practice the first day of December in 1997.
''I'm sure it's in the folklore,'' Foyle said. ''There are some guys coming up who I'm sure want to know at some point. I'm sure at some point that they are going to get the courage to ask.''
Marc J. Spears, who covers the Denver Nuggets for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.