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Suit stems from suspension after 1997 choking incident

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals panel has reinstated part
of Latrell Sprewell's $30 million suit against the NBA and his
former team, the Golden State Warriors.

The legal action followed a 1997 spat with coach P.J. Carlesimo
during a practice in which witnesses said the player grabbed the
coach around the neck and threatened to kill him. An arbitrator cut
Sprewell's suspension from a year to 68 games and overturned the
Warriors' decision to terminate the last three years of his
contract.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
dismissed Sprewell's case entirely last year, but changed its mind
Friday.

The panel said Sprewell, now with the New York Knicks, could sue
the organizations on claims that they "intended to vilify Mr.
Sprewell and prevent him from making and enforcing contracts with
others because of his race."

The suit claims that Sprewell's threats were out of anger and
that he did not intend to carry them out, and claims the NBA and
Warriors did not portray it that way in the media.

Following the incident, Converse dropped its lucrative
endorsement deal with Sprewell, who is black.

"Everyone understood that that was a statement in anger and he
didn't mean what he said, but it didn't come out that way," said
Sprewell's attorney, Paul Utrecht.

The Warriors declined comment. Joel Litvin, NBA vice president
of legal and business affairs, said "if he elects to pursue those
claims, we are confident they will ultimately be rejected as
well."

Sprewell's case has bounced through the court system for years.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker first dismissed the suit in 1998,
saying its allegations were too vague to prove any legal
violations. Walker, who called the suit a "waste of judicial
resources," said Sprewell should consider dropping the case, but
gave him one more chance to make his allegations more specific.

Walker dismissed the second complaint, saying the refiled suit
was virtually the same as the first, meritless suit.

The judge said Sprewell's claims, even if proven, would not show
that the Warriors or the league were motivated by racism. And even
if racial bias were shown, the judge said, Sprewell failed to
demonstrate "a public policy that specifically militates against
suspension of an employee who violently attacks his employer."

Still, the appeals panel left intact Walker's ruling that the
arbitrator had reasonably concluded that Sprewell's punishment was
authorized by the union contract and was not based on his race.

The Warriors initially suspended him for 10 games, then
terminated the last three years and $24 million of his contract.
The league increased the suspension to a year. But arbitrator John
Feerick, after a lengthy hearing, ruled the punishment excessive
and ordered Sprewell reinstated. He later was traded to the New
York Knicks.

Sprewell said the 68-game suspension cost him $6.4 million in
salary. His suit sought the return of $5.4 million as well as
additional damages.

According to witnesses at Sprewell's arbitration hearing, the
All-Star guard grabbed Carlesimo around the neck and threatened to
kill him. After they were separated and Sprewell left the floor to
shower and change, he returned and, according to witnesses, punched
Carlesimo and threatened him again.

He argued his punishment was not authorized by the league's
union agreement, and accused NBA investigators of destroying
interview notes and doctoring evidence. The appellate court
dismissed those allegations.

The case is Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 99-15602.