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Tip-Off Timer: 68-Game Suspension For Latrell Sprewell

Aug 20, 2009 – 9:00 AM
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Matt Steinmetz

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Tip-Off Timer counts down the days until the first game of the 2009-10 season. On Thursday, there are 68 days remaining.

I remember noticing the abrasions on P.J. Carlesimo's neck as soon as I walked into the gym that day on Dec. 1, 1997. There was no way not to notice them.

"You cut yourself shaving?" I asked him. Carlesimo laughed uncomfortably but didn't offer a response. "Seriously," I said. "You use a dull razor? What happened there?"

"No comment," Carlesimo replied, which I thought was odd. Then again, it was the first moment I had an inkling something wasn't quite right that day. I didn't know it at the time, but less than an hour before Latrell Sprewell had assaulted Carlesimo and then came back and tried to do it again.

Sprewell received a 68-game suspension for the assault. [Editor's note: you can read Steinmetz's original breaking news story for the Contra Costa Times here.]

Carlesimo, like a lot of coaches, insisted on closing practices to the media, a bummer for me because I was the Warriors' beat writer for the Contra Costa Times back then. So there were no writers in the gym that day.

In fact, the Warriors' media relations department escorted us in at the end of that practice just like they always did. And there stood Carlesimo in his usual talk-to-the-press spot, with remaining players shooting around at various baskets. That was the M.O.

Everyone was going to try to go the business-as-usual route.

You might not believe this, but on that day I was going to try to write a story about how the Sprewell-Carlesimo relationship was affecting the team. I wasn't sure what I'd be able to get on this, but there already had been tangible signs of Sprewell-Carlesimo trouble.

Sprewell had called Carlesimo "a (expletive) joke" during a timeout in a game against the Lakers. There was a shouting match in Indianapolis. There was a late arrival to a game against the Jazz.

Still, Carlesimo had spent the first several weeks of the season downplaying or dismissing any problems with Sprewell. It was a team thing.

Sprewell wasn't addressing anything, either. On Day 3 of training camp, Sprewell let it be known that he wouldn't be talking to the media that season. His reason: He said he wanted to concentrate on basketball.

I said to him at the time that was too bad because fans wanted to know what he thought of Carlesimo, his new coach. Even before training camp had begun, there were stories about Sprewell disliking the hire.

Sprewell told me at the time that was exactly why he wasn't going to talk ... because he didn't want to have to deal with all the stuff about whether or not he liked Carlesimo, their burgeoning relationship, the hire or whatever.

So Sprewell wasn't talking that season, although that's not entirely true. He was talking, just not on the record. It wasn't like Sprewell was unapproachable. He wasn't. He just made it clear that he didn't want anything he said to be written down in a notebook and end up in a newspaper.

Anyway, back to the Dec. 1 practice. After the weird and abbreviated post-practice chat with Carlesimo, it was time to seek out Bimbo Coles, the Warriors' go-to guy when it came to quotes and perspective.

It was just the two of us, and my first question to Coles was this: "Is the relationship between Carlesimo and Sprewell affecting the team?"

It might be worth repeating here that the Warriors were going about their post-practice media session as if nothing unusual had happened. The three or four sportswriters who were let into the gym that day, at the time, had no idea what had just occurred.

First, there was an extended pause and a deep breath. Coles was looking down at the ground, but finally muttered: "Man, I don't even know what's going on with those two. ..."

Coles then did something he had never done before: He walked away from me right then and there. Walked back into the locker room where the media couldn't go. Go figure ... stand-up guy Bimbo Coles with the unprompted blow-off.

Something wasn't right. Not to mention, Sprewell was missing from the gym. He wasn't the only one, but he was one of only a few.

I hadn't put two-and-two together (which would turn out to be a memorable phrase for me, by the way), but I was starting to do a little math.

There are few things worse as a reporter than knowing something happened and not knowing what it was. It forces you to do things you wouldn't normally do and hate to have to do it. So, reluctantly I headed out to the players' parking lot, which was kind of a no-no but wasn't off limits, either. But it had to be done.

I approached a veteran player as he was getting into his car, and it was obvious he didn't want to have a whole lot to do with me. He knew I was trying to figure something out, and didn't want to be my answer key.

But he wasn't going to lie, either. At the end of our brief conversation, I finally took the leap of saying something like: "It sounds like something physical happened today between Spree and P.J. ..."

I'll never forget his reply: "You saw the man's neck. Put two-and-two together." The vet then drove away. I went home that afternoon knowing something significant had just happened. But I didn't have many details.

I got home in the mid-afternoon, turned on my computer and was trying to figure out what exactly I had when I received one of those IMs. It was from an NBA player on another team, which had never happened before and has never happened since.

He wanted to know if I knew what happened earlier in the day at the Warriors' practice. I lied a little bit. I told him I knew. So we went back and forth a little. It went from there ... phone calls started being made and calls were returned.

Details emerged.

That Sprewell had in fact choked Carlesimo and had him on the ground; that Sprewell left the gym and came back and tried to accost Carlesimo again; that Sprewell had stormed into general manager Garry St. Jean's office.

It was obvious plenty of players and staff were telling colleagues around the league that something unprecedented had happened that day at 1011 Broadway.

The only remaining issue as far as I was concerned was whether or not anyone else had the story. That wouldn't end up mattering.

In the early evening, I still needed to make one more phone call ... to owner Chris Cohan. Never got a hold of him but ended up talking to the Warriors' legal counsel at the time, Robin Baggett.

He delivered the news: The Warriors had called a press conference for 9 p.m. (West Coast time) that night to announce Sprewell would be suspended.

"That's in 40 minutes," I said.

"I know," Baggett said. "But we have to do this. There's too much stuff out there."

I didn't know what that meant, but it didn't matter, either. I had a press conference to go to. Good thing was I had my story written.

At that press conference, St. Jean announced that the Warriors were going to suspend Sprewell 10 games, although he allowed that the number could be reduced or increased depending on "dialogue."

Of course, that 10-gamer would turn into a 68-game suspension, and Sprewell would be done for the 1997-1998 season. And be done forever as a Warrior.

More Steinmetz on Twitter: @matt_steinmetz
Filed under: Sports