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Original Issue


It's after midnight, but you're still wearing your Kobe Bryant
jersey and your Michael Jordan sneakers. By the dim light of
your bedside lamp you're perusing Li'l Penny's autobiography,
and from time to time you glance at your Gary Payton poster on
the wall.

You're 13 years old, and you're a true believer in the NBA. But
this season it has been hard to keep the faith. Real hard.

You don't quite know what to make of this Latrell Sprewell-P.J.
Carlesimo thing, but you know players aren't supposed to choke
their coaches, not even in football. You still like Scottie
Pippen, but you can't figure out why he's trashing the Chicago
Bulls. You remember reading about Isiah Thomas and how he won
two championships with the Detroit Pistons, but now he has quit
as executive vice president of the Toronto Raptors, and you're
not sure why. Nor are you sure why the Raptors' coach, Darrell
Walker, gave the finger to a fan in Utah the other night.

And Michael says he's quitting.

You've seen all of Shaq's movies--you loved it when he called
himself a "genie with an attitude"--but you're wondering why he
had to slap a harmless schmuck like Utah's Greg Ostertag after a
shootaround. And where is Shaq? Hurt and out of action, like
Pippen and Alonzo Mourning and an old guy who can really play,
Hakeem Olajuwon. Your father got you tickets for some upcoming
games, but it's hard to pretend you're excited when the
opponents are Toronto, the Denver Nuggets and the Golden State
Warriors, combined record 5-48. You're not sure whether the
Warriors will be better off without Spre, but you sure as heck
don't want to watch them to find out.

And Michael says he's quitting.

You love seeing Charles Barkley fuss and fume on the court
because he's another old guy who can really play. But you wonder
why he threw a guy through a barroom window. You figure that
Grant Hill will one day own the world (if Kobe doesn't beat him
to it), but Grant seems frustrated and a little out of it with a
slow-starting Detroit team. You dig Kevin Garnett and his baggy
shorts, and he helped you learn that Minnesota is right next to
Wisconsin, where Terrell Brandon plays. But part of you wonders
if your father's right (you hate it when that happens) and $125
million is too much money for a 21-year-old who has never won a
playoff game.

And Michael says he's quitting.

There is no evidence that sometime in the past week David Stern
jerked open a window in his 15th-floor New York City office and
yelled down at startled passersby on Fifth Avenue, "I'm mad as
hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" But when the NBA
commissioner made the command decision to kick Sprewell out of
the league for one year, it seemed that perhaps the pressures of
dealing with a star-crossed first month of the season had
something to do with his draconian decision.

Consider the muddled mess of the NBA this season: injuries to
marquee players, off-court antics, on-court tantrums, a handful
of horrible teams (and declining attendance at most of their
games), the gradual fracturing of a great one and the specter of
two ghastly possibilities on the horizon--a labor dispute that
could result in a lockout before next season begins and Jordan's
departure when this season ends. All that and droopy shorts too.
Jeez, if any guy ever earned eight million bucks a year sitting
in an office, it's Stern.

As of Monday the commish had not elaborated on his decision to
suspend Sprewell, nor on the players association's grievances
against the Warriors and the NBA. Initial reaction to what might
become known as his pin-striped manifesto ("A sports league does
not have to accept or condone behavior that would not be
tolerated in any other segment of society") seemed positive, at
least to a public fed up with bad behavior from millionaire
athletes. But naysayers are starting to say nay.

Stern may be able to discount the comments of San Francisco
mayor Willie Brown, who last week danced around his office on
one foot while jamming the other in his mouth. "Maybe the coach
deserved choking" is one of the things Brown was quoted as
saying before backing off with a comment that "there is no
justification for violence of any nature in our society." But
Stern has to be hearing other voices of discontent. One agent
who knows Sprewell well and considers him a "toxic" individual,
nevertheless wonders if Stern botched it by rushing to judgment
and believes the arbitrator who considers the union's grievances
will shorten the suspension. Should that happen, it would
represent Stern's biggest defeat in his glorious 13-year run as
the commissioner's commissioner. No player has condoned
Sprewell's attack, but several are angered by the fact that he
did not get a hearing before he was suspended. "Sprewell crossed
the line in his behavior," says Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe
Mutombo. "But so did David Stern."

And if Stern ordered the suspension partly to underscore the
NBA's no-nonsense intentions when the league reopens the
two-year-old collective bargaining agreement in April, some say
he overplayed his hand. "This is why we are afraid to give the
NBA leverage on, say, our drug policy," says Buck Williams, the
New York Knicks' veteran forward. "It concerns me when the NBA
acts as judge and jury." As past president of the players
association, Williams would be expected to give a pro-union
pronouncement, but his is a thoughtful and influential voice,
and Stern, no doubt, hears it.

The commissioner, who is a lawyer and who has another legal
eagle at his side in deputy commissioner Russ Granik, has made a
career out of farsighted decisions. As angry and fed up as he
might've been, it's hard to believe that he would blow this one.
The Sprewell suspension may yet again stamp Stern as the
Anti-Selig, the commissioner with the firmest grip on his game.

As for the other problems, well, NBA spokesmen are united in
their stance that this train wreck of a season will get on track
eventually and that there's good news galore. Here's how they
read it.

The recent four-year, $2.6 billion TV contract demonstrated that
NBC and Turner Sports have confidence in the league, even
post-Jordan. O'Neal (abdominal muscle strain) is being
reexamined this week, and Mourning should return by Christmas,
his surgically repaired left knee presumably healed. Olajuwon's
return from arthroscopic surgery (also on his left knee) is
scheduled for early February. Scottie (I Ain't Coming Back)
Pippen will realize that he would be ringless had he not been in
Chicago the past 10 seasons. Barkley is simply Barkley. Another
pretty well-known superstar endured years of frustration before
his team became a winner, so Grant Hill has plenty of time. And
look at the real bright news: Five weeks and counting, and
Dennis Rodman hasn't done anything crazier than showing up at
the United Center in teddy-bear pajamas.

As you put down Li'l Penny's book and turn out the light, you're
still a true believer. You've heard that word cyclical, and
you're sure things will get good again. As for now, the Lakers,
even without Shaq, are fun to watch. Tim Duncan and David
Robinson are bound to start playing better together in San
Antonio. This new guy Keith Van Horn may even make the New
Jersey Nets exciting, and isn't it neat how the Hawks have put
it all together?

But Michael says he's quitting. Man, it's going to be tough to
be a true believer without him around.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: FRED HARPER Stern will earn his hefty salary if he can get a grip on what ails the NBA. [Drawing of Latrell Sprewell reaching through David Stern's head to strangle P.J. Carlesimo]