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Original Issue


Latrell Sprewell admitted last week that he had made "a
mistake," which, if you're up on your NBA vernacular, is a
phrase that means "assault and battery." Since league
commissioner David Stern has banned him for a year, Sprewell is
thinking about playing in Europe. This is a swell idea. It would
give him the opportunity to sample Old World customs and grand
cuisine, not to mention anger-management courses in exotic

Of course, Sprewell can't go without a posse. His main sidekick
could be Scottie Pippen, who last week still wanted out of
Chicago because of all the disrespect the Bulls show him on the
first and 15th of each month, paying him installments on the
paltry $2.8 million salary for which Pippen happily signed six
years ago.

Sprewell's posse will need muscle, which means Dallas Cowboys
coach Barry Switzer can ride shotgun. Or handgun. Switzer
pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor weapons charge and was
fined $3,500 and ordered to perform 80 hours of community
service. He offered a perfectly fine reason for sticking that
.38 Smith & Wesson revolver in his travel bag in
August--couldn't leave a piece lying around at home with kids
who might not be as up to speed on firearm safety as he--but no
explanation is necessary for owning a handgun. Everyone knows
guns don't kill Cowboys. Tennessee Oilers do.

If things get really ugly, Sprewell can call on Edmonton Oilers
defenseman Bryan Marchment, who has some free time after
receiving a three-game suspension last week for his knee-on-knee
hit on the NHL's leading scorer, Mike Modano of the Dallas
Stars. For financial counsel Sprewell can recruit Edward
DeBartolo Jr.--who last week quit as chief executive officer of
the San Francisco 49ers because he had been warned by the feds
that he may soon be indicted for gambling fraud--or maybe former
Arizona State basketball players Stevin (Hedake) Smith and Isaac
Burton Jr., who last week admitted to having taken bribes for
shaving points in four games in 1994.

And that wasn't all the bad news last week. A former lightweight
boxing champion, Edwin Rosario, died from what are believed to
have been cocaine-related causes; running back Lawrence Phillips
received his 23rd second chance, this time courtesy of the Miami
Dolphins; and yet another middling baseball player, Wilson
Alvarez, was handed a five-year, $35 million contract, by the
expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, while major league owners
continued to bemoan outlandish payrolls and to try to blackmail
taxpayers into building them new ballparks.

Then there was Sprewell. The one-year ban was an easy call for
Stern. If the NBA needed someone on whom to exercise summary
judgment, Sprewell was perfect: an All-Star, which gave Stern's
edict some hair, but one who played on a dreary team, the Golden
State Warriors. When a hot-button player like Charles Barkley
throws a guy through a plate-glass window, as he did in October
(the case was settled out of court last week), the NBA
recommends that he get bodyguards--even if it seems that
Barkley's victim is the one in need of protection. But when
Sprewell snapped, Stern pounced. The commissioner's widely
praised response turned Sprewell into the poster boy for
malfeasance, the face of everything wrong with sports.

Sprewell, of course, isn't the personification of all these
problems. He's just another in the long line of friendly
reminders--Tonya Harding, Roberto Alomar, Mike Tyson--that
sports stand at a precipice. There's no guardrail. There's no
abiding sense of right or wrong, at least beyond what the
various leagues' vice presidents for violence impose on
yesterday's headline makers. The industry of sports has gone to
hell in a handbasket, but as long as a team or corporate logo is
on the handbasket, it's O.K.

This is a house of cards constructed ever higher on a shaky
foundation of money and marketing. What will it take to topple
it? Ticket prices are too high, the quality of most games too
low, the behavior of athletes and owners too outrageous. Wherein
lies salvation? In luxury boxes, which segregate fans and rob
them of the shared experience that's the only reason to go to
games in a TV-saturated age? In new arenas such as the MCI
Center in Washington, where the Capitals played their first game
in front of several thousand empty seats?

Maybe we should try to grasp all this as firmly as Sprewell
grasped P.J. Carlesimo's windpipe.

And, oh, how was your week?

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of sporting equipment in Hell]