COACHES AND G.M.'S love to pay lip service to the importance of character, but cynics--and some front office types--have always had their suspicions about what really matters when teams hunt for talent. "Let's be honest," says Orlando Magic VP Pat Williams. "Teams will bring in anyone if they think the player will really help them win."
That conventional wisdom may be changing, though, as teams begin considering just how much sulking and misbehaving they are willing to put up with to get that help. On Nov. 7 the Eagles, as you may have heard, bounced Terrell Owens. Last week Roush Racing did the same to driver Kurt Busch. And if the NBA seems a little cheerier this season, it could be because Latrell Sprewell is sitting at home by a phone that isn't ringing.
Sprewell (above), 34, an often-disgruntled free agent who averaged 12.8 points last season for Minnesota, resuscitated his career and image after his 1997 attack on then Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo. But he once again played the role of malcontent last season by snottily rejecting a three-year, $21 million extension offer from Minnesota ("I've got a family to feed") and reportedly becoming a distraction. His once-deep reserve of second chances has suddenly run dry. "He certainly has the talent to be in the league," says Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "But teams might be a little fearful of bringing him on board."
On Sunday, Busch, the defending Nextel Cup champion (right), was suspended for the rest of the NASCAR season by Roush Racing two days after arguing with police officers, who stopped him for running a stop sign near Phoenix International Speedway. The cops smelled alcohol on his breath, but when their Breathalyzer malfunctioned, Busch, 27, was cited for reckless driving and released. His bosses weren't as forgiving. He has feuded with several drivers--Jimmy Spencer once punched him after a race--and NASCAR officials, and on Sunday, Roush fired him. "It's the last straw for Roush Racing," team president Geoff Smith said. "We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists."
Busch already had a deal to drive for Penske Racing next year, and TO (left) will no doubt find a new home (possibly in Atlanta or Washington). But Sprewell could remain a poster child for the enough-is-enough era, forced to choose between retirement and the indignity of playing for the NBA veteran's minimum of $1.1 million a year. "Sometimes," says one NBA G.M., "that stuff catches up with you."
KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP (SPREWELL)
GENE BLYTHE/AP (BUSCH)
RUSTY KENNEDY/AP (OWENS)