SPREWELL IS FIRED, BUT SOON ENOUGH HE’LL BE REHIRED

If I grab my boss and choke him, I’m history. That simple. They don’t say,
“Gee, he has a lot of talent.” They don’t say, “Gee, we’re paying him a lot of money.”

I’m gone. Outta there. Partly because there’s no place for that kind of behavior, and partly because, let’s face it, if they let me get away with it, what about the next guy? The boss would need a bodyguard.

So I’m history. The word for such a dismissal is “fired.” It’s the word Golden State used when dumping Latrell Sprewell for choking his coach, P. J. Carlesimo. Fired. His $32-million contract? Ripped up. Voided. Fired is fired.

I went to the Palace on Thursday to see how that word sat with the Pistons’ players.

“Fired?” mulled Grant Hill. “It sounds so strange. I mean, you hear ‘waived’ or ‘cut’ in this league, but ‘fired’?”

And they say pro athletes don’t live in the real world.

Fired. As in no more money. As in see you later, or maybe never. It was the appropriate action. The NBA not only supported it, but commissioner David Stern suspended Sprewell for one year, saying, “A sports league doesn’t have to condone behavior that would not be tolerated in any other segment of society.”

Excluding the World Wrestling Federation.

All this is going to cost Sprewell. In fact, this might be the most expensive choke since that Buffalo kicker went wide at the 1991 Super Bowl. Sprewell forfeits the $24 million left on his deal with the Warriors. He also loses his endorsement deal with Converse, which fired him after his bit as The Oakland Strangler.

But in the surreal world of professional sports, this might, in the end, prove to be a financial wash for Sprewell. He might even make money when it’s over.

And if you don’t think this guy will play NBA basketball again, I have a pyramid scheme I’d like to sell you.

His apology was full of bravado

Now let’s be clear about the actual incident. Sprewell, who has a reputation for being less-than-agreeable, was tired of the rants of his coach, Carlesimo, who has a reputation as an incessant yeller. It didn’t help that the team had won only one game all season.

During Monday’s practice, Carlesimo got on Sprewell, and Sprewell snapped. Carlesimo asked Sprewell to leave practice.

The player grabbed the coach by the neck, choking him. Sprewell eventually let go and stormed into the locker room, where he stewed about 15 minutes. Then he came out and attacked the coach again, yelling “I’ll kill you!”

How long and hard Sprewell choked his coach depends on whom you listen to. Several days after the incident, there was still a three-inch welt on Carlesimo’s neck.

Sprewell denies punching Carlesimo and says he didn’t hurt him badly. “If I really went after P. J.,” Sprewell told a TV station, “he’d look a lot worse than he did.”

You can feel the remorse, can’t you?

That last statement tells you all you need to know. Even during a televised apology, Sprewell had to let everyone know how tough he was, that if he wanted to take out his punk coach, he could have. That’s important, right? Sprewell needs to remind people, and maybe himself, how much he matters.

But if Latrell is misguided, it’s partly because the league helps point him in that direction. It’s a player’s game. Players rule. Talent rules. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Stern risked the ire of the players union by suspending Sprewell because he knew, deep down, that if he didn’t, the guy would have been signed by another team immediately.

He still will be. Just a little later, that’s all.

After suspension, he’ll be back

“Could you coach a player who had attacked you?” I asked Doug Collins.

“No way,” he said. “It’s one thing to get into a verbal disagreement. But once you’ve been physically assaulted? The respect is gone.”

He’s right. He also knows that as soon as respect is gone for one coach, there’s another who will swoop in and pluck the carcass.

I promise you, a year from now, when Sprewell’s suspension is up, he will wind up with another team, a better team, with a coach who claims that Sprewell
“was in a bad situation in Golden State” or that “stories of his troubles were exaggerated” — which is the lame rationale used by Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson in picking up troublemaker Lawrence Phillips.

What he really means is, “If the guy can play, I’ll sell my mother.”

And Sprewell can play, well enough to make the All-Star team three times. Someone in the NBA will hire him. And if he picks a good team, he’ll quickly be in a negotiating position to demand big money, maybe even more than he was making at Golden State.

This is all assuming he doesn’t get some of his contract money in a grievance the union says it will file.

What’s the point of all this? Simple. Players can misbehave and sometimes they can even get punished. But in the end, it usually comes down to money. Golden State, a team going nowhere, was happy to dump the salary it was paying Sprewell while making a point about ethics and morality. But some other team, in need of talent, will overlook behavior for the chance at hitting the big one.

So those of you who think sports finally acted properly this week, enjoy it while you can. A little voice tells me this is far from over.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book “Tuesdays With Morrie” at 7:30-8:30 tonight at Waldenbooks, Lakeside Mall, Sterling Heights; 11 a.m.-noon Saturday at Borders, Rochester Hills; and 5-6 p.m. Saturday at Doubleday Books, Briarwood Mall, Ann Arbor. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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