When Latrell Sprewell realized last November that he couldn't coexist with coach P.J. Carlesimo, he made it clear he wanted out. Sprewell then proceeded to choke Carlesimo during a Dec. 1 practice, effectively rendering himself untradable.
On Wednesday, Sprewell reiterated his desire to be sent elsewhere, while at the same time making it even more difficult for the team to dispatch him.That "untouchable" label affixed to Sprewell's forehead - at least in the minds of many public relations-conscious teams - may have become permanent after the suspended star sued the National Basketball Association and the Golden States Warriors in federal court.
The $30 million lawsuit alleges unfair disciplinary practices, antitrust improprieties and civil rights violations. Sprewell is seeking lost wages - specifically, the $6.4 million he failed to earn when the league suspended him for 68 games following his attack on Carlesimo - plus punitive damages and attorney fees.
One of Sprewell's requests is that the Warriors be allowed to trade him right away. Sprewell is under suspension until July 1, but Golden State could deal him to any of the 24 clubs not involved in the playoffs.
However, many factors make the task a monumental challenge. Among them: Sprewell's image, which has taken a beating from the Carlesimo case and a reckless-driving charge, not to mention previous incidents with teammates; Sprewell's status as a base-year compensation player, which restricts the teams to which he can be traded until July 22; his contract, which calls for him to make $17.3 million over the next two seasons; the impending NBA labor strife that may result in a lockout effective July 1; the Warriors' standing over the salary cap.
Until the new salary cap kicks in on July 1, the Warriors are limited to trading Sprewell to Toronto, Detroit or the Los Angeles Clippers - teams that are some $3 million under the cap each - or at least need one of them to act as a broker.
On top of all that, now there's the lawsuit.
Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean tried his best to remain optimistic.
"I'm just going to keep putting my nose to the grindstone," St. Jean said. "We're all going to do that and keep working in the same fashion we have been regardless of what happened today. I still believe we'll get it done. We'll get something."
The Warriors would love to pair up Sprewell with their draft pick, No. 5, in exchange for moving up a few spots, and at the same time getting cap relief.
That's unlikely to happen while the lawsuit is pending, and lead attorney Robert Thompson of Atlanta said the legal procedure may last from three months to a year. In the meantime, NBA lawyers are certain to file motions to get the complaint dismissed, arguing the case was already heard by an arbitrator, John Feerick.
"This is a poorly disguised attempt by Mr. Sprewell's new lawyers to reargue claims that have already been rejected and put to rest by the arbitrator," the league's chief legal officer, Jeffrey Mishkin, said in a statement.
In his March 4 decision, Feerick reduced Sprewell's punishment from the one-calendar-year suspension the NBA had imposed to 68 games. He also reinstated Sprewell's contract, which the Warriors had terminated.
Thompson and Bob Gist argued that part of Feerick's decision should be thrown out. They charged that terms of the collective bargaining agreement were violated because Sprewell was punished more than once.
William Gould, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said it was unlikely Feerick's verdict would be overturned.
"Normally, the courts will give considerable deference to the arbitrator's award and only reverse it if it is unfaithful to the collective bargaining agreement itself or if it is against public policy," said Gould, speaking as a labor expert and not as head of the labor board.
The lawsuit also alleges restraint of trade and, curiously, racial discrimination by the Warriors and the NBA in the way they mete out punishment.
"Blacks have different contract terms, just from the little we've been able to discover so far, particularly with the Warriors, than whites, when it comes to punishment for offenses," Thompson said.
Warriors legal counsel Robin Baggett said the team uses the uniform player contract approved by the collective bargaining agreement. "We take the standard form and fill in the numbers," he said.
Although Sprewell's lawyers insisted the three-time All-Star was concerned with restoring his reputation, they dodged questions about how the lawsuit would affect his public image.
When pressed, Thompson finally said, "This has obviously been discussed with him. He knows he's a pariah anyway. He's been demonized by this process."
And the process doesn't appear close to being over.