Ball Don't Lie - NBA

I'm not going to insult your intelligence by offering a straight comparison between what Shawn Chacon did to his general manager last month, and what Latrell Sprewell did to P.J. Carlesimo 11 and a half years ago.

There are too many differences, too many bits of nuance to chase down and explain, and the particulars in the confrontation are too disparate to try and pass judgment on which incident was worse. There's barely any room for comparison beyond the most simplistic of similarities. 

But the simplest similarity, that of a disgruntled employee attacking his boss in full view of his co-workers, is enough. And I have to wonder, why hasn't the outrage that followed Sprewell's explosion been even approximated by the reaction to Chacon's attack?

There's no point in trying to let time diminish just how disturbing an attack Sprewell put on Carlesimo. Spre went into 1997-98 with a chip on his shoulder, I remember reading a Pete Vecsey column before the season ever started that detailed how Isaiah Rider, a friend of Sprewell's who had played the 1996-97 season under P.J. up in Portland, had filled Latrell's head with stories about how miserable it was to play under Carlesimo. Latrell had entered the season with his mind already made up about his new coach.

With the Warriors losing 11 of their first 12 games, and in the wake of Carlesimo chiding Sprewell and Muggsy Bogues during a practice for half-heartedly going through a passing drill that Sprewell thought beneath him, Latrell decided to choke his coach for 15 seconds until he was pulled away from P.J. by his teammates. After being asked to leave the practice court, Latrell stayed away for 20 minutes before returning to the court and attacking Carlesimo again.

Sprewell was suspended for ten games following the incident, and his contract was voided based on a standard moral turpitude clause. He was traded to the Knicks soon after the 1998-99 NBA labor dispute was settled, and became a cult hero of sorts before flaming out as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves following the 2004-05 season.

Chacon's story is different.

A somewhat anonymous free agent pickup for the Houston Astros entering this season, the pitcher was struggling through a pretty lousy year as a starter before being demoted to the bullpen last month. Apparently the move didn't do much for the 30 year-old's purported attitude problem, which is why Astros GM Ed Wade wanted to have a meaning with Chacon and manager Cecil Cooper on June 25th.

Chacon refused to deign to a private meeting with the pair, demanding that Wade say whatever it was he had meant to say in full view of Chacon's teammates. What followed is less clear, but words were exchanged, with both Wade and Chacon accusing the other of raising voices, and Wade seemingly setting Chacon off by demanding that he "look in the mirror."

Chacon responded by grabbing the GM by the neck and throwing him to the ground. He then jumped on top of Wade before teammates pulled him off. Chacon was waived the next day. Following the incident, he calmly spoke of having no regrets, instead wishing that Cooper and Wade had just "left me alone."

And that's been about it. No hand-wringing. No breathless cable TV breakdowns. No covers of SI. And it doesn't make sense.

Sure, Chacon is pretty low on the totem pole status-wise. Baseball teams have dozens of players in the clubhouse as opposed to the 15 on an NBA team. Far more people knew who Latrell Sprewell and P.J. Carlesimo were in December of 1997 than who Shawn Chacon and Ed Wade were last month. Spre was the face of the franchise, on billboards all over the Bay Area heading into that season. Chacon was a failed fifth starter. But we also tend to lose grasp on just how anonymous Sprewell was nationally before his attack on Carlesimo.  

Ask anyone who was paying attention back then, Sprewell was the least-heralded of any above-average NBA player from that era. You could possibly compare him to Kevin Martin, but in a semi-enlightened modern world with websites devoted to every team and several top shelf NBA blogs keeping a light on every possible player, it's hard to get across just how borderline-anonymous Sprewell was back then. And I say this well aware that Latrell was coming off an All-Star berth and a 24-point per game season in 1996-97

But the gulf between the Sprewell reaction and the Chacon reaction astounds me. Deep in the heart of football season, Sprewell's first press conference following the attack on Carlesimo was carried live by CNN, and I remember watching it in a room with someone who was convinced that Sprewell - decked out in an expensive sweater but sporting the second set of cornrows the NBA had ever seen (Allen Iverson being the first) - "looked like a thug."

I also saw Chacon's image flickering silently on a TV in a pub two nights after his attack on Wade. Nobody seemed to want to comment on the man's rank on the thuggish scale. Nobody seemed to care. It was almost as if his attack was ... expected.

Maybe that's not the word. "Expected" would be a good description for those who thought Sprewell looked like a thug, as if he represented what they knew the NBA was all about. The reaction to Chacon seems to fly along the "hey, these things are gonna happen"-edge.

(I almost wrote "odd," as a one-word sentence, to finish that last paragraph. It's not odd. I'm used to fans and media making excuses for the other leagues. But it is worth talking about.)

Less hand-wringing is always a good thing, I submit, but even without getting too far into half-baked guesses as to what role race plays in the disconnect between Spre and Shawn, it is worth delving into a comparison between the reactions as a way to detail just how different this country's media deals with the NBA, and the one-time national pastime.

With that said, and you know this, race does play a huge part. Sprewell had cornrows a short time before they hit the mainstream consciousness, he's African-American, and he was playing in an NBA that (before the international explosion began in earnest the following season) probably had its highest percentage of African-American players in the league's history.  

Chacon's biological father is African-American, but he's playing in a league where a guy like Jason Varitek seems more like the media's baseball representative of choice than, say, the media's non-Jordan assumed NBA representative of choice for December of 1997.

For better or worse (well, worse), that's the perception. And there are so many roads to go down detailing the reasons behind why these perceptions should and shouldn't matter, that there's almost no point in delving into it now. It deserves a greater forum, more time, many thousands more words, and a lot more thought.

What we can do, quickly, is compare the leagues. The NBA provides a pathetic fight between the Knicks and Nuggets, with players like Carmelo Anthony back-tracking nearly half a court length after throwing a slap, and it gets treated with natural disaster-type hubris and gravity on ESPN in the days following. It'd be hilarious if it weren't so bloody awful.

A pitcher throws a heater under a guy's chin, both benches erupt and you have an on-field fight with close to 50 participants? Just boys being boys.

I don't take offense at how people react to baseball violence. Again, less hand-wringing and less attempts at stentorian tones are always a good thing. But imagine if, last February, the same thing happened in the NBA ... again?

Imagine if someone like Jamaal Magliore, an afterthought free agent signing with some solid name recognition for the New Jersey Nets the offseason before, had confronted and taken down Nets GM Rod Thorn a few weeks before the NBA All-Star Game? Mags - contributing about as much last year as Chacon did earlier this baseball season - would have been waived within days, but that wouldn't have stopped the full-court press of reaction, and TV talking heads giving us that haughty, outraged act.

You know it would have gone down like that. You know it wouldn't have disappeared in the same way Chacon's attack did. You know it.

Please don't confuse this post as my haughty, outraged act. It's just something worth thinking about. I'm usually loathe to compare sports or pro leagues, especially in lieu of analysis (I can't stand it when, in the midst of a discussion about baseball or basketball, someone will launch into something that starts with, "imagine if Brett Favre were to ..." That stuff never works.), and each individual incident should be treated, well, individually.

But it is worth giving a second or third thought to. Especially the next time you see the dugouts empty.

The sheer amount of misdeeds that pro baseball and pro football players can get away with in comparison to pro basketball players is just ridiculous.

*Or, for that matter, Manny Ramirez'.

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