BOSTON — It's not surprising that Latrell Sprewell, the superstar guard for the Golden State Warriors, and P.J. Carlesimo, the team's coach, didn't get along.
Throughout his career, Mr. Carlesimo has earned a reputation for being blunt and abrasive with players. Mr. Sprewell, the team's leading scorer, has already clashed with one coach. The Warriors have won only one game this season, and Sprewell had asked to be traded.
But what transpired last week, when Sprewell assaulted Carlesimo twice during a practice, has shocked the National Basketball Association and the larger sporting world. The Warriors terminated Sprewell's $32 million contract, and the NBA suspended him for a year - the longest sanction of its kind in league history.
So far, Sprewell has borne the brunt of blame. Critics say it's part of a pattern of outrageous behavior demonstrated by professional athletes.
Yet the incident also raises important questions about changes in society that may be reflected in increasingly strained relationships between NBA players and coaches. It's a friction exacerbated by high salaries, racial tensions, and the close quarters teams are thrust into.
"In most sports, players and coaches are not thrown together so tightly," says Frank Deford, a sports author and commentator.
"NBA teams are very small and intimate units," he says. "And the way things are going, we might have expected something like this would happen."
With only 12 players and three or four coaches, NBA teams are tiny by professional sports standards. The 82-game season lasts nine months, not including the pre-season, and teams are constantly thrown together in hotels, charter airplanes, film rooms, showers, and practice gyms.
Furthermore, players and coaches don't often stay with one team for more than a year or two, so most teams begin their seasons as collections of strangers.
Only one NBA team, the Atlanta Hawks, began the season with the same coach and five starting players as last year.
Off-court power play
It's also more common for star players to have multimillion dollar contracts that give them immense power to influence a team's personnel decisions. Just three years ago, Sprewell and then-Warriors teammate Chris Webber undertook a successful campaign to oust Warriors coach Don Nelson.
The result, observers say, is a power shift that's begun to undermine coaches' ability to maintain order and discipline. The situation, they add, is further complicated by racial tensions. Although 80 percent of NBA players are black, 86 percent of the league's coaches are white.
It's unclear whether race played a role in the confrontation between Sprewell, who is black, and Carlesimo, who is white, but few observers will rule it out.
"It's becoming rare to see a team that's a team," says Art Taylor of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "You can count on one hand the number of coaches who have the complete respect of all their players."
For the most part, Sprewell's assault has been interpreted as the latest evidence of a decline in sportsmanship among players. Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman caused an outcry last year by kicking a courtside cameraman, and in 1996, Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Van Exel knocked a referee into the scorer's table.
Both received fines and short suspensions from the league.
Although he's critical of the selfish and often violent behavior of many athletes, Robert Woodson, director of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, places most of the blame on the league itself.
"I think it's sort of the culture imitating the economic reality," he says. "When athletes are paid $5 million a year with a no-cut contract, there's no incentive to play hard or tolerate a bad coach. We're providing a business opportunity for those athletes, and then trying to pretend it's not a business."
Yet other observers suggest NBA coaches have too much power already and operate under an outdated assumption that players, superstars like Sprewell included, must yield completely to their authority.
The league's racial disparities, they add, may well have something to do with this breakdown of order.
"When a team that's basically black is run by white coaches, a black player who's upset might start to factor that in," Mr. Deford says. "The racial situation can certainly make it harder for a team to get along and work together."
Change ahead in the NBA?
Although the NBA players' association has appealed Sprewell's sanctions, and at least one team has expressed a willingness to sign him if he expresses remorse. The three-time all-star has not yet admitted fault. His only apology so far has been issued "to my fans."
In the days ahead, the NBA, along with many sponsors and fans, will surely take a hard look at the league's problems, and pressure on teams to hire African-American coaches is likely to increase.
Although Carlesimo has enjoyed a solid reputation in both the college and professional coaching ranks, and did not initiate the fight with Sprewell, some NBA insiders suggest that his confrontational style may ultimately jeopardize his future.
Late last week, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown highlighted the racial elements of the incident, asking the NAACP and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to investigate the incident. He also made a comment that, despite its lack of good taste, might well describe the substance of Sprewell's defense.
"Maybe," Mayor Brown mused, "the coach needed to be punched."