WHEN the New Jersey Nets played in Detroit earlier this month, All-Star Derrick Coleman missed an informal practice, one of several he's skipped. Coleman, the National Basketball Association's highest-paid player whose home is in Detroit, had a ready excuse, though: His 1970 Chevy Nova wouldn't start.
The NBA has always prided itself on having ''attitude.'' But these days, bad attitude is more the norm.
More and more pro players are feuding with coaches over playing time, missing practice without permission, going public with their requests to be traded, and squabbling among themselves. Sometimes they're fined or suspended, sometimes not.
A few recent examples of players acting out:
*Chicago's Scottie Pippen, another All-Star who last season refused to play the critical final seconds of a playoff game when a play wasn't called for him, calls his general manager a liar and demands to be traded.
*Dallas's Roy Tarpley throws a fit when he's taken out of a game.
*Seattle's Vincent Askew, upset with his playing time, refuses to enter a game as directed by his coach.
*Minnesota's Isaiah Rider calls a news conference to lash out at his coach.
The season has already seen San Antonio's Dennis Rodman suspended twice for disruptive behavior and 1994 rookie of the year Chris Webber force a trade to get away from Golden State coach Don Nelson, whom he disliked.
The majority of players, of course, show up for work, listen to their coaches, and play hard. Top-caliber players among that group wonder why some of their colleagues can't do the same.
''To me, it's wild,'' says Indiana's Reggie Miller. ''I'm from the old school, where players play and coaches coach. You hear of so many conflicts between coaches and players, people not showing up for practice, people not wanting to go in games.
''That's wild, no matter what the circumstances. I know you wouldn't want to be working 9-to-5 at IBM. This is two hours of supposedly what you love to do. Players don't appreciate what we get.''
LAST season, as incidents of taunting and fighting increased, the NBA wasted no time stiffening penalties for such behavior.
As a result, fighting has been practically nonexistent this season. But attitude isn't so easily legislated.
Earvin (Magic) Johnson ended a 10-game trial run as the Los Angeles Lakers' coach last season by deciding he wanted no part of coaching. At the time, he blasted his players for a lack of discipline and effort. Now a minority owner of the team, he declined comment through his agent, Lon Rosen.
Denver's Dan Issel quit as coach this month, emotionally spent, he said, from trying to coax consistent effort out of a young and talented team. Johnson played in the 1980s, Issel in the '70s, but both had trouble relating their playing experience to today's crop of millionaire youngsters.
''It's tougher to coach today, because the salaries are astronomical, and the notoriety that comes from the endorsement packages makes it harder to reinforce values,'' says Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens, in his 22nd season as an NBA coach.
Just as former pros like Johnson, Issel, and Karl find themselves unable to motivate what Indiana coach Larry Brown calls ''the MTV crowd,'' league veterans blame the huge, long-term contracts their younger teammates sign as rookies for creating an untenable situation.
One possible remedy: a rookie salary cap, an idea that Phoenix's Charles Barkley and Utah's Karl Malone have supported.