Teams that win NBA championships—the Lakers of today and the 1980s, the Bulls of the '90s, the Celtics of the '60s and the '80s—are almost invariably peopled with players who act like professionals. Yet no sport keeps its bad boys, head cases and out-and-out reprobates in play as persistently as pro hoops. It's the Marvin Barnes Hope Springs Eternal syndrome. Four NBA teams and another in the ABA gave the infamous Bad News Barnes (a rebounding fool of a power forward who eventually racked up four prison terms and 19 stays in rehab) a chance in the '70s, and it never paid off. Hoping that high-scoring swingman Isaiah Rider would eventually show up on time and play hard, five NBA teams added the talented enigma to their rosters. He disappointed every time. The Trail Blazers will not win as long as their star forward, Rasheed Wallace, is a loutish technical-foul machine. The Knicks may have come to the end of the road with All-Star guard-forward Latrell Sprewell, who once choked his coach and sometimes barely makes it to Madison Square Garden before tip-off.
Not all problem players can be herded into one corral. The 76ers' Allen Iverson has a rap sheet, Rider's brand of alarm clock and a legendary distaste for practice, but during games he busts his butt, and his teammates respect that. Still, AI has already taken the Sixers as far as he can (to the Finals), and his inability to lead like a true franchise player makes it unlikely he'll take them there again. The link between all of the problem players is that inevitably they bring the team down from within while alienating the fans. "It sounds harsh," says one G.M., "but we believe that once an a-hole, always an a-hole. And you won't win with a-holes."
It's hard enough to beat the Lakers. Now teams are supposed to do it with a roster vetted for miscreants? The mere suggestion could send Trail Blazers fans into paroxysms of fear. This, after all, is the NBA, a league responsible for popularizing the word allegedly. In the past year alone some 5% of the NBA's workforce, from stars to scrubs, has been arrested—and that doesn't include the Pistons' Clifford Robinson, who's facing a $20 million suit for allegedly giving a woman herpes. (He denies the charge.)
Sure, it'd be swell if every player had the moral compass of, say, Spurs center Tim Duncan. But franchises aim to field winning teams, not Boy Scout troops. Where are the Nets without reformed wife-beater Jason Kidd? The Kings without alleged perjurer Chris Webber? (He pleaded innocent.) The Sixers without Allen Iverson, whose transgressions form an epic? As for the idea that bad apples spoil whole teams, it just ain't so. Often the knaves are popular teammates. ( Rasheed Wallace is a Portland co-captain.)
Delinquency doesn't even deter customers. A year after choking Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo, Latrell Sprewell had a new shoe deal and the adoration of Knicks fans. When Iverson was arrested in July for allegedly threatening a man with a gun (the charges were thrown out), sales of his Reeboks skyrocketed. "Kids in these neighborhoods know what it's like to get a bum rap from the police, and they're showing support," Iverson's adviser "Que" Gaskins told The Wall Street Journal. Conversely, Gaskins says that Kobe Bryant, a stranger to the police blotter, "lacks a little credibility" on the street.
So there. The real crime in the NBA is neglecting to keep it real. If you like your pro hoops played by sellouts who "lack a little credibility" and don't get arrested, fear not. WNBA training camps open in April.
—L. Jon Wertheim