The biggest issue currently facing the NBA is not rough play or the lack of a collective bargaining agreement; rather, it is the growing perception that its players, particularly its youngest stars, are spoiled, arrogant brats who demand respect from their coaches and team management while showing none in return. "The nature of the NBA is a sort of self-centered, greed-oriented, defiant attitude," says Knick coach Pat Riley. "It's running rampant, and it's going to bring down the league one day. It's gotten to where it's all about 'me,' all about recognition, all about contracts, all about playing time, all about lack of rules and discipline."
At least outwardly, league officials are less troubled by the misbehavior than is Riley. "It would be foolish to say we don't have any concern about it," says Russ Granik, deputy commissioner of the NBA. "But it hasn't risen to any sort of crisis level. It hasn't diminished the fans' appreciation of our game."
"The vast majority of the players in the league are very mature and disciplined," says Seattle coach George Karl. "Unfortunately, the focus is on the minority of players who are antiestablishment and making the most noise."
But the behavior of that minority of players has been so outrageous that it's impossible to ignore. The San Antonio Spurs' 33-year-old forward Dennis Rodman has continually coupled his superb play with antisocial acts as changeable as his hair color. This season, after absences and insubordination, Rodman was suspended, then placed on paid leave; last Friday, the Spurs benched Rodman for their game against the Miami Heat after he missed a shootaround. "I think I scare the NBA," declares Rodman, a sometime date of another rebel, Madonna. "They don't know what I'm going to do next, and that scares them."
Other players have exhibited an egregious sense of entitlement. Pippen, frustrated by the Bulls' sagging fortunes and his relatively paltry $2.1 million salary, is loudly and petulantly demanding a trade while taking public potshots at management. So is the Portland Trail Blazers' star guard Clyde Drexler. (Both Pippen, 29, and Drexler, 32, continue to play brilliantly.) During the preseason Seattle guard Kendall Gill, 26, had the nerve to ask for an unprecedented clause in his seven-year, $26.6-million contract guaranteeing him a certain amount of playing time. The Sonics, not surprisingly, refused.
Unhappy with his own playing time, Gill's teammate, guard Vincent Askew, 28, refused Karl's order to reenter a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 28 and received a one-game suspension. One would think that Askew, who spent three-plus seasons in the Continental Basketball Association, would be grateful for any NBA minutes, as well as his $1.6 million salary. To his credit, Askew later acknowledged his mistake.
Another returnee to the league, Dallas Maverick forward Roy Tarpley, 30, is so grateful to be back after a three-year ban because of league drug-policy violations that he got into an argument with coach Dick Motta at halftime of a game last month and earned a one-game suspension. He later drew a $250 fine for refusing to do a postgame stationary-bike workout required of players who log less than 20 minutes in a game. And last Friday, Tarpley, who had missed the previous three games with tendinitis in his right knee, had an argument with Maverick director of player personnel Keith Grant and was escorted from Dallas's Reunion Arena just before halftime of the Mavs' game against the Knicks. (There were also concerns after Tarpley slurred words and acted boisterously around his teammates; at week's end he had scheduled an appointment with his aftercare counselor.)
Perhaps the single most ridiculous act of defiance this season was perpetrated by Chris Morris. The seventh-year Net forward took the floor for a practice shoot-around one morning in December with his shoelaces undone. Then he refused Beard's order to tie them. Morris's explanation: "I wasn't planning on doing much running." Beard fined him, not so much because he cared about the state of Morris's shoelaces, but because it wasn't the first time Morris had shown up with them untied, and Beard felt he had to remind his team that he was in charge. Morris, too, has asked to be traded, saying that Beard's offense is too half-court-oriented. Perhaps Beard would have the Nets run more if he could be sure all his players had their shoelaces tied.
Many of the NBA's class acts, like the Detroit Pistons' Joe Dumars, the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing, the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Mark Price and the Utah Jazz's John Stockton, are in the latter stages of their careers, and the league can't expect the Pistons' almost-too-good-to-be-true 22-year-old rookie Grant Hill to carry its banner all alone. Hill is that rare young player who is both talented and humble, who (even though the Pistons are struggling) hasn't complained about his team's style of offense or his coach's substitution pattern. "And he's the young player who is getting most of the attention," says Granik. "That's not a coincidence." Hill has been voted to start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game, and surely part of the reason is that the fans were starved for a young NBA star who handles himself with maturity and grace.
Compare Hill's behavior with that of Coleman, a five-year veteran who has established himself as the poster child for prima donnas. "We named a Dream Team with guys whose commitment I would question," says Chicago coach Phil Jackson, speaking of the squad that represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Toronto last August. "I'm not pointing fingers at all those guys, but Derrick Coleman, for example, has exhibited things as a player that indicate he thinks he's bigger than the system."