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Coleman hasn't minded being considered an attitude problem; in fact, he has seemed to revel in it, as when he defended teammate Anderson to a group of reporters after Anderson's missed practice in December. A reporter suggested that as one of the Nets' supposed leaders, Anderson had set a poor example, and Coleman replied, "Well, whoop-de-damn-do. I miss practice. Dwayne [Schintzius] misses practice. Chris [Morris] misses practice. It's no big deal." We're guessing that this is not the attitude the Nets had in mind when they named Coleman co-captain in November 1993. "My missing shootarounds and practices doesn't make us lose games," he has said. "Some players are just practice players. They step on the court and don't do ——. I come out and bust my butt every night." (On Sunday, though, Coleman did pledge a new commitment to his leadership role, "both on and off the court.")
Statistically, Coleman usually delivers the goods. Through Sunday he was averaging 20.3 points and 10.9 rebounds. That is exactly what is so tantalizing about many of the league's bad actors: They can irritate a coach in the morning, then give him a spectacular performance at night. That's why they are so often coddled. In late December, Minnesota's Rider, who was averaging 21.0 points at week's end, was facing jail time if he didn't complete 28 hours of community service as part of his probation after having been convicted on fifth-degree assault charges. He had mostly neglected the community service for nearly three months, leaving himself with less than a week to fulfill his sentence. The reaction of Wolf management? "If we have to provide a staff car to drive him there, we will," said team president Rob Moor. (Rider completed the service in early January.)
In truth, the Wolves need Rider more than he needs them. It's no coincidence that underachieving teams like the Nets and Timberwolves are usually the ones stocked with attitude problems, leading to a chicken-and-the-egg question: Are the teams bad because they have problem players, or are players' spirits soured by constant losing? Says Phoenix Sun guard Danny Ainge, "A Christian Laettner and [Isaiah] Rider, for example, come to Minnesota and they're expected to turn that franchise around. When they lose, [the perception is that] it's their fault. If there had not been expansion, those players would be going to teams that were already established, and you could give them a chance to mature."
But the break-them-in-slowly approach may not work either—and one reason is money. Today, the lucrative guaranteed contracts many rookies receive before they've ever stepped onto an NBA court can profoundly warp their view of life in the league. For instance, most teams no longer make rookies do the time-honored grunt work, because multimillionaires don't look kindly on running errands. Says Los Angeles Laker center Sam Bowie, who has been in the league for 11 years: "It used to be that when you told rookies to bring you a cup of water or get the balls out on the floor, they'd twist an ankle doing it for you. Now you better save your breath to blow your coffee, because they're not hearing it."
Likewise, coaches whose salaries are dwarfed by those of rookies and second-year players have a hard time asserting much authority. Last season the Wolves' Laettner had several run-ins with coach Sidney Lowe and assistant coach Bob Weinhauer. This season Laettner—who signed a six-year, $21.6 million contract as a rookie in 1992—is still with Minnesota. Lowe and Weinhauer are not. "When you give a player a contract that sets him up for life, it makes him bulletproof," says Milwaukee Buck coach and G.M. Mike Dunleavy, who himself has an eight-year contract. "It's the feeling that 'I've got guaranteed money for a number of years, so you [the coach] can't hurt me.' " Coaches are so wary of alienating players that some didn't want to speak to SI for this story. "I can't talk about how I really feel about some of these guys," said one Eastern Conference coach. "Suppose one of them ends up playing for me someday?"
Many believe that the league's discipline problems mirror those of society, that their root is nothing less than the breakdown of the American family (although obviously not every player with a bad attitude is the product of a broken home, nor does every player from a broken home have a bad attitude). "Young people are less tolerant of authority than they were 10, 20 years ago, and some of that can be traced back to the breakdown of the traditional family unit," says Magic general manager Pat Williams.
Others blame the league's marketing strategy for encouraging selfishness. The NBA is not a league of the Magic and the Spurs and the Suns and the Charlotte Hornets as much as it is a league of Shaq and the Admiral and Sir Charles and Grandmama. "The bottom line is that this is the greatest team game going, and we're doing everything in our power—from the rules to the publicity to the image we're creating—to make it an individual sport," says Indiana Pacer coach Larry Brown. "There's very little talk about team. We don't sell that. We try to establish stars, and this [prima donna syndrome] is what you get."
Says Bull guard Steve Kerr, "It used to be, 'Wow, did you see that Lakers-Celtics game?' Now it's more like, 'Did you see the latest video game or commercial?' They've created a different image than what started the whole boom."
But when players, especially young ones, try to justify their rebellious tendencies, they talk far less about money or endorsements or playing time than they do about their concept of manhood. "You have to speak out if something bothers you," Rider says. "If you don't stand up and show that you are a man, you are not going to survive in this league."
Seattle's All-Star point guard Gary Payton, 26, has had more than his share of disagreements with coach Karl, which he believes isn't necessarily bad. "The players all have to stand up for themselves," Payton says. "Maybe it's more that way than it used to be, but it should be that way. A coach shouldn't just talk to you as if you're something less than who you are. People all think this is about contracts and who's making how much money. It has nothing to do with that. This is about manhood. The respect of one man to another. If the coach doesn't respect you as a man, or treat you like a man, then you have to stand up for it whether you make the $150,000 minimum or $5 million."