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Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner?
Frank Deford
February 01, 1999
A year after being assaulted by one of his players, the Golden State Warriors' P.J. Carlesimo is the same obsessed, demanding, exuberant coach he's always been
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February 01, 1999

Guess Who's Not Coming To Dinner?

A year after being assaulted by one of his players, the Golden State Warriors' P.J. Carlesimo is the same obsessed, demanding, exuberant coach he's always been

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With five seconds left, Seton Hall held a one-point lead. Michigan had the ball, sure, but it had to make a basket under the most excruciating pressure. However, as Rumeal Robinson dribbled across the half-court line, the referee. John Clougherty, called a foul on the Seton Hall player guarding him. Carlesimo is the first to admit that there was contact, but it was only a smidgen, the classic no-harm, no-foul situation—and with three seconds to go for the national title. Those around Carlesimo heard him react instinctively. "No way, John!" he wailed. "No way." And not one basketball expert in a hundred disagreed with Carlesimo. Bad call.

But then the coach shut up and sat back down, watching as Robinson sank both free throws to give Michigan the title. Carlesimo led his team to the locker room. He did not cry this time, this season's end. Nor did he whine. Instead, the coach reminded the players of the opportunities they had not seized. Cruel as the last call had been, they had let slip their own destiny. The ball is your immortal soul. How many times had he heard his father say that? Your life is in your hands. Nobody ever said the rules in the game of life were soft.

Then, before the media throng, all of them panting for him to pillory the ref, Carlesimo drew a breath. His players were at his side, nodding, as he said, "John Clougherty is as good as any referee in the country, and I can't imagine anyone else I'd rather have make that call."

"Hey, that's just the way I was raised," he says now with a shrug. After the title game he threw a huge dinner party. If you can't be a stoic....

The Sprewell incident was different. Bad calls you can expect. But there was no way that Carlesimo—that anybody—could have anticipated what would happen at practice that dreadful afternoon. To be sure, Sprewell was a wrathful person who had been involved in two serious physical altercations with teammates before that season. But when Carlesimo took over the team in September 1997, Sprewell was accommodating and, generally, pleasant. It was only after the season opened and the losses began to pile up (by Dec. 1, the Wárriors were 1-13) that Sprewell's attitude turned sour. Still, even as he constantly petitioned to be traded, he did nothing to suggest that the volcano might explode.

Because Sprewell is appealing his punishment (he's also, incredibly, suing his agent for, in effect, not having had the foresight to include a clause in his contract that would protect his salary should he attack his coach), no one involved can speak directly to the details of the battery. But it is all spelled out in wrenching detail in the voluminous March 1998 report of John Feerick, the Fordham Law School dean who became the independent arbitrator when Sprewell and the players' union challenged the Warriors' termination of his contract and his suspension by the NBA. To wit:

"...the Head Coach...told the Grievant [Sprewell] to put more speed on the ball when making a pass. The practice was proceeding in a normal manner, and the Head Coach spoke in a low tone and then raised his voice a bit louder, saying the words a second time. The Grievant proceeded to slam the ball down and express a number of expletives reasonably approximating 'get out of my face, get the f---out of here, and leave me the f---alone.' The Head Coach responded: You're the f---out of here.' Thereupon, Grievant immediately either walked to or lunged at the Head Coach, placing his two hands around his neck. With his arms fully extended, the Grievant moved the Coach backwards saying, 'I will kill you.' "

Astonishingly, Carlesimo retained his composure. He did not believe that Sprewell meant to murder him, and anyway, he knew there were about 20 people on the gymnasium floor who could prevent that. Still, for perhaps as long as 10 seconds, Sprewell choked Carlesimo, to the point where he found it difficult to breathe. But, declared Feerick, "The Head Coach remained calm and offered no resistance."

Everyone in the place froze. Arties watched in horror from the balcony that juts out from the Warriors' offices. On the court Higgins, in shock, ran to where others were extricating Carlesimo from Sprewell's grasp. "I put myself in that position," Higgins says, "and I can't believe I could be that calm. P.J. never retaliated. And then he just started talking to the players: 'Wanna break?' They said no, so we just went back to practicing." Sprewell returned about 20 minutes later to attack Carlesimo once more, landing one punch before he was subdued again.

Carlesimo has not taken any civil action against the man who brutalized him. He has never really criticized Sprewell, preferring instead to lavish praise on his team for not quitting on the season—for, in fact, playing much better the rest of the way, despite the suspension of its only star player. Says Westhead, "Greg Bittner, who scouts for us, had come from Portland with P.J., and he told me, 'P.J.'s very good at end-of-the-game situations.' Well, I found out he is. And here it was, that day, and he obviously fell back on the same instincts—only now, he must have been thinking, I'm in a real end-of-the-game this time. Within 30 seconds P.J. had regrouped in his head, and he knew exactly how he had to be—and he did it just that way."

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