With the Latrell Sprewell cloud ever hovering over the heads of the Golden State Warriors - and coach P.J. Carlesimo in particular - the Warriors nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year Friday night.
The Warriors, in a game when Michael Jordan was a mere mortal with a shaky shooting hand, nearly beat the Chicago Bulls in just the second sellout ever at the new-and-improved Oakland Coliseum. Jordan was 2-for-17 from the field and the Bulls shot only 33 percent as a team, yet still edged the Warriors, 87-80.Tonight's game against the Utah Jazz (6 p.m. tipoff) won't come close to being a sellout. But there is no question that Jerry Sloan will stress to his troops that the Warriors are not to be taken lightly and he'll point to the Bulls' scare as evidence.
Sure, the Warriors are only 8-35. It's true that they've lost 16 of their last 17 games. It's also a fact that Sprewell's ongoing arbitration hearing is a distraction to his former teammates and coaches.
But Sloan, as you would expect, isn't about to say tonight's game will be easy.
Jazz guard John Stockton - after 13 years in the league and with Sloan his head coach for 10 of them - has the company-approved responses down pat when asked about playing inferior competition.
"You can never go by records," Stockton said. "In this league, any team can beat you on any night. All it takes is for the guys to start believing in themselves and for them to play a great game."
It's true stranger things have happened than bad teams like the Warriors beating a solid club like Utah. For instance, a star player putting a choke hold on a coach at practice, leaving and then coming back 20 minutes later to throw a punch and threaten to kill the said coach qualifies as being stranger. A $24 million contract being terminated by an NBA team followed by a player getting suspended from the league for an entire year is also more unusual.
Yet, as Carlesimo is all too aware, that whole absurd cluster of events actually happened in December. The fallout is still occurring.
Sprewell's arbitration hearing - he contends that the NBA's yearlong punishment was too harsh - began last week in Portland and will continue beginning Monday in New York. Four Warrior players, four assistant coaches, a team doctor and Warriors vice president Al Attles have already testified. Warriors General Manager Garry St. Jean and general counsel Robin Baggett are expected to take the stand Monday. Carlesimo, who was Sprewell's choking victim, and NBA commissioner David Stern are expected to testify later in the week before arbitrator John Feerick.
After the hearing concludes, the parties will have 10 days to submit briefs. Feerick will then have up to 30 days to announce his ruling.
There's little question that the hearing is on the minds of some of Sprewell's teammates. As Golden State forward Joe Smith said recently about the original Dec. 1 incident between Sprewell and Carlesimo, "I replay that day in my mind all the time."
The Jazz and Warriors have played twice this season - once when they had Sprewell and once without. Both times were in the Delta Center, and both games were relatively easy Utah victories.
There's no reason to expect anything different tonight.