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For sports anti-heroes, it's good to be bad

Nothing reveals the mindset of the modern pro athlete so well as what Latrell Sprewell said the other day. It turns out that Sprewell could have avoided that nasty choking business last season if the Warriors had completed an attempted trade just days before he wrapped his hands around his coach's neck.

"I wouldn't have had to go through all that," Sprewell said. "But then I wouldn't be as popular as I am now."In other words, thank goodness they didn't trade him. Thank goodness he was around to choke his coach. Otherwise, he would have missed a chance to make a name for himself. To become popular. And Sprewell IS popular. According to the Associated Press report, his popularity is at its peak. He even endorses a sneaker and does a commercial for the shoe in which he says, to the tune of Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner playing in the background, "Some people think I'm the game's worst nightmare; I think I'm America's dream."

America's dream isn't concerned about the coach he choked, or his insane behavior. Just look what it did for his career.

Americans don't seem to care either. Is Sprewell popular because he's a great player? No. He's only a very good player, but that's what he was before he choked P.J. Carlesimo. Sprewell is popular and famous because he tried to throttle a coach.

Americans not only accept abominable behavior and the vices of their celebrities, they embrace them. It's the Madonna Formula. Badness and outrageousness equals celebrity, fame, riches.

For some the formula is premeditated, and then there are some, such as Sprewell, who are "lucky" enough to stumble into it accidentally. Dennis Rodman learned his lessons at Madonna's knee -- or wherever -- and then reinvented himself from a solid basketball player whose fame and skills had peaked into a tattooed, pierced, rainbow-dyed, cross-dressing, bad-acting, bad-talking freak show, which won the riches and fame he craved. It was all calculated.

It's a tried and true formula. The more outrageous and bad, the more fame and popularity you get. It worked for Brian Bosworth. It's working for Jesse Ventura. It works for dozens of pro wrestlers. It works for Marilyn Manson. You could even say it's worked for President Clinton to a degree, although it would be a giant stretch to say anything he did was premeditated (he's not that smart). It worked for Rodman, although he's probably seen his "best" days, which causes you to wonder how he will reinvent himself again (where does one go from here?).

Choking a coach?! Rodman must be slapping himself, wondering why HE didn't think of that.

What was it that Andre Agassi used to say in the commercial? Image is everything. If that's true, then so is the opposite: substance is nothing.

As Bob Wood -- a Salt Lake-based sports agent who has dealt with athletes around the world for 25 years -- said recently, "You don't have to be smart or talented or hard-working. You just have to be willing to prostitute yourself, to sell yourself. That's not the best 'them.' They don't care about themselves. They care about the richest them, the most famous them. That's what big-time sports has become."

Joni Mitchell, the great singer-songwriter, was once asked what she thought of Madonna. Her response: At what price does fame and fortune come to her soul?

But Americans are suckers; they fall for the villains every time, aided by the media. The outrageous behavior has become so familiar that, like any vice, the fix has to escalate into increasingly worse behavior to be considered entertainment anymore. What passed for bad behavior 20 years ago would barely be noticed today. Fifty years ago, Sprewell would have been arrested; nowadays he gets millions and a commercial. On top of that, fate placed him in the NBA Finals.

America has a fascination with bad. Bad is good. Bad is hip. David Robinson is as good as Rodman is bad, but who is the bigger pop icon? It's the age of the anti-hero.

Sprewell is the latest of America's anti-heroes. His cronies try to pass him off as a good guy; he's merely "misunderstood." Oh, well, he once went after teammate Jerome Kersey with a two-by-four. But other than that. . . .

Oh, and he sued his agent last year for not protecting his salary in case he got fired for bad behavior. And he once called a police officer a racial epithet and cursed his coach for his substitution choices during a playoff game, and this week he threatened to leave the team if his coach isn't fired . . . But other than THAT. . . .

No one seems to care anyway. Quite to the contrary, badness has its own appeal. Alexander Pope wrote about it 250 years ago.

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien

As to be hated needs but to be seen

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face

We first endure, then pity, then embrace."