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Appeals panel breathes new life into Sprewell suit

Judges rule player can sue NBA and former employer

SHARE Appeals panel breathes new life into Sprewell suit

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals panel has reinstated part of Latrell Sprewell's $30 million suit against the NBA and the Golden State Warriors.

The legal action followed a 1997 attack on coach P.J. Carlesimo during a practice in which witnesses said the player grabbed the coach around the neck and threatened to kill him.

An arbitrator cut Sprewell's suspension from a year to 68 games and overturned the Warriors' decision to terminate the last three years of his contract.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Sprewell's case entirely last year but changed its mind Friday.

The panel said Sprewell, who now plays for the New York Knicks, could sue the organizations on claims that they "intended to vilify Mr. Sprewell and prevent him from making and enforcing contracts with others because of his race."

The suit says that Sprewell's threats were out of anger and that he did not intend to carry them out and says the NBA and Warriors did not portray it that way in the media.

Following the incident, Converse dropped its lucrative endorsement deal with Sprewell, who is black.

"Everyone understood that that was a statement in anger and he didn't mean what he said, but it didn't come out that way," said Sprewell's attorney, Paul Utrecht.

The Warriors declined comment. Joel Litvin, NBA vice president of legal and business affairs, said "if he elects to pursue those claims, we are confident they will ultimately be rejected as well."

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker first dismissed the suit in 1998, saying its allegations were too vague to prove any legal violations. Walker, who called the suit a "waste of judicial resources," said Sprewell should consider dropping the case but gave him one more chance to make his allegations more specific.

Walker dismissed the second complaint, saying the refiled suit was virtually the same as the first, meritless suit.

The judge said Sprewell's claims, even if proven, would not show that the Warriors or the league were motivated by racism. And even if racial bias were shown, the judge said, Sprewell failed to demonstrate "a public policy that specifically militates against suspension of an employee who violently attacks his employer."

Still, the appeals panel left intact Walker's ruling that the arbitrator had reasonably concluded that Sprewell's punishment was authorized by the union contract and was not based on his race.

The Warriors initially suspended him for 10 games, then terminated the last three years and $24 million of his contract. The league increased the suspension to a year. But arbitrator John Feerick, after a lengthy hearing, ruled the punishment excessive and ordered Sprewell reinstated. He later was traded to New York.

Sprewell said the 68-game suspension cost him $6.4 million in salary. His suit sought the return of $5.4 million as well as additional damages.