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Renegade Athletes

Professional sports teams have decided the toxic antics of athletes such as Stephon Marbury, Terrell "T.O." Owens and Manny Ramirez are not worth their superstar abilities
Michael P. Geffner
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

(continued from page 1)

Like the New York Giants swallowing untold millions to release their best receiver, Plaxico Burress, who, with egregious lack of sense, showed up packing heat—an unlicensed .40-caliber Glock—at a Manhattan nightclub one evening last season, and ended up accidentally shooting himself in the thigh, abruptly derailing his team's mad dash for a second straight Super Bowl championship. Like the Dallas Stars severing ties with possibly hockey's most loathed player, left winger Sean Avery, only 23 games into a four-year, $15 million deal, after, in particularly bad taste, he accused a couple of NHL players of falling in love with his "sloppy seconds."

"The tail has wagged the dog for too long a time," insists Fox Sports's Tim McCarver, a former catcher who's been one of the baseball's best TV broadcasters for years. "I believe in independence. I think guys should be able to do their own thing. But I also believe in some conventionality when it comes to players adhering to team discipline. I believe in a civility that sports has gotten away from."

"These [problem stars]," says Gene Grabowski, who operates in the court of public opinion as a crisis management specialist for the D.C. firm Levick Strategic Communications, "are in for a rude awakening. The age of the coddled athlete is over. America is angry and confused over what's happening economically in their world. Just look at how we're scrutinizing Wall Street and the CEOs of all those failed companies. We're living in an era of accountability now, and more and more you're going to see these athletes, like those honchos in corporate life, thrown out with Golden Parachutes."

But the aftermath doesn't just magically get smoothed over. Even months after the Knicks banned Marbury for insubordination, exiling him to somewhere akin to Elba, his presence lingered awkwardly around The Garden to where his bright blue—cushioned locker, near the back left-hand corner, remained bizarrely intact, nameplate and all, albeit curiously empty—not even an orphaned sock—and scrubbed clean as if someone sanitized it daily. "Well, technically, he still is on the roster and payroll," an unsmiling Knicks employee, thoroughly missing the irony, reminds me.

A week earlier, at his stall directly across from Marbury's, veteran Quentin Richardson, dripping sweat from a pregame shoot-around and unplugging from his iPod, confessed: "We got a good thing going on here now. Coach D'Antoni is very positive, even pats you on the back when you do something wrong. We've moved on [from Marbury]." It should be noted that Richardson hadn't had much with do with Marbury since the two nearly mixed it up after a practice three years ago, needing to be separated by teammates. "When Stephon was here, there was always a side story," Richardson goes on. "I thought it took guts to do what [the Coach] did with him. That's how you get your team behind you, when you take a stance. You got to respect him for that, because it can make you or break you."

As it turns out, a prearranged private chat with D'Antoni, before a home game against the Indiana Pacers, is the day before Marbury and the Knicks would have one last showdown: an arbitration hearing to settle $400,000 worth of docked pay for Marbury's apparent refusal to play a November game in Detroit with the Knicks severely shorthanded (a week after which he stormed out of a meeting with Walsh and was summarily ordered to stay away from the Knicks indefinitely).

The Marbury thing, all this time later, continues to be touchy. "The Coach won't talk about that," a Knicks flack, upon finding out my intentions, tells me just minutes before the interview, eyes locked onto mine, adding the icy warning that if I even mention the word Marbury, "the interview's over." I have little choice other than to consent.

D'Antoni is kicked back in his chair, legs crossed. In his late 50s, he's a genial sort with a salt-and-pepper moustache, a disarming grin and a hiccup of a chuckle that often follows a constant flow of dry jokes. Although he's well-known as a player-friendly coach, if not a complete softie, his wife, Laurel, once made a point of acknowledging that when it comes to getting his way on the basketball court, he could—and would—be a "very cold [competitor that you] wouldn't want to cross." In fact, as a pro player in Italy nearly three decades ago, D'Antoni once up and clocked with a right hand some thuggish defender in the tunnel at halftime for doing nothing more than hand-checking him too hard. "He's extremely intense and prickly—like a big ol' cactus," Laurel said. "It's a beautiful thing to look at. But you don't touch."

Forced into a roundabout but safe route to the taboo formerly known as Marbury, the question is posed to D'Antoni about team chemistry, what it means to him; he answers the split second the question hits its punctuation point. "It's the most important thing," he says, immediately uncrossing his legs and leaning forward on his desk. "You want everybody pulling in the same direction, everybody happy with their roles, everybody confident and positive and in a working environment that gets the best out of them.

"The thing about basketball is that it's real connected, since you only have five people [on the court at any one time]. So if you have one guy off the reservation, that's 20 percent; it screws up the whole thing. "I do know that once you have [the right feel] you do everything to protect it—so it doesn't go away."

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