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Sprewell Hearing Begins

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Behind a curtain of secrecy, an arbitrator began hearing testimony Tuesday on whether the NBA and the Golden State Warriors excessively punished Latrell Sprewell for choking and threatening to kill coach P.J. Carlesimo.

"I'm happy to be here," Sprewell said as he arrived at the downtown office building for the start of the hearing. "Hopefully, this will get over with."

Arbitrator John Feerick, dean of the Fordham Law School, has issued a gag order, barring those involved from revealing testimony.

Sprewell was thrown out of the league for a year, the longest non-drug suspension in NBA history, and the remaining three years of his contract with Golden State, valued at $25 million, were terminated.

In a brief joint statement, the NBA and the players' union said three people testified Tuesday: Warriors assistant coach Bob Staak, Warriors director of athletic development Mark Grabow and Warriors player Muggsy Bogues. The sides also made opening statements before testimony began.

The opening session last 10 hours, including a break for lunch. Those who testified were shuttled in and out of a back entrance, away from reporters.

Billy Hunter, the head of the NBA players' union, expressed optimism that the punishment will be reduced.

"There will be some modification, I'm convinced," he said before going into the hearing. "... The best outcome would be Sprewell's return, and let us sort of end things where they are."

Hunter said the case is extremely important for players' contractual rights.

"If this becomes a precedent, it means that basically no one has a guaranteed contract," he said. "Everybody becomes vulnerable.''

Hunter said the best outcome from the union's perspective would be to have Sprewell reinstated immediately with "maybe a $3 million to $4 million setback."

The hearing takes the form of a trial, with Sprewell and the union serving as plaintiffs and the Warriors and NBA as defendants. After opening statements, each side calls witnesses, who will be subject to cross-examination.

The hearing is closed, and the NBA placed security guards outside the office as well as on other floors.

At the Rose Garden Arena, across the Willamette River from the hearing site, Carlesimo took Warriors players through a morning shootaround in preparation for Tuesday night's game against Portland.

He and some Warrior players are expected to testify on Wednesday. Carlesimo refused to comment on the hearing, saying he was concentrating on trying to end his team's 14-game losing streak.

"We're not talking about the arbitration," he said. "If you want to talk about the game, fine."

Many of those who testify will relive the Golden State practice of Dec. 1, when Sprewell choked Carlesimo and threatened to kill him. According to some witnesses, Sprewell left the gym after the attack, but returned 20 minutes later and assaulted the coach again.

They also may address the personalitieof both Sprewell, a sometimes sullen player, and Carlesimo, an intense coach with a reputation as a screamer.

Bogues, who was the first player to testify because he was placed on the injured list on wasn't to dress for Tuesday night's game, earlier in the day talked of his possible appearance.

"We'll just tell the truth," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see what questions they ask and who gets called upon and basically go and tell the truth.

"I'm quite sure everybody was looking forward to this day and wants to get it behind them."

The Portland sessions are expected to run through Friday, with the hearing reopening next Tuesday and Wednesday in New York, where NBA commissioner David Stern likely will testify.

Feerick's decision is binding under the league's collective bargaining agreement with the union. Each side has 10 days to file briefs after the hearing. Feerick has 30 days to rule after either the last day of the hearing or after any later hearing resulting from the briefs.

That would mean Sprewell would know his fate by March 16, at the latest.

The NBA was represented by NBA chief counsel Jeffrey Mishkin, league lawyer Rick Buchanan and Shep Goldfein, retained as an outside counsel. The Warriors' lawyer is Bob Schiebelhut.

The league has said it will not comment on the hearing until a ruling is made.

Sprewell was quoted in Tuesday's New York Post as saying, "I wasn't trying to kill P.J.

Last week he also told the newspaper: "Death threats! That's not the person I am. I was angry, but I didn't mean what I said. You know how people say things they don't mean when they're angry.

"This has taught me a lot about my aggressiveness. I've learned I've got to get control of it. I'm working on that."

The hearing was being held just a few blocks from where Carlesimo lived when he coached the Trail Blazers from 1994 to 1997. It wasn't known if any of the Blazers who played for Carlesimo would testify.

Lawers for Sprewell and the Union argue that there is no precedent for the one-year suspension, that Sprewell did not have an adequate opportunity to respond to the charges, and that Sprewell may not have punched Carlesimo after returning following the first altercation.

The NBA will argue that it followed proper procedures and has the right to punish players severely for such a significant infraction.

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