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Byears lawsuit outs pro basketball's conflict on gay issue



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Four in the morning near Istanbul and Latasha Byears is hearing the news for the first time: Sheryl Swoopes has come forward and told the world she is a lesbian. She will hide no longer.

"Really? Really? Congratulations to Sheryl! I'm proud of her. I'm proud of all those women. Sheryl Swoopes came out? That's lovely. That's a beautiful thing," Byears says.

And then there is weariness in her voice, possibly from the tournament she has just played in Siberia, probably from the last two years of her life. It's hard to believe she hadn't heard. This is wonderful for Swoopes she says, wonderful for the WNBA.

"But my name is Latasha Byears," she says, "and it's totally different."

This 5-11, 200-pound African-American child of Tennessee, now living in Turkey, was once one of only a few women in the WNBA who was open about her homosexuality. But there won't be a rush of congratulations from teammates for her, no lesbian-themed cruise lines seeking her endorsement.

She isn't the lipstick lesbian that some of the American public finds palatable; she was the league thug, a tough rebounder who was known as the Dennis Rodman of the WNBA. Byears has tattoos and cornrows and gold teeth, and when she was growing up, she says she wanted to be a pimp. She was also investigated - although never arrested or charged - for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting a former teammate during a team party.

Byears is suing her old team, the Los Angeles Sparks, in Los Angeles Superior Court for wrongful termination based on gender and sexual orientation. The Sparks ran her out of the league, Byears' suit says, not because of what did or didn't happen at that party, but because she is a lesbian.

The organization's response to the allegations leveled against her, Byears says, was drastically different than how it responded when a straight male employee faced similar accusations. Three weeks after Byears allegedly assaulted a teammate, a member of the Sparks' brother organization, the Los Angeles Lakers, was also accused of sexual assault. The difference was that even though Kobe Bryant was charged, the Lakers stood by him, defended him and continued to employ him. Team officials flew Bryant back and forth to his court appearances in Colorado, then chose him over Shaquille O'Neal as the future of the premier sports franchise. Byears, meanwhile, was thrown off the team and even out of her Sparks-owned apartment.

The trial is scheduled for February, but Byears' attorney and the team are believed to be in settlement talks. The WNBA, always uneasy with the "L" word, probably does not want this ugly case to see a courtroom. "Call me in seven days," her lawyer, Scott Ames, told the Daily News last week.

Byears and three male friends were accused of sexually assaulting a former teammate at a team party on June 5, 2003. Byears denies the allegation in her lawsuit; in July the Los Angeles District Attorney's office declined to file charges, citing a lack of evidence.

The former teammate immediately left the country and was never interviewed by authorities. According to her agent, she is playing professional ball in Europe and doesn't want to talk about the incident. "These are very personal things from the past that nobody wants to remember," the agent tells the New York Daily News.

WNBA and Sparks officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story. Nor did team attorney Jeffrey M. Lenkov.

This is a case that touches on how the WNBA has gone to great lengths to present a "family" image of its players even as it courts a lesbian-heavy fan base. It is also about how differently male and female athletes are treated in their workplaces. And ultimately, many experts and observers say, it is about how the WNBA's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has left it in a fragile state as it tries to absorb Swoopes' self-disclosure even as it erases Byears from memory.

"She is too close to the stereotype," says University of Massachussetts professor Pat Griffin, a consultant on gays in sports, of Byears. "It's one thing to have a 'good' lesbian. It's another thing to have someone like Latasha Byears."

"I wish I could talk to you but we have things going on," Byears says. "Maybe when this is all over."

The tiny town of Millington, Tenn., a short drive northeast of Memphis, is hardly a haven for gays and lesbians. But Byears has said in numerous interviews that she was always open about her sexuality, always supported by her family. Her primary love was basketball, and she dominated from the time she was young.

Poor grades led her to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, a two-year college. She then transferred to DePaul University in Chicago, where she not only became a second then first-team All-American in her final two seasons, she proved herself a trash-talker and referee jockey of the first order. She expected to move easily to the WNBA.

"At the time the WNBA had a pre-draft camp in Orlando and she didn't get drafted," Byears' agent, Ricks Mason, says now. "That was '96. (Trouble with the league) didn't start with this investigation of this alleged rape or whatever they said happened. It was the perception of her and the league's stance against her image."

Byears accepted an invitation to the Sacramento Monarchs' camp and won a spot, starting a career that many called Rodmanesque. She was suspended after a reckless driving conviction (she pleaded down from drunken driving), and again after throwing a ball in an opponent's face. But she also became one of the league's top 10 all-time rebounders and ranked eighth all-time for her career shooting percentage of .514. After she was traded to the Sparks in 2000, she became a crucial part of two championship teams.

"She does all the dirty work. She gets all the tough rebounds, takes charges and all the things the players say don't show up in the box scores," Mason says.

On June 5, 2003, the Sparks received their 2002 championship rings after a victory over the Monarchs. Byears invited some of her current and former teammates back to her team-owned condo.

"Everyone had convened at Latasha's house for a party," Mason says now. "Lisa Leslie and all the players were there, they were celebrating their second ring celebration, world championship, and supposedly after that things got out of hand. I can't talk about any of the specifics, just that (Byears) and supposedly some other male associates took advantage of another player."

The woman, a 23-year-old former Sparks player, was allegedly drugged and sodomized by Byears and three male friends while she was unconscious. Byears won't talk about the case but in her lawsuit, filed last November against both the Sparks and the Lakers, she says she was asked about the party the next day, and that was the first she heard of the alleged assault. Byears says she was told she could not play that night. The next day she was suspended, and on June 10 she was released from the team.

When several of Byears' teammates asked why she had been released, according to her lawsuit, they were told by Sparks general manager Penny Toller: "Toto (Byears' nickname) is dead."

Byears says she approached other clubs about joining them, but was told she had been blacklisted. After an almost two-year investigation, charges were never filed.

"We were presented a case. The charges were 'rape by use of drugs' and 'rape of an unconscious person,' " says Los Angeles District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison. "But we refused to file charges because of a lack of evidence."

According to the lawsuit, the Sparks never investigated the incident. "If it had, the organization would have quickly discovered that the allegations were false," reads the lawsuit.

The alleged victim, a promising young South American player, returned home almost immediately after the incident was reported.

"She was never willing to come back to testify," Mason says. "From what I understand, she didn't really know what happened, although she felt like something happened based on what some other people at the party have said had taken place. It wasn't her bringing the allegations, it was another person at the party."

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She signed with a European team and has thrived there, an official with that team says.

"She is an exceptional player," the official tells the Daily News. "She is very happy, a very good teammate."

Byears' lawsuit was born in the treatment she says she received from the time she arrived in Los Angeles. The team may have reached out to lesbian fans and held a team event in a lesbian bar, but she says in the lawsuit that she was told to suppress her sexual preference early on.

Byears' lawsuit reads: "Shortly after (Byears) joined the Sparks, Kristal Shipp, who was the Lakers/Sparks' Director of Communications, told Plaintiff not to speak to gay and lesbian magazines and to use 'discretion' regarding the nightclubs plaintiff attended."

But Byears never made things easy on her employers, regardless of her sexual orientation. As she said in a 2003 interview with GQ magazine, "I been in this league six years now. I came in through the back door. But I'm leaving through the front, side and middle. Man, roll the red velvet out for me, 'cause I'm the boss."

Whatever the team believed about the charges, they may have opened themselves to the Byears lawsuit when they stood by Bryant with unwavering loyalty when he was charged with rape.

"It strikes me as a double standard. Kobe was not only charged, he came close to serving jail time. Latasha wasn't even charged," says Griffin. "Kobe is worth a lot more money to the Lakers but as an employment issue this is clearly a double standard."

Cyd Zeigler, a columnist for the gay-oriented Outsports.com, says there may be a double standard, but there is more than gender and sexuality at work.

"If this were Sheryl Swoopes, they wouldn't have fired her," he says. "The other difference is that Kobe brings in millions and millions of dollars for that franchise. Latasha doesn't."

Byears says Swoopes' news may be "a positive thing," although she wonders if the goodwill her announcement generated will last. "We'll see if Sheryl Swoopes is still marketed," she says.

Byears has always recognized that she is nobody's idea of a pinup girl, and she can only hope that a WNBA team will sign her from Turkey before her best days are gone.

"Who knows?" she says. "We just have to wait and see. I am still alive. I am still breathing. I hope everybody knows that."

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(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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