Heat Offensive

The Miami Heat is in the midst of its finest season ever. The team, under the leadership of coach Pat Riley, has secured a spot in the playoffs and is on the verge of winning the Atlantic Division for the first time in the franchise's nine-year history. Attendance for Miami's home games is up, and officials for the Heat and Dade County are completing an agreement that will allow the team to build a magnificent new arena on Biscayne Bay.

The only recent blemish on the organization's public image stemmed from the dim-witted comments made by the Heat's radio announcer, David Halberstam, during the March 19 broadcast of the game against the Golden State Warriors. After a pass thrown by Heat guard John Crotty, Halberstam noted that Crotty attended the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson: "Thomas Jefferson would have been proud of that pass. When Thomas Jefferson was around, basketball was not invented yet, but those slaves working at Thomas Jefferson's farm, I'm sure they would have made good basketball players."

Within 48 hours Halberstam's comments had been reprinted in both the Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and were replayed on TV and radio stations across South Florida. Halberstam quickly apologized and said he did not mean to offend anyone by his off-the-cuff remarks. Last week NBA Commissioner David Stern fined Halberstam $2500. Stern also fined New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari $25,000 for an unrelated incident, in which Calipari called a Newark newspaper reporter a "Mexican idiot." The differing amounts, Stern said, were not an indication of which statement he found more offensive, but rather reflected the reality that Calipari's salary is much higher than Halberstam's.

"More importantly, these gentlemen -- and everyone associated with the NBA -- should understand that racially insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable," Stern said. "I have discussed this matter with the Miami Heat and the New Jersey Nets, and I know that they share my views on the subject."

After the imposition of the fine against Halberstam, the Heat issued the following statement: "We have had discussions with the NBA throughout this matter. As we said at the time this issue arose, David Halberstam's comments were inappropriate and offensive. We respect the league's decision and stand by their action."

And last week Riley added his support of the NBA's decision. "We've been in contact with [the league] from the beginning and I agree with their position," he said. "Anything that is counterproductive and hurts people needs to be addressed."

Fine words from all concerned. But before the Miami Heat is given any awards for its ethnic and racial sensitivity as an organization, the public might want to pay attention to a civil rights lawsuit that's wending its way through federal court. Larissa Trujillo, former assistant director of box-office operations for the Heat, is suing the team, alleging that she was repeatedly ridiculed because of her Hispanic heritage. Born in Spain (her parents are from Nicaragua and Spain), she began working for the Miami Heat in 1990, and at that time was a legal resident in this country.

Her lawsuit claims that "during the course of her employment by the Miami Heat, Miami Heat management referred to Trujillo as an 'illegal alien' both verbally and in internal memoranda, criticized her conservative attire by saying that she dressed like a 'Cuban grandmother,' told her to get rid of her 'Latin look,' said 'all aliens look the same,' reminded her to report to work at 9:00 a.m. by stating that 'all Cubans like to sleep late,' said that Hispanics with money 'must be drug dealers,' that all Latins are liars, that a 'typical Cuban always wants something for nothing,' and constantly ridiculed Spanish-speaking persons.

"The Miami Heat management also directed anti-Hispanic remarks to prominent members of the community, including Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who was referred to as 'the little Cuban shit who is trying to stop us' from building a new arena." The lawsuit does not state who uttered the comment about Penelas, which was apparently made during a time when Penelas opposed constructing a new arena. The mayor now supports the project.

The lawsuit goes on to allege that "as part of the hostile work environment that the Miami Heat maintained toward Hispanics, Trujillo was harassed and mocked by Pauline Winick, the Heat's executive vice president, who insisted that Trujillo recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the pager system and later, while standing on a stool in the middle of the Heat's office after Trujillo returned to work following a naturalization ceremony where she was sworn in as a United States citizen."

Trujillo says in her lawsuit that she complained about the way she was treated but that Heat officials "failed to investigate and take any remedial action to stop the flow of slurs, sick jokes, and negative comments being made by its employees." Prior to making these complaints, the 26-year-old alleges, she received "positive performance appraisals" and was described as "an honest employee who is committed to the organization." After she began complaining to managers, she asserts, the attitude toward her changed. She was fired on September 24, 1996.

In October Trujillo filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which, following a cursory review of her allegations, issued a right-to-sue letter -- a prerequisite to a federal civil rights lawsuit. In November Trujillo filed suit against the Miami Heat in U.S. District Court. Lisa Berg, an attorney for the Miami Heat, denies the allegations, saying, "There is no factual or legal basis to Larissa Trujillo's claim." Berg refused to discuss the case further, and officials of the Miami Heat did not return phone calls seeking their comment.

A spokesman for NBA Commissioner David Stern said he was not aware of the suit against the Heat and would have no further comment on the matter.

The case is scheduled to go before a federal mediator this Friday. If the mediator is unable to reach a settlement between the two sides, a trial before Judge Donald Graham will likely begin on December 8. In the meantime both sides have been proceeding with discovery.

Attorneys for the Miami Heat spent more than six hours on February 12 deposing Trujillo, and have said they will need at least three more hours. During her deposition Trujillo stated that most of the offensive comments were made by her immediate boss, Lorraine Mondich, the director of box-office operations.

When someone with a Spanish accent called the box office, Trujillo claimed, Mondich would at times tell her to pick up the phone, saying, "It's one of your cousins from back home." Trujillo also said that Mondich criticized her when she spoke Spanish at the office. Recalling one incident in which she was speaking to a co-worker in Spanish, Trujillo stated that Mondich came up to them and said, "Don't you Cubans understand that in America we only speak English?"

Trujillo described more than a dozen other examples in which she claims derogatory remarks were made, including an incident in the summer of 1995 when she returned to work after a car accident. In her deposition Trujillo stated that Mondich suggested that even Trujillo's driver's license might not be legal, and asked, "'[D]id you get your license in Hialeah, because all Cubans get it in Hialeah? How much did you pay for it?'" Mondich, who still works for the Heat, did not return calls seeking her comment for this story.

According to Trujillo, Mondich continually referred to her as "an illegal alien" and would often insult members of her family. The taunting grew increasingly worse in February and March 1996, Trujillo recounted, as she was preparing for her naturalization ceremony on March 15. She said that when she returned to the office after the ceremony she was approached by Winick and asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. "I was hesitant, I was scared, I was afraid," Trujillo said, adding later: "Pauline Winick was making fun of the whole situation."

The Heat's attorney asked if Winick wanted her to recite the oath merely as a joke. In their questioning, the Heat's attorneys sought to portray the incident as good-natured fun. "I didn't think it was funny," Trujillo responded. "I was hurt and humiliated by it. I didn't find it a joke."

Several days after the ceremony, Trujillo said, Mondich continued her assaults, asking if her citizenship was truly legal. Trujillo said she responded to Mondich: "Can't you stop? It's not funny any more. It never was." But according to Trujillo, Mondich only laughed and continued the ridicule.

Trujillo stated that in May 1996 she went to Winick to complain about Mondich's ethnic slurs. "[Winick] told me that Lorraine was a miserable person and that I should try to be nice to her, take her out to lunch, be her buddy," Trujillo recalled. She said she was frustrated by Winick's refusal to take the matter more seriously: "I told her my position, how I felt, and that was the answer I got."

In addition to Trujillo's statements, the court file in this case holds other potentially embarrassing elements for the Miami Heat -- especially if members of the Dade County Commission, which still has to approve the arena plan, begin asking questions about the Heat's employment policies. Trujillo's attorney, Andrew Rosenblatt, has attempted to ascertain how many Hispanic employees are in the Heat organization, as well as the positions they hold. (It appears Trujillo may have been the highest-ranking Hispanic in the front office.)

The team has failed to respond to Rosenblatt's questions regarding its minority hiring practices. When New Times asked for the same information, it too was rebuffed.

That's rather surprising given the pious pronouncements Heat officials made last week following the Halberstam debacle. Indeed, their apparent failure to take seriously Trujillo's claims seems odd. After all, as Pat Riley said, anything that is counterproductive and hurts people needs to be addressed.

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