The first National Basketball Association team to play in Israel was the 1978 champion Washington Bullets, not the 1999 Miami Heat, as reported in Monday's Sports section. (Published 10/14/1999)

Latrell Sprewell yesterday offered a feeble explanation for missing the first week of training camp, and the Knicks decided to bench him for their first exhibition game.

"Without any practice time, he's just not going to be ready to play," said Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who met with Sprewell and GM Scott Layden for 45 minutes yesterday morning at the team's practice facility.

Sprewell said he had simply ignored the Knicks' phone messages as he drove 36 hours by himself from Oakland, Calif., to Milwaukee, arriving before dawn Wednesday, and then continuing on to New York on Thursday with his brother and a friend.

Sprewell nonchalantly explained that he drove instead of taking a flight because he wanted to pick up some things in Milwaukee and he wanted to be sure that his car, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, made it to New York.

"That's just me. I like doing things myself," he said. "I wasn't trying to send a message."

HEAT VISIT: Heat G Tim Hardaway and C Alonzo Mourning got unexpected blessings for the upcoming NBA season.

Mourning was blessed by a rabbi at Jerusalem's Western Wall and an elderly man thanked Hardaway in Hebrew for coming to Israel, where the Heat team visited Judaism's holiest site in the afternoon.

Earlier in the day, each Heat player planted a tree in the Jerusalem forest in honor of Ted Arison, who died Oct. 1 of a heart attack. He was one of the franchise's original partners.

The Heat will become the first NBA team to play a game in Israel when it faces Maccabi Tel Aviv today in Tel Aviv.