…And How The NBA Saved Him

Latrell Sprewell led his Knicks squad deep into the NBA Playoffs in 1999, but the small forward’s success didn’t come without off-the-court problems. In honor of Spree’s 42nd birthday today, here’s a profile of of the man written during the ’99 Finals—a postseason that followed a lockout, similar to the ongoing Finals—in SLAM 36 (published in September of ’99), which delves into what he had to overcome in his personal life to get to where he was at the time. —Ed.

by Tony Gervino | @microtony

Game Two of the 1999 NBA Finals is in the books, but the series has just gotten physical. Upon gaining entry into the visitor’s locker room somewhere deep within the bowels of San Antonio’s Alamodome, 27 reporters immediately rush Latrell Sprewell’s empty locker, all fighting for position. One sportscaster is kneeling in front of the huddle about six inches from Spree’s chair. Waiting. Sweating. Five minutes later, the locker room is still empty of players and the sportscaster moans, “By the time he gets in here, my legs are going to be asleep andI’m going to collapse on top of him.” Another reporter fires back, “I’m sure he’ll understand. It’s not like we’re talking about a crazy person here or anything.”

Latrell Spreewell doesn’t need this. He doesn’t need the sportwriters. He doesn’t need the accolades, the endorsements, the madness. He doesn’t need the redemption. And he damn sure doesn’t need anybody telling him he’s a nice guy now that the polar ice caps of public opinion have begun puddling around his AND 1’s. He might be, he might not be. Only he knows, and he ain’t saying.

“Talk is cheap,” Spree says firmly. “It’s all about what you do.”

Besides, self-serving comments tend to bite guys like Sprewell in the ass, although you know he probably would just love to raise a one-fingered salute towards those detractors who, as recently as six months ago, used a bunch of different code words to describe him. Taken together, the image they created was unmistakable and troubling: Latrell Sprewell was an “angry black man.” Hide your children.

His crimes? Let’s see: He assaulted his mouthy, disrespectful boss. Twice. His dog attacked his daughter and, apparently, Spree’s public show of remorse wasn’t adequate enough. He allegedly threatened then-teammate Jerome Kersey with a two-by-four. He loitered in a park at 4 a.m. His reckless driving caused a car accident. You know, and he killed Santa Claus just to watch him die. Thankfully, Latrell Sprewell doesn’t have any tattoos or jewelry, or this would be his obituary you hold in your hands.

Yet we are not gathered here today to mourn his loss, but rather to record his triumph. Spree, in a long line of athlete/public transgressors that cross socio-economic and racial boundaries, has exposed the athlete-as-role-model paradigm for what it is: another chance for society to blame others for our own lack of parental responsibility. After all, does it really matter if Latrell Sprewell is a creep, as long as he does his job well—namely, to entertain basketball fans with his high-wire act of a game? Do we need to him so desperately to be a role model for our children that we’ve punished him beyond his one-year and multi-milly penalty for not living up to the promise of living a Grant Hill existence? Magic Johnson, who’s lived an admittedly amoral life, is seen as an acceptable role model. So is Julius Erving who, you may remember, choked Larry Bird during an ’84 preseason game. Charles Barkley has a rap sheet five times longer than Spree but still, the media assures us that, under the gruff exterior, he’s “really a nice guy.” Why?

Because, subconsciously, Alabama’s future governor is probably still trying to make up for spitting in that little girl’s face back in Philly.

And that begs the question: when does doing a few “bad” things make someone a bad person? In the case of some athletes—New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry is the perfect example—never. In Sprewell’s case, the transformation occcured about 15 minutes after he left the Warriors’ practice facility, on the day he nearly choked the life from his career.

It’s Sprewell’s own fault, you know. When the first whispers about him began circulating in ’94, he could have lost the on-court scowl, the fire-eyed intensity. He could have told everyone that he was, in fact, a responsible father of three who liked to fix stereo equipment and hang out with his family and friends. He could have pointed out other athletes more intense than he had been branded “winners” instead of “troublemakers.” He could have shut his damn mouth and let his coaches’ comments run down his back like the sweat soaking his practice jersey. He could have done a lot of things to make his life a lot easier. But he didn’t. And it cost him.

Over his six-and-a-half NBA seasons, Sprewell has averaged 19.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.3 rpg, 1.7 spg and .62 bpg, numbers clearly bordering—and if Bill Walton is reading this, please put the magazine down, sir—on future Hall of Fame statistics. He is a three-time All-Star and was named to the all-NBA First Team and All-NBA Defensive Second Team during the ’93-94 season. He was the focal point of a crappy team’s offense, and often found himself double- and triple-teamed, even way out on the wing.

His left hand has become far-and-away the league’s most potent (now that Scottie Pippen has retired) and he is, without question, the most dominant open court player of the last decade. Maybe longer. Stopping Spree in the open court is like trying to catch a speeding car on the highway—impossible and very, very dangerous.

“I’m definitely an open-court player. That’s when I excel—when I have space and room to do my thing,” Spree says. “That’s when I’m at my best.”

No, Spree, that’s when you’re the best.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say I’m the best in the league,” he answers modestly. “I’m just good at it. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I just feel like, when I have the space to go either left or right and use my speed and quickness to my advantage, that’s when I’m good.”

In the time it took him to gain the trust of his teammates, Sprewell made the transformation into MVK (Most Valuable Knick) status—at least in the eyes of fans. John Starks all but officially passed the torch when he abruptly stopped showing up during the ’99 playoffs as the Knicks closed in on an NBA championship without him.

“They’ve welcomed Spree with open arms,” says teammate Kurt Thomas. “I think that’s the great thing and I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s been playing well. Everyone loves Sprewell. Everyone asks about him when we’re in the streets and when we’re in the stands.”

This is Spree’s stage now, and any thoughts of trading him—a concept brought up by Spree’s agent a couple of months ago, before being lamely kicked around in the New York tabloids—died with the Pacers’ legs in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“My future is here,” Spree says firmly. “This is all I’m thinking about right now—staying with the Knicks and being a part of something special. I’m totally focused on what I need to do to help this team win and I’m a Knick and that’s where I want to be.”

Amazingly, without a whiff of league-wide marketing push, and with a coach who initially treated him like Disgruntled Employee No. 8, he pulled the NBA up by its hightops and reinvigorated a season that for the most part looked like bad WNBA reruns. On a good night. Latrell Sprewell is a savior to most and not just because he assaulted his mouthy, disrespectful boss. Twice. (That was a joke. Those of you with mouthy, disrespectful bosses will understand.) He’s a savior to millions of fans who were left wondering if Jordan took all the fun with him when he retired. And don’t be fooled: if the Eastern Conference champion was any team other than Sprewell’s, everyone (as opposed to, judging from NBC’s dreadful ratings, nearly everyone) would’ve been watching reruns of The Sopranos instead of the NBA Finals.

He clearly rescued the NBA from a season in the abyss. And, on the flipside, the NBA, by reinstating him, rescued Sprewell as well. From a lifetime of watching NBA games and knowing that he could’ve done more with his talent. From empty days, unresolved anger and brutally put-upon pickup partners picking their teeth off the greater Milwaukee asphalt. From Oprah at three and Ricki at Five. From a 42-inch waist.

The NBA suits gave Sprewell a chance to redeem himself and he has, by all accounts, done so admirably. By playing basketball. Not through teary interviews where he admitted he’d been abused, or was under the influence of Marilyn Manson or something even more sinister. Had he chosen that route, had he admitted the flaws in his character—while professing himself a “changed man”—the media would’ve lapped it up. Instead, Spree kept his comments to a minimum and permitted others, most of whom who’d never met him, to deconstruct his personality. And how funny is it that the same folks who hated him for his private character are now championing Sprewell solely based upon his play? Hypocritical? Stupid question.

“Guys always get some kind of label put on them,” Spree said during the Finals. “It kinda comes with the territory. As a player you have to worry about it a little, but not so much where it affects your game. You just have to go out and do the things you know how to do best.”

Indeed, by scoring and rebounding and D’ing up, Latrell Sprewell went rom zero to hero faster than anyone since…well, no one. He’s also remade the Knicks in his image, and not so coincidentally, they’ve enjoyed their greatest success in years. Gone is the halfcourt-dominated offense that Riley installed and Van Gundy perpetuated. Today, Spree, Houston, Camby and Childs run the court with reckless abandon, daring teams—and teammates—to catch up to them.

“This is the most athletic team the Knicks have ever had in my 11 years,” confirms Spurs point guard avery Johnson. “And Sprewell is even faster than when I played with him [in Golden State]. Man! If he was that fast, maybe we would have scored some more points.”

Adds Steve Kerr: “Sprewell? Man, that guy never gets tired. He’s like a cartoon character. He just goes 100 miles an hour when he’s out there.”

And this season, Spree was just getting his game legs back. Close your eyes and imagine next April, when a 29-year old Sprewell battles Allen Iverson for the league’s scoring title. When the sight of those plodding Knicks teams, who had the fierceness, but not the firepower to get over the Finals hump (and no, I’m not talking about Dennis Rodman), becomes a Classic Sports moment. And Spree takes his team deep into the playoffs again, stretching the boundaries of logic and defying the critics who were sure he would self-destruct by now.

“He’s been unbelievable,” says Thomas. “He’s been a leader.”

A leader? Latrell Sprewell? Go Figure.

Prior to Game Two of the 1999 NBA Finals, the Knicks locker room is filled with reporters just standing around waiting. Less than an hour before tipoff, Spree enters quietly from a back room and a number of the reporters head him off at his locker. One of them asks: “Is it true that you jammed something in practice?” Spree, sitting down to pull on his black NBA socks, just shakes his head, gives a little tired laugh, and quietly answers, “No. It’s not true. Everything is fine. No injuries.” Then he gets up and as he’s walking out, he gives his chest a small pound and quietly mumbles to himself, “Everybody makes up stories about me.” Just as he reaches the door to leave, backup point guard Rick Brunson, who had heard Latrell, laughingly yells across the rool, “Hey Spree, how’s your finger?”

The middle one probably works just fine. Latrell should use it, you know. But he won’t.

additional reporting by Jeramie McPeek