Since Ewing escaped to Seattle last summer, Sprewell is clearly the Knicks' best player. Van Gundy has waged a savvy, low-key campaign in the media since October, talking Sprewell up as a pillar of accountability, and last month calling Sprewell "the most important person in the Knicks organization." Van Gundy pulls Sprewell aside for private, postgame chats, asking Sprewell's take on the mood of the team. "One thing about Latrell, you can ask him a question and he never gives up his teammate, but he'll also let you know what's happening," Van Gundy says. "I love his honesty. He may think I'm a little bit crazed in my obsession -- but you know what? When Latrell talks about basketball, he sure sounds like me."
"What's impressed me the most about Jeff is his ability to get guys to do the right thing defensively," Sprewell says, sounding very much like his boss. "He does it just with the principles, the structure of practices, the everyday teaching of certain concepts. Jeff was fortunate to be up under Riley, who was really good at teaching it, and the system is pretty much the same system."
Lately, though, the side of Sprewell that's leery of being co-opted by authority has resurfaced. "We're just going to keep playing and keep sticking to the game plan," Sprewell says after the Lakers game completes a road trip of two wins and three losses, "and if that's what beats us, then that's not on us as players."
Van Gundy dismisses Sprewell's statement, saying it's been blown out of proportion by the Post's "trying to create a story. Me and Latrell have no problems."
Ask the Knicks why they've come to respect a man so different from themselves and they all speak a version of Marcus Camby's words: "Because we know how hard he works and how bad he wants to win," says the Knicks' rubber-limbed center. "When your coach is like that, it trickles down to the team. You don't just want to win for yourself; you want to play and win for your coach. You can tell by the permanent bags under his eyes -- all he does is eat and sleep basketball. We want to play hard for him because we know how much he puts into it."
"Everybody's hugging before games, praying together," says Van Gundy. "It's wrong for the league, wrong for competition."
Yet as Camby goes on, the legacy of his rocky beginning with Van Gundy emerges. When then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld traded Oakley for Camby in 1998, it was against Van Gundy's vehement protests; even when Camby was in a Knicks uniform, Van Gundy buried him on the bench and embarrassed him with jibes about Camby's work ethic. "He thinks that he knows every little detail there is to know about basketball," Camby says. "That's because he works so hard and watches so much film. Sometimes you want to second-guess or question his judgment, but he always has facts to back it up. He can never be wrong. The stuff he said when I first came here, I've been able to look past that and look at the broader picture, trying to win the championship. But don't get me wrong -- I don't forget."
Other players have attempted to reach out to Van Gundy, with mixed results. "I give him books," says the devoutly Christian Charlie Ward. "Family books, couples devotionals, inspirational devotionals. I give him the information, but as far as sitting down and talking to him about it, that's on him."
Allan Houston is, like Van Gundy, the son of a coach, but otherwise Houston couldn't be more different from Van Gundy -- a man with limitless basketball talents but only intermittent fire. This year, though, Houston claims, he's bonded with the coach. "One of the turning points in my being here with Jeff is when we went and talked about how he could lighten up sometimes," Houston says. "Not lighten up as far as work. Just smile sometimes. He was receptive to it."