Last July, during the year he was banished from the National Basketball Association, Latrell Sprewell opened Sprewell Racing, a store selling high-performance tires and wheels, on San Gabriel Boulevard outside Pasadena. "When I was sitting out, I just said it'd be great to own something, to run something for myself," he says. "I can do what I want."
Sprewell has been nuts about cars since he was a young boy and learned to work on them in his grandfather's body shop in Milwaukee. He bought his first car, a 1992 Camaro Z-28, just after he was taken by the Golden State Warriors in the '92 draft. Now he owns . . . a lot of them. How many, exactly? "I would say over ten," Sprewell says. They include a sport Chevy Tahoe, a Range Rover, a Suburban, a Lamborghini Diablo, and a Mercedes SL600.
In the middle of February, about three weeks after he was acquired by the New York Knicks, Sprewell called Cecil Hsu, who runs Sprewell Racing, and told him, "I got nothing to drive in New York. Bring me the Mercedes." And so Cecil and two of his drivers picked the car up at Sprewell's primary residence in Milwaukee and loaded it into a trailer, and 57 hours later they were on the East Coast.
I happened to be in the parking lot of the Knicks' practice gym at suny-Purchase when the Mercedes arrived. Sprewell was still on the exercise bike. The trailer was baroque enough: The exterior had a mural of hot rods being thrown from a tornado; inside, there was a checkerboard floor, a 27-inch television with surround sound, a DVD player, a hookup for a Sony PlayStation, and, for some reason, a pile of junior-size indoor-outdoor basketballs. Then out came Sprewell's Mercedes convertible -- a hard, black, low-lying cockroach of a car that seemed vaguely pornographic, the kind of car a kid might draw and post with a magnet on the refrigerator. "We put on a new front bumper, Pirellis, custom sound, Brembo brakes, tinted the windows all out," one of the drivers said, adding that the wheels, nineteen-inch Lowenhart 275's, went for $1,600 apiece. They'd installed a special steering wheel, and an Eclipse stereo with stacked amplifiers in the trunk that light up at night. The car goes for $136,000 standard, and Sprewell has another $35,000 in it. He has altered nothing less fundamental than the car's shape, fusing to its back end the angular tail from a modified AMG body kit and adapting it to the Brabus exhaust system, another custom feature. The tail gives the car a jarring silhouette -- a final fuck-you to the world.
"It makes it look tight" was how Sprewell assessed his handiwork a few days later in the visitors' locker room at the Philadelphia First Union Corp Center, where we were talking before the Knicks played. "It's like, you have a car you like, but you make it into its own thing."
On the carpet in front of him, Sprewell's teammate Marcus Camby, who at six-eleven and 225 pounds has a long, rubbery physique that most resembles Gumby's, was getting stretched by Greg Brittenham, the team's fitness coach. While Camby had his headphones on and was engrossed in a game tape of the 76ers, Brittenham knelt at his foot and pushed his right leg out at an uncomfortable angle, holding it in place. When he finished and moved left, Camby gave over his other leg. It was as if Camby's limbs didn't belong to him, as, in some sense, they don't.
More than most athletes, Latrell Sprewell, a three-time All-Star in his sixth full season in pro basketball, is a product of his coaches. He was made into a basketball player by one coach and sent to junior college by another. Still another made him into a major college scorer, after which he was called up to the NBA, much to his surprise. Although it's been rare that Sprewell has actually attempted to chart a course himself, it is for one of those instances that he is known. That came during a Warriors practice on December 1, 1997, when Sprewell, unhappy on the team, having been asking for some time to be traded, provoked (he felt) by constant needling from head coach P. J. Carlesimo, and desperate to regain some measure of respect, attacked Carlesimo. He wrapped his hands around Carlesimo's throat and choked him. Then he punched him. He said, "I'll kill you," though nobody who was in the gym above the Oakland Convention Center, including Carlesimo, thinks he meant it.