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The Real Spree

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Afterward, Sprewell was set out as an example. The NBA issued a yearlong suspension, the longest in league history for an infraction that was not drug-related, forcing him to forgo $6.4 million in salary. Thinkers (Bill Bennett in Commentary!) wrote op-eds on what his misdeed could tell us about race and society. He wasn't really exaggerating when he said, "People have this perception of me as an evil, bad person . . . I've been vilified."

Although he's shown little interest in making himself a martyr or a political cause, he sued the Warriors and the NBA for his lost salary and damages, largely on racial grounds (the suit was thrown out by a Federal judge two weeks ago).

Even before the choking, Sprewell already stood for what many a WFAN listener sees as the selfish and undisciplined behavior of today's young and overpaid NBA. "When you see him at first," says his friend the Milwaukee Bucks center Chris Gatling, "you think he might be a hood or a thug." No doubt his braided cornrows have something to do with this. So does his often stony countenance on those tomahawk dunks. His off-court statements have heightened this perception, sometimes stunningly. In 1994, when his 4-year-old daughter was mauled by one of his pit bulls -- her ear was severed -- he told a reporter, "People die every day. Maybe if it had been more serious, it would have affected me," and added that he'd kept the dog. (Later, he said he'd had the dog put to sleep but "just wanted the media to leave his daughter alone at that point.") And in 1995, he told an Asian-American police officer who'd pulled him over for speeding in a black neighborhood of Oakland, "You can be shot real easy, and people get shot out here."

The street philosophy and the scowl are balanced by playfulness. When a game is going well, he'll sometimes play for comedy, running with a loose, exaggerated chicken-step. Some of his teammates call him a cutup; others say he doesn't talk much in the locker room.

Both may be true. The Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber, who played with him at Golden State and is still one of his closest friends, says, "Spree's way of communicating is sort of nonverbal. You don't know how many times during the off-season I'd spend the day hanging out at his house, and when it was time to go home, we'd look at each other and start laughing. And one of us would say, 'Yeah, another day gone by that we didn't talk the whole time.' "

Late in January, the New York Knicks traded three players for Sprewell, including a favorite of the fans, John Starks. Like Starks -- and like Allan Houston -- Sprewell is a shooting guard. But he's a more consistent and explosive scorer than either of them, partly because of his quickness and partly because of the controlled aggression of his game. Where most Knicks shooting guards of the recent past have been most comfortable shooting jump shots, Sprewell is a slasher who happens to be a great shot; his first option is taking the ball hard to the basket.

Sprewell showed up at a press conference near the Knicks' practice facility to make a clean breast of things. "I'm ready to start over and show people the real me," he said.

He got off to a streaky start as a Knick. He scored 24 points in the season opener, then had a miserable five points in a loss to Miami before sitting out the next four weeks with a stress fracture to his heel. The second game, in which he shot two for twelve, was the worst. In the last two minutes, he twice tried to tie the game with three-pointers, missing them both.

In the locker room afterward, the reporters wanted to know what Sprewell was thinking when he took those shots. The Knicks' coach, Jeff Van Gundy, had just said he'd instructed the team to go for a quick two-point basket and try to get the ball back.


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