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The Real Spree

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"Well, that's my shot," Sprewell said. He looked through everyone, an adder's glance, but he was kneading the mesh of his uniform nervously with his thumb and forefinger. "I do that all the time."

When most of the players and reporters left, Sprewell was still thinking about the game. "It's fucked up, is all I can say," he said to no one in particular while pulling on a pair of silky jacquard socks.

In the weeks that have followed, Sprewell has been as good as anyone on the Knicks, which so far this year is not saying much. Coming mostly off the bench (an insult to him, a blast of adrenaline to the rhythm of a game), he's averaged more than sixteen points, up there with the returning Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston. There have been some adjustment problems: None of the three has been comfortable with having two other scorers on the floor, so some nights, nobody scores. Van Gundy told me that when Sprewell has tried to play less selfishly, he's been tentative. "For whatever reason, when they were on the floor together, he and Allan, the team was not functioning well," he said. "It's going to take time."

The problem is, there's not much time. In the past, the Knicks were right behind the Bulls as a major Eastern Conference power. Now they miss Starks's dynamism and Charles Oakley's working-class heroics in the paint. This year, there's a possibility they won't even make the playoffs. Sprewell was supposed to invigorate a team known for its grinding, predictable offense. And for him, the trade promised redemption, as well as teammates worth passing to.

Actually, NBA redemption often means playing unselfishly. "Getting guys in the NBA to play hard and pass instead of shoot -- particularly the passing part anymore -- is the real dilemma for a coach," Van Gundy told me. On the whiteboard in the Knicks' locker room after a preseason win over the Nets, I noticed a coach had written:

Unselfishness:

1. Enjoy passing the ball to one another.

2. Play for your teammates, not with your teammates.

This seems pretty basic stuff. On the other hand, a look at the Knicks' locker room -- somber Patrick Ewing, devout Charlie Ward, joking Larry Johnson, distant Latrell Sprewell, among others -- suggests that, off-court as well as on, chemistry is a problem.

"Moving back and forth so much as a kid prepared me for playing basketball, playing for different places, going on the road," Sprewell told me. He lived in Milwaukee with his mother, a factory worker; in Flint, Michigan, with his father or sometimes his grandparents; and then back with his mother. His father, Latoska Fields, had left Pamela Sprewell and her three kids when Latrell was 6, taking her car and mink coat and stereo. Latrell said his mother's boyfriend beat him, just as his father had beaten her, "and that's why I'd never whup my kids."

In Flint, when his father started dealing marijuana, "we started having nicer things, not having to worry about food," Sprewell remembers. "Just having stuff was different at that point." But in 1986, his father was sent to jail on a count of possession with intent to distribute. "That was hard," Sprewell said. "I only visited him in jail once. After that, I was back with my mother. I didn't see him much."

Toward the end of his junior year at Washington High in Milwaukee, Sprewell was walking down the hall when James Gordon, a history teacher who was up for the job as basketball coach, stopped him. "He was six-four already, 170, and strong," Gordon recalled. "I knew an athlete. Latrell had big, rawboned hands, and his biceps were all knots -- knots upon knots."

"Do you play ball?" Gordon asked.

"Yeah, sure," Sprewell said, though he'd given up on organized sports after he was cut his freshman year in Flint.

Gordon asked him to try out for next year's team. Sprewell played an impatient playground style of basketball. "But he was quick from the floor to the rim," Gordon said. "And his defense -- oh, his defense! He held off a guy who weighed 220."


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