Gordon taught Sprewell fundamentals as he averaged 28 points per game and made All-City. What impressed Gordon most, however, was Sprewell's malleability -- both on and off the court. "There were some eligibility problems because of his attendance. He had a new set of friends he had to lose," Gordon told me. "But he responded to whatever I said. He'd go through all your checks -- running a pick, say -- and get it all down. He might miss one, but he'd come back and get it."
In the spring, Gordon called an old friend, John Hammond, an assistant coach at Southwest Missouri State, and asked him to find a junior college where Sprewell could play. Hammond flew to Milwaukee and watched Sprewell on an outdoor lot. He liked that Latrell didn't do a lot of high-fiving or try to show up the other players.
Hammond phoned his friend Gene Bess, the coach at Three Rivers Junior College, in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. "I thought he was good, but to be honest with you, I had no idea how good," Hammond says. "A few months later, before his first game, Gene Bess called. He said, 'John, I think he might be the best player I've ever had.' "
Sprewell began to display an uncanny equilibrium. He played a team sport, and went through life, in his own world. "When he was not slashing to the hoop," says Bess, "he was the stillest player out there. I don't mean stationary; I mean still: I've never seen a player more physically self-possessed. Everything would be going wrong around him, and he didn't seem to know it. He just wouldn't be in the flow. And at the end of the game, you'd see he had 20, 27 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists. It was like he was above the flow."
At first, of course, Sprewell was pretty raw. "He had to kind of learn how to play," Bess says. "He had to learn how to beat people off the dribble. He still couldn't shoot. But he'd find a way to score."
Sprewell was six-five and hoped to play guard in Division I, but since he was among the tallest on the team, he volunteered -- to his coach's surprise -- to play center, which could have hurt his chances of being recruited.
"As a player, I never saw him make the same mistake twice," says one of Sprewell's teammates, Bess's son Brian. "But you couldn't tell if he even thought about tomorrow." Sprewell failed classes and was very nearly cut from the team and sent home when he and a couple of teammates were arrested for stealing batteries from a convenience store.
In 1990, Sprewell got a scholarship to Alabama and headed there over the summer to make up course work at a nearby junior college. "The summer I learned how to shoot the ball," he says. He spent every day alone in a gym, taking 300 three-pointers. He was originally a defensive star, playing alongside a handful of future pros (Robert Horry, Jason Caffey, James Robinson), but his senior year he led the team in scoring and got them to the second round in the NCAAs.
"I had no emotional situations with him, for good or for bad," says Alabama's coach, Wimp Sanderson. "He played to win games. As a coach, you like that fine, but you couldn't tell if he had any ambition beyond that."