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The Real Spree

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Back in Milwaukee, Jim Gordon heard from his old friend Don Nelson, head coach at Golden State, that Sprewell was a prospect for the NBA. So Gordon called Sprewell and said to get himself an agent: "You're going to be selected." Sprewell said okay and hung up.

Fifteen minutes later, Sprewell phoned back. "What do you mean, an agent?" he said. "An agent to play pro?"

On June 24, 1992, the Golden State Warriors made Sprewell the twenty-fourth pick in the first round of the NBA draft.

In Sprewell's five full seasons at Golden State, the Warriors went from being a bad team (34-48 in 1992-93) to being a playoff team (50-32 in 1993-94) to being a bad team all over again (30-52 in 1996-97). During those years, it gathered an entire roster's worth of high-caliber players to share the stage with Sprewell -- including Chris Webber, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Rony Seikaly, Billy Owens, Jerome Kersey, and Tom Gugliotta -- and dispensed all of them in a series of trades. "Spree felt we had the team of the future, and they went and dismantled it on him," Owens told me. In 1994, when Webber and Owens were traded, Sprewell wrote their numbers on his sneakers in protest. Adonal Foyle, who came to the Warriors as a rookie in 1997, says, "They were asking a lot of Spree to stay on the team. They kept promising him rebuilding, and it never happened."

With each change in the team's composition, Sprewell's profile rose; he found himself the player around whom an entire franchise was being built. But, Sprewell says, "I wasn't into the spotlight type of deal." He'd always preferred to let Webber do the talking for him. The New York Post's influential columnist Peter Vecsey remembers trying to talk to Sprewell after a game. "He turned his back on me after my first question," Vecsey says. "I don't even remember what I asked him." At the outset of the 1997 season, he declared he would not grant any interviews.

With so many friends gone, Sprewell was lost. He stopped getting on with Nelson, and traded barbs with Tim Hardaway, the coach's pet, calling him a "Nellie brownnoser." He feuded with Seikaly and with Gugliotta. And a couple of violent altercations foreshadowed what was to come. During a Warriors practice in 1993, Sprewell was elbowed by Byron Houston, the team's roughneck forward, a man who outweighed Sprewell by about 50 pounds. He retaliated with three punches to the face. In 1995, Sprewell and Jerome Kersey got into a fight during a scrimmage. Sprewell, severely overmatched, lost, left the gym, and returned with a two-by-four -- his equalizer. He was restrained by his friends Joe Smith and Chris Gatling. "I'm gonna go get my peeps," Sprewell told Kersey, by which he meant his friends, his people, though this was later misinterpreted as meaning he was going to get his piece, or gun.

Nelson's successor as coach, Rick Adelman, put up with Sprewell and named him team captain in 1996. That summer, Sprewell was awarded a four-year, $32 million contract, making him one of the highest-paid guards in the league. A year later, the Warriors fired Adelman and replaced him with P. J. Carlesimo, who'd coached three seasons at the Portland Trail Blazers and before that at colleges like Seton Hall. Carlesimo is an exemplar of the disciplinarian college-style coach. In the independent arbitrator's report on Sprewell's case against the NBA, Joe Smith is paraphrased describing Carlesimo as "a hard-nose, 'up-in-your-face' coach, yelling and cursing a lot and saying 'fuck' a lot.' "

The report by the independent arbitrator, a Fordham law professor named John Feerick, is a remarkable document, culled from the fractured, occasionally delphic testimony of 21 witnesses. Sprewell apologists could view it as Melville's Billy Budd set in the NBA of the late nineties, in which a good but inexpressive man is pushed to the breaking point, then punished for breaking, except that Sprewell is not necessarily the innocent Billy Budd was.


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