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The Real Spree

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"Trell's been very good for Boom," Lashonda, who had joined us, said. "It's like eleven of us in the family, mostly girls. But the other boys -- Ceso has some brothers, and they aren't good role models."

When I asked what the brothers did, Lashonda and Roshanda looked at each other. "Not much," Lashonda said. A faint smile.

"Boom tried to grow his hair so he could have Afrocentric braids like Trell's," Lashonda said.

"It got nappy," Ceso said. "It was a Kobe" -- the puffy Afro popularized by the Lakers' Kobe Bryant.

From Sprewell's cousins, I got a picture of someone flitting back and forth between playing patriarch and functioning as a teenager. By way of the grown-up money he makes, Sprewell's gone to considerable lengths to assume the obligations of an adult: He engineered a rapprochement between the family and his father, who has returned to Milwaukee and is living with Latrell's sister, Poinciana. He bought a huge house in River Hills, a fancy exurb, and took in his mother. After turning pro, he went to court to win custody of his second daughter, Alexis, from a woman he'd got pregnant in junior college and had since been arrested and gone to jail. "He told me the girl would have no chance with her mother, and he wanted to raise her," says L. Joe Scott, a Three Rivers booster-club member who represented Sprewell in the case. "He said he had a fiancée who would take care of her. I asked how he could be sure, and he said, 'Because I'll tell her to.' " He and the fiancée, Candace Cabbil, are raising Alexis, along with the two boys they had together. His first daughter, born when he was in high school, is still in Milwaukee; Sprewell has stayed friendly with her mother and sees them often.

On the other hand, Sprewell is oddly childlike. There are the cars, of course, and his home is a big fun house, with an end-to-end basketball court in the yard, an "arcade room," and closets devoted to holding his sneakers. Each year at Golden State, as he rose in seniority, Sprewell was known to befriend the youngest, newest players on the team. On the Knicks, Sprewell's closest to Ben Davis and Rick Brunson, two 26-year-old near-rookies who seldom play, as well as Larry Johnson, who made a point of getting Sprewell assigned a locker next to his (in the locker room, Johnson likes to try to trick the Knicks' young publicist, Lori Hamamoto, into seeing him naked: "Ha-shi-mo-to," he'll say, uncrossing his legs and pretending to lift his towel. "Look over here and tell me what was my free-throw percentage was tonight").

And all that time with Ceso -- it's a bit like the way his father used to come out with him and his young friends after Warriors games a couple of years ago, a stunted adolescent enjoying the comfort of unchallenging relationships. Although Ceso's history with high-school athletics is different from Latrell's -- where Latrell came late to it, Ceso runs sprints every morning, plays in summer leagues, and is already getting letters from college recruiters -- what Latrell has gone through and what Ceso is preparing for amount to a shared experience. They are two boys who've been reared in a vacuum, with "lots of people around telling you what to do but not how to be," as Ceso put it.

At his apartment, I asked Ceso if Latrell ever said anything to him about the attack on Carlesimo. Ceso at first said he hadn't.

"Trell was expecting for us to mention it, but we never asked," Roshanda said. "I think it was up to him to bring it up if he wanted."

Ceso sat up. "Ooh, there was that one time. I was over at his house watching TV, and I said how nice his place is. And he said, 'My pride is worth any amount of my dollar.' He said, 'I keep my pride.' "

Last year, during a Lakers practice, Shaquille O'Neal slapped Kobe Bryant just to let him know who the team leader was. In Detroit, Isiah Thomas once did the same to Dennis Rodman. Just before Sprewell attacked Carlesimo, Tom Chambers of the Suns punched the team's conditioning coach. And none of them was suspended. Even the NBA commissioner David Stern told me, "It wasn't so much the choking that got Latrell such a severe punishment. It was coming back after he'd had time to cool off."

Several people -- the former Knick Dennis Scott, Chris Webber, an ex-Lakers coach, a Warriors coach, even Van Gundy and the Knicks' general manager, Ernie Grunfeld -- told me players routinely go at it in practice. Some of them said that what Sprewell did to Carlesimo wasn't out of the ordinary, or that if it was, that's only because it involved a player and a coach instead of two players.


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