The Color Purple

Last spring, she was the first thing I reached for every morning, the only reason I had for getting out of bed: Selena Roberts, Knicks-beat writer at the Times. It was a long, dry summer without her.

Now, with the start of the new basketball season, she’s back, and the Times let us know last week, splashing her preview as the centerpiece of the Sports Sunday section. Yes, her prose was tinted a little purple, describing Latrell Sprewell’s fingers as curling “long and thin like water from a drinking fountain,” but Roberts, if occasionally overwrought, is still the best sportswriter in town. To compare her with the rest of the journalists who cover the Knicks is to observe – as she did last week about the change in Sprewell’s play during the game against Chicago – “the difference between Muzak and rock ’n’ roll.” Indeed, after Roberts filed her report on the team’s game-five playoff win in Miami, in which she noted that Allan Houston was “curled around Dan Majerle as tightly as a stripe on a candy cane,” Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld posted a memo imploring the entire staff, “Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t already done so, and slowly read the first five sentences of Selena Roberts’s lead story… . That’s writing – heart-stopping, incandescent, all-star writing.”

I often wonder if she has a list of metaphors stored up, merely waiting for the appropriate scenario to arrive. A close loss to Philadelphia frustrated the Knicks “like trying to catch a dollar bill swirling through the air.” John Starks walked “with the excited bounce of Pooh’s buddy Tigger every time he approached the scorer’s table.” When she covered the Nets in ‘97, their very short four-guard lineup looked “as if it had just come out of the spin cycle.”

And she can report as well as she can write. Last season she told us about the adolescent friendship that had quietly formed between the team’s malcontent newcomers Sprewell and Marcus Camby. She visited Allan Houston’s mother back home in Louisville, Kentucky, and watched her cleaning up in the basement, in the kitchen, all over the house while her son led the Knicks to a playoff win over Indiana, because she was too nervous to watch. There was her vignette in which Larry Johnson got benched late in a foregone loss to Charlotte and whispered to Jeff Van Gundy, “I let you down,” while his coach gave him a consoling pat. And Chris Childs told her, in what might still be the only remotely critical on-the-record comment from a Knicks teammate on Sprewell: “Latrell is whatever the opposite of easy is.”

It’s true that other New York sportswriters sometimes get deeper into the more rarefied NBA circles – the Post’s Peter Vecsey’s pearls of scuttlebutt from the league’s front offices come to mind – but Roberts is the one the players respect. When she shows up after practice, the Knicks high-five her. She doesn’t try to bully them like some of the older sportswriters, and never mind any feminine wiles – Frank Isola of the Daily News flirts with the players more than she does.

But when Roberts works the floor, the rest of the press corps pricks up its ears. One slow Saturday after practice last season, none of the other guys had anything to write about and were standing around looking for their story. Roberts sidled up to Dennis Scott, a onetime king of the three-pointer who was a Knick for about a minute, and asked him why he was shooting so cold. The other writers didn’t even pretend not to be listening. And the next day, they all produced their own versions of her story. When Selena Roberts sneezes, every other sports page catches cold.

The Color Purple