Last July, during the year he was banished from the National Basketball Association, Latrell Sprewell opened Sprewell Racing, a store selling high-performance tires and wheels, on San Gabriel Boulevard outside Pasadena. “When I was sitting out, I just said it’d be great to own something, to run something for myself,” he says. “I can do what I want.”
Sprewell has been nuts about cars since he was a young boy and learned to work on them in his grandfather’s body shop in Milwaukee. He bought his first car, a 1992 Camaro Z-28, just after he was taken by the Golden State Warriors in the ‘92 draft. Now he owns … a lot of them. How many, exactly? “I would say over ten,” Sprewell says. They include a sport Chevy Tahoe, a Range Rover, a Suburban, a Lamborghini Diablo, and a Mercedes SL600.
In the middle of February, about three weeks after he was acquired by the New York Knicks, Sprewell called Cecil Hsu, who runs Sprewell Racing, and told him, “I got nothing to drive in New York. Bring me the Mercedes.” And so Cecil and two of his drivers picked the car up at Sprewell’s primary residence in Milwaukee and loaded it into a trailer, and 57 hours later they were on the East Coast.
I happened to be in the parking lot of the Knicks’ practice gym at suny-Purchase when the Mercedes arrived. Sprewell was still on the exercise bike. The trailer was baroque enough: The exterior had a mural of hot rods being thrown from a tornado; inside, there was a checkerboard floor, a 27-inch television with surround sound, a DVD player, a hookup for a Sony PlayStation, and, for some reason, a pile of junior-size indoor-outdoor basketballs. Then out came Sprewell’s Mercedes convertible – a hard, black, low-lying cockroach of a car that seemed vaguely pornographic, the kind of car a kid might draw and post with a magnet on the refrigerator. “We put on a new front bumper, Pirellis, custom sound, Brembo brakes, tinted the windows all out,” one of the drivers said, adding that the wheels, nineteen-inch Lowenhart 275’s, went for $1,600 apiece. They’d installed a special steering wheel, and an Eclipse stereo with stacked amplifiers in the trunk that light up at night. The car goes for $136,000 standard, and Sprewell has another $35,000 in it. He has altered nothing less fundamental than the car’s shape, fusing to its back end the angular tail from a modified AMG body kit and adapting it to the Brabus exhaust system, another custom feature. The tail gives the car a jarring silhouette – a final fuck-you to the world.
“It makes it look tight” was how Sprewell assessed his handiwork a few days later in the visitors’ locker room at the Philadelphia First Union Corp Center, where we were talking before the Knicks played. “It’s like, you have a car you like, but you make it into its own thing.”
On the carpet in front of him, Sprewell’s teammate Marcus Camby, who at six-eleven and 225 pounds has a long, rubbery physique that most resembles Gumby’s, was getting stretched by Greg Brittenham, the team’s fitness coach. While Camby had his headphones on and was engrossed in a game tape of the 76ers, Brittenham knelt at his foot and pushed his right leg out at an uncomfortable angle, holding it in place. When he finished and moved left, Camby gave over his other leg. It was as if Camby’s limbs didn’t belong to him, as, in some sense, they don’t.
More than most athletes, Latrell Sprewell, a three-time All-Star in his sixth full season in pro basketball, is a product of his coaches. He was made into a basketball player by one coach and sent to junior college by another. Still another made him into a major college scorer, after which he was called up to the NBA, much to his surprise. Although it’s been rare that Sprewell has actually attempted to chart a course himself, it is for one of those instances that he is known. That came during a Warriors practice on December 1, 1997, when Sprewell, unhappy on the team, having been asking for some time to be traded, provoked (he felt) by constant needling from head coach P. J. Carlesimo, and desperate to regain some measure of respect, attacked Carlesimo. He wrapped his hands around Carlesimo’s throat and choked him. Then he punched him. He said, “I’ll kill you,” though nobody who was in the gym above the Oakland Convention Center, including Carlesimo, thinks he meant it.
Afterward, Sprewell was set out as an example. The NBA issued a yearlong suspension, the longest in league history for an infraction that was not drug-related, forcing him to forgo $6.4 million in salary. Thinkers (Bill Bennett in Commentary!) wrote op-eds on what his misdeed could tell us about race and society. He wasn’t really exaggerating when he said, “People have this perception of me as an evil, bad person … I’ve been vilified.”
Although he’s shown little interest in making himself a martyr or a political cause, he sued the Warriors and the NBA for his lost salary and damages, largely on racial grounds (the suit was thrown out by a Federal judge two weeks ago).
Even before the choking, Sprewell already stood for what many a WFAN listener sees as the selfish and undisciplined behavior of today’s young and overpaid NBA. “When you see him at first,” says his friend the Milwaukee Bucks center Chris Gatling, “you think he might be a hood or a thug.” No doubt his braided cornrows have something to do with this. So does his often stony countenance on those tomahawk dunks. His off-court statements have heightened this perception, sometimes stunningly. In 1994, when his 4-year-old daughter was mauled by one of his pit bulls – her ear was severed – he told a reporter, “People die every day. Maybe if it had been more serious, it would have affected me,” and added that he’d kept the dog. (Later, he said he’d had the dog put to sleep but “just wanted the media to leave his daughter alone at that point.”) And in 1995, he told an Asian-American police officer who’d pulled him over for speeding in a black neighborhood of Oakland, “You can be shot real easy, and people get shot out here.”
The street philosophy and the scowl are balanced by playfulness. When a game is going well, he’ll sometimes play for comedy, running with a loose, exaggerated chicken-step. Some of his teammates call him a cutup; others say he doesn’t talk much in the locker room.
Both may be true. The Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber, who played with him at Golden State and is still one of his closest friends, says, “Spree’s way of communicating is sort of nonverbal. You don’t know how many times during the off-season I’d spend the day hanging out at his house, and when it was time to go home, we’d look at each other and start laughing. And one of us would say, ‘Yeah, another day gone by that we didn’t talk the whole time.’ “
Late in January, the New York Knicks traded three players for Sprewell, including a favorite of the fans, John Starks. Like Starks – and like Allan Houston – Sprewell is a shooting guard. But he’s a more consistent and explosive scorer than either of them, partly because of his quickness and partly because of the controlled aggression of his game. Where most Knicks shooting guards of the recent past have been most comfortable shooting jump shots, Sprewell is a slasher who happens to be a great shot; his first option is taking the ball hard to the basket.
Sprewell showed up at a press conference near the Knicks’ practice facility to make a clean breast of things. “I’m ready to start over and show people the real me,” he said.
He got off to a streaky start as a Knick. He scored 24 points in the season opener, then had a miserable five points in a loss to Miami before sitting out the next four weeks with a stress fracture to his heel. The second game, in which he shot two for twelve, was the worst. In the last two minutes, he twice tried to tie the game with three-pointers, missing them both.
In the locker room afterward, the reporters wanted to know what Sprewell was thinking when he took those shots. The Knicks’ coach, Jeff Van Gundy, had just said he’d instructed the team to go for a quick two-point basket and try to get the ball back.
“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:
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.”
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.”
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.
Sprewell and Carlesimo first met at Golden State’s training camp in October 1997. By the third or fourth game of the season, as the team began losing, Sprewell testified, he and his friend Donyell Marshall were scapegoated by Carlesimo. Around this time, Carlesimo says he noticed a change in Sprewell’s attitude. He stopped playing hard in practice and sometimes in scrimmages refused to shoot.
Sprewell, in his testimony, appears immature and prideful but also genuinely embarrassed by Carlesimo’s disdainful treatment of him in front of the rest of the team. “A lot of time,” Sprewell testified, Carlesimo would “be on me for things that weren’t really the reason we were losing games and not having success. So I just felt really offended by that.”
On November 3, Golden State played at Indiana. During the pregame stretching, Carlesimo saw Sprewell and Joe Smith chatting and said, “Come
“Here we go again,” Sprewell said.
Carlesimo began walking toward him. “Yeah, here we go again.”
“Get the fuck out of my face,” Sprewell said. “You need to go talk to the other guys.”
“That will cost you a grand,” said Carlesimo, fining Sprewell for the obscenity.
“I don’t give a fuck,” Sprewell said.
On November 9, as Golden State was losing badly to the Lakers, Warriors guard Bimbo Coles said during a timeout, “I’m gonna foul out of this motherfucker.” Sprewell started laughing and hid his head in a towel.
Carlesimo benched Sprewell.
“You’re a fucking joke,” Sprewell said.
And yet in the next sentence, Sprewell asserts he was the one who was slighted. “He said he thought it disrespectful to be taken out of the game and that Carlesimo did not shake his hand after the game,” it reads. Carlesimo testified that he didn’t shake Sprewell’s hand because he feared some kind of confrontation. By late November, Sprewell had asked to be traded, and the Warriors were close to a deal with the San Antonio Spurs.
December 1, 1997, was the blowup, at a moment when the Warriors’ record was 1-13. “We all seen it coming,” Coles says. During practice, Sprewell was running a three-man, two-ball shooting drill with the point guard Muggsy Bogues and Mark Grabow, an assistant coach. Sprewell’s job was to keep passing, rapid-fire, to Bogues, who in turn was to try to get as many shots off as possible in a 55-second span.
Carlesimo stood and watched, dissatisfied by the pace. “Get Muggsy some more shots, Spree,” he said.
Sprewell didn’t think there was anything wrong with his passes, so he kept passing exactly as he had been.
“Come on Spree, give him a sharper, crisper pass,” Carlesimo said, a bit louder.
He called Sprewell’s name again.
Sprewell wheeled around. He slammed the ball to the floor. “Get off my back, motherfucker.”
“You’re the fuck out of here,” Carlesimo said. “Just go, Spree. Just leave.”
Sprewell walked over to Carlesimo and grabbed him tight around the throat. “I’ll kill you,” Sprewell said, pushing Carlesimo backward.
“Do it,” Carlesimo said.
It was about ten seconds until two assistant coaches pulled Sprewell off and led him out of the gym. “Get me the fuck out of here!” he yelled. “Trade me! I hate you!” He knocked over a water cooler.
Coles joined Sprewell in the hallway because he hoped to calm him down, but was called back; Carlesimo wanted to resume practice without a break.
If only he’d let Coles have his way. About fifteen minutes later, Sprewell returned to the gym. Two coaches tried to grab him, but he was already around the baseline and under the basket, where Carlesimo was monitoring a full-court drill.
“Don’t touch me,” Sprewell said. And then to Carlesimo: “I’m going to fuck you up.” He grazed Carlesimo’s cheek with an overhand punch as a swarm of coaches and players again pulled him away.
Sprewell testified he heard a teammate, Duane Ferrell, tell him he was only making himself look bad, and he felt humiliated all of a sudden. He was throwing a silly, violent tantrum. “Trade me,” he yelled, and then realized he was missing a flip-flop and looked even more foolish, with one bare foot. “Give me my damned shoe.”
Sprewell passed the enforced year off back in Milwaukee, waiting for a second chance. “I knew someone was going to want me,” he says. “Was just a question of where.” But one can imagine the doubt that must occlude the mind of someone who has played – and starred – among the best athletes in the world, in 18,000-seat arenas, places where they sell action figures with his likeness, suddenly relegated to playing horse with his brother and his kid cousin. And yet that is what he did, and that is how he sustained hope. “It was having to be watching games on TV that got to me,” he says. “As long as I was on the court, I was okay.
His cousin Ceso Sprewell is a 16-year-old sophomore at Washington High, plays forward, goes by the nickname Boom, and was the primary recipient of his confidences during his exile. I first met him in the lunchroom, when Gordon brought him over, then saw his team lose by two points to Wauwatosa East in the finals of the Wisconsin regional playoffs. He’s six foot three and gangly, light-skinned, with a sweet face and ears that stick out like they’ve been propped up with toothpicks.
Scoring only six points, Ceso didn’t have his best game. Plus, he got called for traveling and let the ball go through his hands a couple of times, and sat out most of the second half. He took the loss hard and shuffled across the gym after his shower, eyes on the scoreboard, while behind him two little girls followed and kept asking why, if the rest of the team was missing shots, he wasn’t put in.
Coach Gordon approached and laid one hand on Ceso and another on Ceso’s half-sister Lashonda, who, at age 28, is his legal guardian (both his parents are dead).
“I know it hurts,” Gordon said.
“Hey, we got another two years,” Lashonda said. Ceso gave her a look that said “What does that have to do with anything?” but was silent.
I visited Ceso and Lashonda the next day at their apartment complex near downtown. Ceso came out in the snow before I got to the door, in a Warriors jersey and shorts with Latrell’s number on them, regulation NBA socks, and flip-flops.
“Lashonda say we gotta go to my other sister’s house because she didn’t do the cleaning yet,” he said, and so we walked behind the cul-de-sac to an identical row of townhouses where his sister Roshanda let us in. Her place, where she is raising two kids, was immaculate, with a velour sectional and a smoked-glass coffee table.
Most mornings last summer, Ceso said, Latrell would show up in his driveway, music coming so loud from his truck that Ceso could hear him from down the block. He’d bring him to Bally’s to lift weights, to Lake Michigan to ride Jet-Skis, to the Boston Store for school clothes. “We played one-on-one at Lincoln Park, and he showed me some of his secret stuff,” Ceso said. “But Trell’s too competitive to let me win. One time – one time, I was hitting everything, and I had a chance to hit a three-pointer that woulda beat him. And he ran at me and and I shot over the backboard. And he was just laughing.”
“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.
Not that coaches aren’t vulnerable. No coach is nearly as valuable to a franchise as is a franchise player. Michael Jordan is said to have got Doug Collins canned at Chicago for being a screamer. In L.A., Magic Johnson cashiered Paul Westhead because he wanted to play an uptempo offense. Young players want minutes, and to get them, they’ll put up with abuse. But once a team’s record goes south, or veteran stars began to grumble, the collegian “motherfucker” approach will eventually come to grief.
“Fights are common,” Sprewell told me. “Hey, it’s a physical game.” He was sitting on a folding table in the Purchase gym, where I’d watched him stay an hour and a half after practice shooting free throws (30 in a row would drop, then one would clang in and out of the hoop, and then he’d make another 30).
So had he got into any fights on the Knicks? I asked.
“It hasn’t happened, but I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.”
When I asked Sprewell if he’d followed the NBA’s recommendation that he enroll in “anger management” courses, he said, “Nope. I thought that was a joke.”
Did he think he’d had a problem with his temper at Golden State?
“Not any more than I do now.” He turned away to watch a couple of teenagers playing a sloppy game of one-on-one. “I mean, it takes a lot to get me upset, but if I do, I’m probably a little bit more aggressive than the average person.” He rolled his eyes slyly.
Just because he’d lost his cool didn’t mean he would again.
“Doesn’t mean I won’t either. Like I said, I didn’t take any classes.”
After the choking, a number of Sprewell’s teammates stood by him. One said Carlesimo had provoked him. A few of Carlesimo’s former players in Portland came forward to describe his coaching methods as “verbally abusive.” Rod Strickland, by now playing for Washington, said, “I can understand Spree. I can relate to him.” Tracy Murray, who also went from Portland to Washington, said Carlesimo had had other confrontations with players: “If you ask me, more than once, more than twice – what’s going on here?”
In light of this, the rumor that a couple of Warriors actually got out of Sprewell’s way to give him a free shot at Carlesimo is not surprising. It also helps explain what is by far the most puzzling passage in the Feerick report, from the summation of Bimbo Coles’s testimony: “Coles heard a ball slam louder than usual, turned around, and saw the Grievant with his hands around Carlesimo’s neck. He said he could not believe his eyes and it did not dawn on him what was happening, so he turned around and took another shot.”
Fittingly enough, Sprewell’s first game back from the heel injury last month was in Milwaukee, against the Bucks. I brought Coach Gordon to the Bradley Center, and we sat on the sideline watching the only NBA player he’d discovered. During one of the Knicks’ first possessions with him in the game, Sprewell set up on the wing, shifting his weight in rhythm with the music on the sound system. He was open and yelled “Whoop,” but Charlie Ward, the point guard, drove and kicked it out to Ewing. Sprewell threw up his arms, pouting slightly.
“Easy, Latrell,” Gordon said. “Take your time.”
A few minutes later, Sprewell missed a three-pointer but got his own rebound and put it in. “You get more air under the ball when you have it rolling off a bigger area of your fingertips,” Gordon said, miming a shot above his head. He said Sprewell had learned to hit twelve-footers on his team, then added a foot to his shot each year. “The trick was getting the ball. You know how he did it? He’d say, ‘I’m a D-man, I don’t need the ball.’ By the end of his last season at Alabama, they’re giving him the last shot. That’s why I always say he knows how to work that human behavior.”
“When you coach a guy like Latrell,” he went on, “you get a guy that bares his soul for you, and you got to bare your soul back. And at Golden State, that coach didn’t give him any of himself. Instead he’s calling him ‘motherfucker’ or treating him like a child.”
But how could Gordon say Sprewell had bared his soul? Even people close to him describe him as so remote.
“By playing his hardest,” he said. “That is his soul. It’s everything he has to give.”
Grunfeld says one of the reasons the Knicks hoped Sprewell would be a good fit was that “Jeff is a players’ coach. He’s not a yeller. He relates to his players.” Van Gundy is the sort of coach who motivates teams through guilt: He makes them feel they’ll be letting him down by losing.
The Knicks lost the game in Milwaukee by a point, and afterward, Gordon and I followed Sprewell from the locker room to the lobby. He had ten minutes to hold his son in his arms before flying with the team back to White Plains, where his room at the Residence Inn awaited, and he’d return to his on-the-road-at-home routine of watching game tapes and talking on the phone with his mother and fiancée.
A smaller crowd formed around Coach Gordon: old teammates of Sprewell’s on the ‘87?’88 squad. There was Danny Parker, who scored thirteen points in the win over Custer High for the city conference title; and Chris Powell, their center. Some of them went on to college ball – Calvin Rayford, the five-eight point guard on that team, played for Kansas with the Knicks’ Ben Davis. “And,” he said, “I was a McDonald’s All-American in high school with two other guys out there tonight, Rick Brunson and Glenn Robinson” – of the Bucks. “Tonight’s like my own reunion.” He played pro in Colombia and Poland but, Gordon said, “Now he’s back in Milwaukee living with his mother, like everyone from that team.” Gordon thought Rayford might get into coaching. “Not sure what I’m gonna do,” Rayford told us. “I’d still like someplace to play.”
Afterward, Gordon and I went for chicken wings, and I asked how he thought Sprewell felt about how different his life was from his old teammates’. “Oh, I don’t think it’s hit him yet,” Gordon said. “The kid still doesn’t know where he is.”