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Monday, April 30, 2001
Leading Man

By By Tim Keown


He did it one person at a time. That's how you change the world, isn't it? You see one person, you do your best to change that person. Sometimes he did it without even knowing it, without even understanding the broader purpose. It was a famous man's penance. Surprise them, give them something they might not expect, then let them take that surprise back to their world and spread it around, like a good joke or a favorite recipe.

It worked, too. These people, when you gave them a chance, they gave you one back. He learned that, and he learned something else about people: Everybody loves a good redemption story. He never thought of himself that way, especially when the world was baring its teeth and he was snarling back. It was hard for him to see himself as potentially redeemed when he was sitting in his game room, watching basketball and refusing to come outside. It was hard to see redemption through the blue glow of the television as it sent his mugdid they always have to choose the shot that looked ugliest and meanest?into the world and then right back at him. Psychologists, workplace specialists, race leaders all took their shots at analyzing him. He knew punishment was warranted, but ostracism? Ostracism seemed inhumane.

***

When the world's hate becomes a physical presence, what do you do? Curl up? Run away? Hate back? When you've done a few news cycles as our symbol of societal dysfunction and moral decay, whom do you convert first? Where do you start?

Would you believe a mall? Yeah, a mall. There are stories inside the large story, and one of those stories takes place in a mall. It was the winter of 1999, shortly after Latrell Sprewell had been traded from the Warriors to the Knicks, and he was walking through a suburban New York mall with teammate and friend Rick Brunson. People would approach with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Sprewell knew the mixture well; it's the one you get when you reside in the pop culture netherworld, somewhere between novelty and horror, between Joey Buttafuoco and the Unabomber. They're unsure, but they can't stay away. They approach like it's an initiation rite. He's the guy who choked his coach. Let's check it out.

He talked to them, signed for them and watched their faces undergo a transformation. The trepidation dissolved. He listened to their stories, accepted their best wishes and sent them back to their world with a story to tell. You're not gonna believe this ... He looked into their eyes and took the measure of his rehabilitation, one smile at a time.

Standing there at the Westchester Mall, Brunson would get tired of waiting. "Let's go, Spree," he'd say. "That's enough." And Sprewell would look at him and say, "I need to show them I'm not the guy they think I am. They need to know."

Now, two years later, New York's favorite basketball player still signs his name and talks and listens. It's not that hard to change the worldhe's learned that, too. And now, two years later, Brunson stands to the side, shuffling his weight from one foot to the other, and even though he knows better, he says, "Spree, they know you're nice now, okay? Let's go."

***

He was the worst, wasn't he? Of all the bad-act athletes, Sprewell was the one who went beyond being late or being high or being ungrateful and actually put his hands on his coach. Subverted the sanctity of authority. On Dec. 1, 1997, he responded to a P.J. Carlesimo directive"Put a little mustard on the passes"by attacking the Warriors coach. He choked him, then came back into the gym 20 minutes later and took a few swings at Carlesimo. Within 24 hours, the cable networks were speed-dialing their retainered experts, and concerned parents from suburban Atlanta were standing in the CNN studio audience asking the world, "Tell mewhat do we say to the children?"

"Public Enemy No. 1," Sprewell says, laughing a little. "What was that like? It was tough. Every where you looked, someone had something to say. I watched almost all of ithow could you miss it? What I did was wrong, but when you sit back and watch it take off, you realize you have no control over it. Once the media got hold of it, it wasn't coming back. It was me against the world at that point. But it made me strong. That's what I fed off."

The facts of the case are not in dispute; the much-photographed marks on Carlesimo's neck were all the evidence needed in the court of public opinion. And no onenot Sprewell, Carlesimo or teammates who were in the Oakland gym when the incident occurredis interested in retrying the case. Eye-rolling seems to have become an instinctive response to questions about the incident, but Knicks backup and former Warrior Felton Spencer says, "You have to know the situation and what went on up to that point before you can make a judgment on it. There were mistakes made on both parts, and they both handled it the wrong way."

Muggsy Bogues, another current Knicks teammate who was also with the Warriors that day, says, "Guys should stick up for one another, especially when you know your teammate is right in certain ways. Not to say I condone everything Spree did, but you could understand what his argument was."

Sprewell says Carlesimo rode him relentlessly for "four to six weeks" before the confrontation. Drawing a contrast between Carlesimo and former Warriors coach Don Nelson, Spree says, "Nellie didn't get on his starters. If Nellie wanted to make a point to me, he'd yell at Jud Buechler."

In the months following Sprewell's seven-month suspension, before arbitrator John Feerick reinstated his contract, Spree would sit in his home in the hills above Oakland and play video games and watch the NBA on television. He felt betrayed by the Warriors' front office, by the league, even by some of his teammates. "It's not always going to be like this," one of his two older brothers, Terran, would tell him. "You're a hell of a basketball player, and you made a mistake." Latrell didn't want to leave the house. "He would stay down there in that game room for hours and hours," Terran says. "I'd try to get him outside, tell him, 'Hey, let's wash the cars.' He'd say, 'I'll stay here.'"

Look at the man now. Watch as the television reporter for a Japanese network approaches nervously after a home win over the Bulls. As usual, Sprewell has spoken to a group of reporters for as long as the questions held up, and now this Japanese woman and her cameraman block his path. The camera looks suspiciously like a store-bought camcorder, and there is a distinctly low-budget vibe emanating from the whole operation.

"Excuse me," the reporter says in a shaky voice, her manner suggesting she might be doing this to win some sort of bet.

Sprewell rolls his eyes. "You're late, sweetheart," he says. "Where you been?"

Haltingly, she begins by asking him how long it takes to wash and style his hair. (Three hours, each time.) Eventually, she asks if he would please do a promo for a basketball show that is viewed in Japan by many fans of Mr. Sprewell.

Sprewell laughs, says he was just leaving, then looks at the camera and ad libs a promo ("... so watch the show, okay? I'm Latrell Sprewell. Peace.") that leaves both the reporter and the cameraman wide-eyed and slack-jawed, hopping like a couple of lucky game-show contestants.

Yes, look at the man now. He is open on the low block after a defensive switch with a point guard trying helplessly to climb around his hip. Mark Jackson, a few games into his second Knicks career, has the ball on the wing, but instead of feeding Sprewell, instead of rewarding him for his hard work, Jackson launches a 20-footer that misses. Heading back downcourt, Jackson steals a look at Sprewell, who says, "It's all right. Play your game."

"A lot of people used to say he was selfish," says Jackson, "but there's not a selfish bone in the man's body."

Jeff Van Gundy loves him. They think alike and talk alike. Is that full circle? The Knicks are maddeningly inconsistent, a team that can get blown out by the Grizzlies on a Thursday night and beat the Lakers in L.A. the following Sunday. Their best post-up players are guardsAllan Houston, Sprewell and Jackson. Their best lineup doesn't include a point guard. They are a team that can lose to the Nets twice and the Bulls once and still manage to participate in a straight-faced discussion about a third straight run at the Eastern Conference finals. They are a successful, goofy mess of a team.

After the Kings beat the Knicks in overtime in Sacramento at the end of March, Van Gundy stood outside the locker room, looking even more hangdog than usual. Asked to assess the Knicks' inability to hold an 18-point second-quarter lead, he said, "We had a goal tonight of not beating ourselves, but I thought that's exactly what we did."

Inside the locker room, Sprewell was saying, "I think we gave it away. We beat ourselves."

"One thing you learn: You don't know players until you coach them," Van Gundy says. "You listen to Spree, and he talks like a coach."

Maybe being an All-Star on a good team is all the image rehabilitation a guy needs. Maybe the most salient fact surrounding Sprewell's attack on Carlesimo was not P.J.'s haranguing or Sprewell's desire to be traded but the Warriors' record at the time: 1-13. "When I first met him, I admit itI wondered about him," Brunson says. "I knew he choked a guy, so every time Jeff yelled at him, I'm waiting for him to explode. I'm thinking, 'It's gotta happen this time.' I was always wrong."

***

Look at the man now. During his 13 months out of the league, he had advisers. Lord, did he have advisers. Unsolicited, solicited, family members, agentsthe man was not hurting for advice. Some of them told him to cut the braids and make himself a little more mainstream, a little more palatable to the establishment. A little less ... you know ... street. He did not listen to these advisers. "Why? Why would I do that?" he asks. "If you start changing that stuff, you're not really being the person that you are. I've never been that type of person."

There must be a million stories, but Sprewell isn't the one to tell them. He dishes himself out in tiny portionsalways pleasant, sometimes revealing, unerringly vague. His two passions are computers and cars, but when the topic turns to carsa collection that includes three Cameros and a '97 Lamborghini Diablohe says he doesn't know how many he owns. "A lot," he says, "but I can't give you a number." Some are parked at his house in New York, some at his house in Milwaukee, some at his house in Pasadena. "I pick out certain cars for certain days, depending on my mood," he says. He also owns more computers than he cares to count. His house in New York is wired with top-of-the-line Cat 6 ethernet cable, and he loves to tinker with the inner workings of his computers.

"For some reason, people think he's a gangster," Brunson says. "I say he's a nerd."

Take one more look at the man: It is a summer night in Milwaukee, and he is leaving a club with Terran. They are walking to Latrell's carthe mood said black 2001 Mercedes CL500when a couple of knuckleheads start mouthing off. "Hit me, Spree," they yell. "Hit me so I can sue your ass."

They are jumping around the Benz and waving their hands and, truth be told, Terran wants to take care of them, right then and there. Latrell just shakes his head. "Let's move on," he says. In the car, Terran says, "How can you let that stuff go?"

He doesn't hear it, that's why. At least that's what he says. He swears he doesn't remember that night at the club, even though Terran can give a detailed account. After a while, the taunts become as natural as the bounce of the ball. He doesn't hear you asking him who he's going to choke, or telling him not to choke at the foul line. Unless it gets personal and persistentas it did in Portland and Indianapolis this yearit's all white noise. "I stopped hearing most of it a long time ago," he says. "If somebody goes on and on, I'll say something. But believe me, nobody's very original."

He is now considered the team spokesman. With Patrick Ewing gone and Houston quietly efficient, Sprewell is the most recognizable Knick. Put it this way: Spike wears his No. 8. Sprewell's locker in the Garden draws the biggest crowd after games, and Van Gundy calls him "the most influential member of the organization." Is that full circle?

Consider this: He refused to speak to the media to start the '97-98 season, a move he now concedes was not only a mistake but a factor that contributed to his attack on Carlesimo. "I held a lot in and didn't talk to people," he says. "I needed to let out that frustration so it didn't build up. If I had been able to make people understand the situation more, maybe it wouldn't have even happened."

Sprewell seems to perceive himself as a chemical catalyst, a compound that changes everything around it without changing itself. But he isn't the same. Not even close. With Golden State he specialized in misunderstanding, even appearing to welcome it. He was mostly nonresponsive with the press, and a series of on- and off-court incidents made his evasiveness look like concealment. In separate incidents, he scuffled with teammates Byron Houston and Jerome Kersey. On Sept. 3, 1995, he was pulled over for speeding in Oakland and arrested when the officer discovered an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. He reportedly told the officer, "You can be shot real easy, and people get shot out here." The traffic violations were later dropped, and he was not charged with threatening an officer because the prosecutor's office determined the threats "lacked credibility ... as a righteous threat."

His determination to guard his privacy was never more apparent than at the beginning of the '94-95 season, when one of his daughters was attacked by one of his pit bulls at his home in the hills of Hayward, Calif. (Latrell lives with three sons and a daughter and their mother. His two other daughters live with their respective mothers.) At first, he refused to discuss the subject, but two months later, he said the incident did not affect him: "Maybe if it had been more serious, it would have affected me." He also insisted that he still had the dog. Months later he revealed that he had had the dog put down shortly after the attack.

"I joke with him about being unpredictable, because he's always been that way," says Terran. "You can't tell what he's thinking. He might say one thing and do another, always in a good way."

There is a part of the redemption story that goes unnoticed. It might be a hard, nasty fact of life, but many people relate to Sprewell because of what he did to Carlesimo. They might not agree, but they understand. They've been there. They know what it's like to be dogged at work. And even though it doesn't make it right, they understand.

Sprewell heard from those people. Still does, in fact. They come up to him and say, "I thought about doing what you did, but I never did it. You were wrong, but I know how you feel."

Change the world, one person at a time? One person who has not been reached is Carlesimo. He and Sprewell haven't spoken, and Sprewell says plainly that he has no immediate plans to do so. He says he wants to move forward, not look back, but clearly there is something else at work, some deeper resentment. Last season in Oakland, in his first trip back with the Knicks, with Carlesimo on the bench, Sprewell was out of control. It was him against the world. The fans taunted him, and he gave it right back in profane outbursts.

"P.J. and I haven't talked, and I don't know if we will," Sprewell says. "If we talk, I think we have to talk. It shouldn't be something we do for the media. The situation was too serious. There was a lot that went into that whole thing, and honestly, I don't think you guys should be privy to a lot of the things that went on."

Carlesimo, working as a commentator for NBC and the Spurs, is determined to return to coaching. He is unequivocally complimentary when discussing Sprewell, but when Latrell is asked if he'd like to see Carlesimo succeed, he says, "It doesn't matter, either way." He pauses and shrugs. "It doesn't matter." There is no bitterness in his voice. It's just part of the story.

"Latrell is straight honest with me, and he told me he has no animosity toward P.J. anymore," Terran says. "He just feels he should keep his distance. There are still scars from it, you know?"

It is this persistent element of the storythe Spree-as-victim elementthat fueled much of the public's anger and disbelief. He is shrugging and curt with his comments about Carlesimo. When the topic turns to former Warriors teammate Donyell Marshall, now enjoying a career renaissance of his own in Utah, Sprewell's eyes flash and the smooth wire of his voice turns barbed. Marshall was one of the few Warriors who did not stand behind Sprewell during a press conference eight days after he was suspended. Sprewell now refuses to acknowledge Marshall when the two share a court.

"We were in the same position," Sprewell says. "It easily could have been him. When everything happened, all of a sudden it was, 'No. I love to be coached this way.' I considered him a friend. We were experiencing the same problems with P.J. and so I thought if anybody would understand, it would be him. But he totally went the other way on me."

Marshall says, "I never knew why he wouldn't shake my hand, but I figured it was something like that. Spree never understood my point. He's right that I understood what he was going through because P.J. was doing the same things to me. I would be talking to Spree and say, 'There are times when I want to do something to him.'

"But after it happened, I had to look after my own interests. Spree was an All-Star, and no matter what he did, teams would want him anyway. At that time, I was just starting to get back on the court, having a good year, and teams were probably starting to look at me if I ever wanted out of Golden State. A lot of the guys who stood up for him were traded at some point before the end of the season, and they were sent to some pretty bad places."

***

With a dozen games remaining in the regular season, Sprewell is trying to get mean. He says he is determined to summon the ferocity that carried the Knicks to the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed in '99. Sitting in the visitors' locker room in Sacramento after an OT loss to the Kings, he says, "I've been too nice. My first year [in New York], I played with a chip on my shoulder. I need to get back to that."

The truth is, it goes deeper than his own needs. As they jockeyed for playoff position, desperate to secure homecourt advantage in the first round, Sprewell's team needed him to be mean. The twist is, when he needs it the most, Sprewell might not have it in him anymore. The personal transformation has seeped onto the court, and while Sprewell at 30 might be a better person for it, he might also be a lesser basketball player. "I think I was better before," he says. "More explosive, definitely. I think I have to pick my spots now."

The Knicks are thrilled with the new Latrell, who leads by example and talks like a coach and represents well in the community. But the Knicksundersized and at times undermotivatedalso need the old Latrell, who defended like a shadow and argued with his teammates and played with a fury the court couldn't contain.

Can the new Latrell channel the old Latrell? He tried against the Warriors in late March when rookie Chris Porter had the temerity to score on him and tell him about it. Sprewell made a point of talking back, but in the end Porter finished with a career-high 24 points and the Warriors took the Knicks to overtime. The next night, Sprewell jawed with Sacramento's Doug Christie, but most of it came as the Kings were laying waste to that 18-point Knicks lead on their way to the OT win. Sprewell said he was doing it for Marcus Camby and Glen Rice and Kurt Thomas and Larry Johnson"The guys who will respond to it," as he put it. One of those who wasn't mentionedHoustonpublicly questioned the worth of Sprewell's new approach.

"I'm going to challenge the guys because that's when I play my best," Sprewell says. "I feel I want to win more than anybody on this team. It's nothing personal."

Nothing personal? Until now, it was always personal with Sprewell. Every look, every steal, every dunk. He fed off the negative energy, and now the energy is all positive.

So we are left to wonder: Can a nice guy play mean without the strain showing? Sprewell, after spending much of the last two seasons attempting to convince the world that he is not mean, is now having a hell of a time convincing us otherwise. Try as he might, he comes off sounding like an actor attempting to star in a remake of a movie he didn't like all that much the first time around.

This article appears in the April 30, 2001, issue of ESPN The Magazine.