New York Knicks guard Chris Childs was sitting at his locker
during the Knicks' first-round NBA playoff series with the Miami
Heat when he was asked about teammate Latrell Sprewell's new TV
commercial for the shoe company And1, in which Sprewell appears
with his trademark cornrows unbraided. "We're going to have to
get on him about that," Childs said with a laugh. "Man, he
looked like Buckwheat!"
As jolting as Sprewell's daring 'do is in the ad, however, it
was nothing compared with his derring-do on Sunday, when he
injected high-voltage energy into the often-stultifying grudge
match that is the Heat versus the Knicks. The result: a
come-from-behind 78-77 victory in Game 5 at Miami Arena that
made New York only the second No. 8 seed in NBA history to
topple a No. 1. For the second straight year Knicks coach Jeff
Van Gundy had stormed into the house of his mentor, former New
York coach Pat Riley, to hand him an opening-round defeat. "I
don't know what it is," said Knicks guard Allan Houston, who hit
the series-winning shot on a running 10-footer with .8 of a
second left. "We just seem to play better when our backs are
against the wall."
With 7:51 left in the first quarter the Heat led 10-3, and the
14,985 fans at Miami Arena smelled blood. Enter Sprewell, New
York's 6'6" sixth man. He quickly went to work, scoring 11
points to help the Knicks cut the lead to 41-37 at the half. In
the fourth quarter he again came up big, hitting a baseline
turnaround jumper over Terry Porter and helping to strip Tim
Hardaway of the ball in the closing seconds. For the series
Sprewell led the Knicks in scoring, with 16.2 points per game.
"Spree came up big," Childs said. "He gets us going in
transition, and we wind up with easy baskets. That makes the
game a lot easier."
Just a few weeks earlier the Knicks' off-season acquisition of
Sprewell, the onetime coach choker, was widely regarded as a
failure. On offense he would often fly solo, jacking up outside
shots when he felt like it or taking off on wild drives to the
basket. On defense he would lapse at critical times, leaving his
man open for perimeter jumpers. His commercial aside, Sprewell
was more nightmare than American dream. Struggling to make the
playoffs despite a league-high $68.5 million payroll, the Knicks
on April 21 fired general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who had made
the deal for Spree.
Worse, to many New York fans who had lamented the off-season
trades of the spirited Charles Oakley and John Starks, Sprewell
seemed too tolerant of losing. On the flight back from a
humiliating loss to the Bulls in Chicago on March 12, he cut up
with forward Dennis Scott, an incident that contributed to Van
Gundy's decision to waive Scott the next day. After a 24-point
drubbing in Charlotte on April 7--the Knicks' fourth defeat in
six nights--Sprewell seemed to shrug off the loss, saying New
York would soon turn itself around. "I've played on losing teams
before," he said. "I know what it takes."
The nadir for Sprewell, however, came on April 21, when his
agent, Robert Gist, ripped Knicks management in a back-page
story in the New York Post. Claiming that Van Gundy had
mistreated Sprewell by playing him off the bench and at small
forward, Gist said Spree would seek a trade at season's end if
he wasn't used more to his liking. Knicks president Dave
Checketts fined Sprewell $25,000. Although Sprewell distanced
himself from Gist's comments, the damage was done. Once again he
was seen as somebody who couldn't work in a team structure.
Just when the Sprewell Experiment seemed a failure, however, it
got new life. With Patrick Ewing's playing time limited by his
chronically sore right Achilles tendon and athletic Marcus Camby
seeing more minutes in Ewing's stead, Sprewell suddenly found
himself with more opportunities to shine, better spacing on the
floor and teammates who enhanced his open-court game. He found
creases in the defense. He hit the open man. He became a
complement to Houston, giving the Knicks a two-pronged
outside-in attack as opposed to the previous inside-out attack
anchored by Ewing.
Against the Heat the 28-year-old Sprewell took his game to near
All-Star level. Using his quickness against gimpy Miami guards
Tim Hardaway and Dan Majerle, he slashed his way to 22 points in
New York's 95-75 win in Game 1 and led the Knicks with 20 points
in a 97-73 blowout in Game 3. He also played aggressive defense,
helping turn Heat forward Jamal Mashburn into a rumor for much
of the series.
When it was over, Sprewell threw his arms up over his head in a
triumphant V and bounded around the court like a kid on
Christmas. Then he pumped his fist at the stunned crowd and ran
over to a group of teammates huddled in the middle of the floor.
In the locker room he chanted, "S-E-C! S-E-C!" with Houston, a
reference to their collegiate days in the Southeastern
Conference--Sprewell at Alabama, Houston at Tennessee. "This is
what it's all about," Sprewell said. "I'm at an alltime high
For Sprewell, the victory was more than just his first taste of
playoff success. It was a measure of vindication, an answer to
the critics who said he couldn't blend his skills with those of
his teammates. "Nothing's going to come overnight, especially
when you bring in a couple of new guys--it takes time for people
to jell," Sprewell said of his early struggles. "But we haven't
done anything yet. It's only the first round."
Sprewell has worked hard to make the most of his second chance.
He has been tolerant with fans and media all season while
avoiding displays of anger or frustration. He has often stayed
after practice to work on his shooting. "He has always played
hard ever since he has been here," Van Gundy says. "He has gone
above and beyond what I expected of a guy who came to a new team
after sitting out for more than a year. I think it's nothing
short of miraculous."
Sprewell's exuberant game has not only given new life to New
York's postseason hopes but has also made him a fan favorite in
the Big Apple. Knicks superfan Spike Lee has begun wearing a
number 8 Sprewell jersey instead of a number 33 Ewing model to
games, and an audible buzz runs through Madison Square Garden
every time Sprewell rises from the bench and strips off his
warmups. "He is New York," Knicks forward Larry Johnson says.
"He brings emotion, and that's what New York loves."
Sprewell's perseverance--or maybe his commercial--has even made
him popular in enemy territory. Dressed in a navy suit with a
royal-blue shirt and matching tinted sunglasses, Sprewell was
leaving Miami Arena on Sunday when he passed a security guard in
the hallway. "Hey, Latrell!" the guard called out. "The American
dream!" With a brief smile, Sprewell turned and nodded at the
man before making his way to the bus.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Sixth dimension Once reluctant to come off the bench, supersub Sprewell led the Knicks in scoring against Miami with 16.2 points a game.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Armed resistance Kurt Thomas hacks at a driving Hardaway in a play typical of the rugged and ragged nature of this series.