From coaches and teammates you've heard the testimonials about
his character and his commitment, and with your own eyes you've
seen his steady and unselfish play. But you still have doubts
about New York Knicks swingman Latrell Sprewell, don't you? You
gaze uncertainly at his cornrows, his goatee and his scowl; you
remember his refusal to communicate with team officials before
his tardy arrival at preseason training camp last fall. You see
in your mind's eye his hands around the neck of former Golden
State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo and the rage on his face, and
you wonder: When will Jekyll show up in the Knicks' locker room
and Hyde take the floor wearing that number 8 jersey? "There are
a lot of people who think they know 'the real Sprewell,'" the
real Sprewell said last week. "I know what they're saying: 'He's
the kind of person you light a match around and--boom--he goes
An ever-so-slight smile appeared on a face not much given to
showing teeth. "But they're going to be disappointed," he said.
"They don't know me. This is who I am."
Who he was on Sunday at American Airlines Arena was a minor
character in an 87-83 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the
Eastern Conference semifinals. The man at center stage was
center Alonzo Mourning, whose game-high 26 points included a
layup that broke an 83-83 tie with 41 seconds remaining and a
17-foot jumper that clinched the win with 5.6 seconds left.
Earlier in the week Mourning had been called the second-best
center in the Eastern Conference by the man who professed to be
the best, Patrick Ewing. The less said about that analysis the
better. Mourning was not only the best center but also the
East's best player this season. Ewing, meanwhile, still a game
warrior at 37, is a gimpy-legged, stiff-backed version of his
Yet the Knicks still lean on Ewing (17 points on 16 shots) at
crunch time, and he shares, with shooting guard Allan Houston (21
points on 18 shots), the role of primary option in the half-court
offense. If the Knicks are to advance, it would seem that
Sprewell (11 points on 12 shots) has to score more in transition,
as he has all season, and find a way to counter the Heat "blitz,"
the double-team Miami has thrown at him when he comes off
Sprewell did not advance this theory after Game 1 but smiled
coyly and said, "Think so?" when it was suggested to him. For a
guy who came to New York as, at best, "a West Coast up-and-down
player" (Knicks assistant Brendan Malone's description at the
time) and, at worst, a conscienceless gunner, the 6'5", 190-pound
Sprewell has turned himself into the complete package, willing to
defer to Ewing and Houston and is now, not incidentally, the
Knicks' glue. In the process he has become one of Gotham's most
beloved jocks, a Jeter who gets hip-hop props, a Sehorn with an
air of mystery.
How to explain or characterize what has happened since Dec. 1,
1997, the day he laid hands on Carlesimo and became the poster
boy for bad behavior in sports? This change in the public's
perception is one for the ages, one so dramatic that the same
people who suspended him for a season have enlisted him to appear
in their TV commercials. NBA commissioner David Stern gave a
thumbs-up to Spree's presence in the ads running on TBS and TNT
even as the player's lawsuit against the league (to recover the
$6.4 million in salary he lost during his 68-game suspension)
continues. "I'll see where things are with that this summer,"
Sprewell, 29, says of the suit. Meanwhile, he signed on for the
long haul in New York with a five-year, $62 million contract
extension last November.
Is Spree's transformation cosmetic? (Doesn't seem so.) Is it the
fruit of a skilled public relations campaign? (Absolutely not.)
The by-product of his maturation? (Partly.) The result of being
on a contender instead of a cellar dweller, as the Warriors were?
(Yes.) A benefit of landing in a vast metropolis where, heck,
your neighbor might have choked his boss, a city that, as Knicks
coach Jeff Van Gundy says, "loves reclamation projects?"
(Definitely.) Most intriguingly, is the change permanent? (A
There are legions of Sprewell doubters--given his history, he has
earned that skepticism--but a glimpse into the man's lifestyle
would probably surprise them. He lives quietly on three acres in
Purchase, the woody, well-manicured Westchester suburb where the
Knicks practice, 22 miles north of New York City, and rarely goes
anywhere in Manhattan except to Madison Square Garden. During his
two seasons in New York he has turned down many opportunities to
muscle up his Q rating, rejecting invitations to appear, for
example, on the recently canceled sitcom Suddenly Susan and on
Queen Latifah's talk show. Sprewell's fiancee, Candace Cabbil,
whom he has known since his college days at Alabama, lives in
Milwaukee, where she cares for their three sons, Latrell II, 4;
Ray, nearly 2; and Billy, eight months. "Just consider me
married," he says, a status he and Cabbil plan to achieve after
Sprewell also says that he has two daughters--Aquilla, 11, and
Page, 9--from two other women. In the fall Candace, the three boys
and Page are coming to live with him in Purchase, which will put
Sprewell's harshest critic under foot: Page is the one most
likely to get on him if his shot isn't falling. He eats most of
his meals at home (a former fast-food freak, Sprewell, thinner
than dental floss but extraordinarily strong, now eschews red
meat) and even gets his hair braided there; a woman named Rose
Davies, whom he met at a Knicks charity function, comes in to do
it three or four times a month.
From time to time his neighbors might see one of his 10 or so
luxury rides up on blocks because one of Sprewell's hobbies is
working on cars, though not, he says, "during playoff time." His
paternal grandfather, Cecil, was a mechanic, as is his brother
Terran. Like his father, Latoska Fields, Sprewell is a tinkerer,
a man who will pull out the tool set to fix something and rarely
gives up until he does. "I can still see me looking at him
blankly as he gave me a lecture on gear differentiation," says
his agent, Robert Gist.
Sprewell's love of cars prompted him to start Sprewell Racing
during the suspension that ended with the final game of the
1997-98 season. Located in San Gabriel, Calif., it sells
high-performance tires and wheels and is managed by his other
brother, Jarvis McCrary. Sprewell admits he doesn't read many
books but devours Hot Rod, Motor Trend and the duPont Registry,
which lists luxury cars for sale.
Partly through McCrary's influence, Sprewell has also become a
computer geek. His home system ("I don't even want to think what
it costs," he says) is integrated with his TV and stereo. He
spends a lot of time chatting anonymously on-line or playing
games with McCrary and other Webheads around the country. (Pool,
chess and, predictably, driving games are his favorites.) He
shares that interest in computers, as well as an affinity for the
color black, with forward Marcus Camby, his best friend on the
Knicks. Spree's color preference is reflected in much of his
wardrobe and all his cars.
Sprewell spends part of the off-season at his five-acre home on
Lake Michigan, near Milwaukee, the city where he lived with his
mother, Pamela, during his high school years. (His parents split
up when Latrell was six; Latrell lived with his father part of
the time in Flint, Mich., but left for Milwaukee when Fields was
sent to jail on one count of possession with intent to distribute
marijuana. Fields now lives in Milwaukee with Sprewell's sister,
Poinciana.) No leisurely afternoons on the golf course for
Sprewell--he can often be found tearing around the lake on one of
his half-dozen Jet Skis, sometimes with visitors such as Chris
Webber or Joe Smith, former Golden State teammates. What a
tableau those long-legged hotdoggers must make on a lazy summer
afternoon, eh? When Sprewell is looking in on his business in San
Gabriel, he might tow a couple of the three-seaters to Lake
Havasu City, Ariz., and he's even jet-Spreed on the Colorado
Sprewell drives his high-performance automobiles and watercraft
the way he plays: at high speed and with occasional recklessness.
The main reason he was late for training camp in October,
remember, was that he was in a California courtroom responding to
a civil lawsuit that began after he forced another car off the
road in March '98 and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge
of reckless driving. (Sprewell was placed under house arrest for
three months. The judgment also went against him in the civil
suit, and he was ordered to pay $105,000 in damages, though the
two plaintiffs were seeking $3 million total for injuries
suffered in the accident.) He has also been caught speeding
several other times. Sprewell says he's tempered some of his
wildness behind the wheel since Kansas City Chiefs linebacker
Derrick Thomas, an Alabama product and close friend, died in
February from injuries suffered in a high-speed crash. But one
gets the strong impression that Spree, like many athletes, still
enjoys nothing more than pushing pedal to metal.
Cynics might note that Sprewell often does not drive fast enough
to reach the Garden 90 minutes before tip-off, Van Gundy's
prescribed arrival time; he is generally the last one to show up
at practice, too. If you're looking to build a case against him,
you should also include these two items: He was openly
disgruntled when Van Gundy used him as a sixth man last season,
and during a Nov. 29 game he lost it at Golden State, hurling
obscenities at fans that resulted in a $10,000 fine by the
league. But, as with most things involving Sprewell, there is a
flip side to those stories.
Last to arrive at practice, yes, but also the last to leave, at
least during the playoffs, when he invariably completes a
shooting drill with assistant Tom Thibodeau in which he must make
8 of 10 jumpers from inside the three-point line and 7 of 10 from
beyond the arc before he moves onto the next of his seven spots.
Feuded with Van Gundy, yes, but has also been a major force in
getting the Knicks to play a team game. "Spree has never--and I
mean never in a huddle, never in practice, never in the locker
room, never during a game--complained about shots," says Van
Gundy. "Do you know how important that is when one of your best
players has that attitude, when he wants to share the ball?"
Yes, Sprewell appears to be angry on the court, but he has been
called for only eight technical fouls in an eight-year career.
Yes, he blamed the press for spreading what he considered false
reports about him following the Carlesimo attack, but he has
emerged as the Knicks' locker-room spokesman and most accessible,
media-friendly face--"our go-to guy," as Dave D'Alessandro of the
Newark Star-Ledger puts it.
The portrait of Sprewell that emerges, then, is hazy. Sure, he
has apologized umpteen times for the Carlesimo incident and last
week was still calling it "a mistake," but there's a hard edge to
his contrition, a reluctance to issue an all-out mea culpa. Along
with being intelligent, he is hardheaded and prideful to a fault.
It might be hard for fans to understand, and even harder for them
to accept, but the Michael Jordan Model--the cuddly, crossover
multimedia package--is history. In its place is an in-your-face
version, epitomized by the likes of Sprewell, Allen Iverson and
Jason Williams. Sprewell is not trying to be everyone's favorite
player, the public's pet rock; even to a New York Knick, Madison
Avenue might be just a street that runs between Fifth and Park,
and not a place to sell yourself if it means you have to dull
your edge. Sprewell specifically mentions Jordan as the one
person he wouldn't want to be. "To have a life where you could
never get away and always have people invading your space," says
Sprewell, shaking his head. "Man, that would be the worst. I
don't like being in the spotlight off the court."
The Knicks might be better off if he'd put himself more in the
spotlight on the court, for Spree is the closest thing on the
roster to Jordan. And what if this championship-starved team
stumbles? What if he again becomes frustrated? What if he thinks
he has sacrificed too much of his offensive game in vain? Might
he go Carlesimo on someone's neck again? "It's not going to
happen," Sprewell says. "Life couldn't be any better for me than
it is right now."
And he was smiling. Almost.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Shooting Spree Limited to 11 points in the Knicks' Game 1 loss, the hard-charging Sprewell may have to become even more aggressive.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.
"I know what people are saying," Sprewell says, "'He's the kind
of person you light a match around and--boom--he goes off.'"