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The most important moment of the New York Knickerbockers season will not happen at Madison Square Garden. Or at the Meadowlands, where they battle the Nets, or out in Inglewood against the Lakers. It'll occur in a living room, den, or basement when a white father and child watch a game on TV. There will be a replay of Latrell Sprewell blowing by an opponent on the way to the rack. The kid will turn to his pops and say, "I want a Sprewell jersey."
"I don't know," Pops will respond. "He did choke his coach, you know."
The kid will listen and reply, "I know he did, Pops, but I like his cornrows."
By choking Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo on December 1, 1997, the 6-5, 190-pound three-time All Star joined that notorious club of African American athletic fuckups chaired by O.J. Simpson whose membership includes Mike Tyson, Lawrence Taylor, and that recent entry, Falcons safety Eugene "Blow Me for 40 Bucks" Robinson. The Juice is unredeemable to most people, black as well as white, though it was right (and brave) of ESPN to place him on their list of the century's 50 top athletes. Tyson, who has paid the price financially and spiritually for his misjudgments, will always be too ghetto for white folks while remaining a hip-hop hero to most young blacks. Taylor, thanks to endorsements from the NFL commissioner and all his on-field peers, was voted into his sport's Hall of Fame last week.
While the final chapters on O.J., Tyson, and Taylor are now in, Sprewell's story is still unfolding. He comes to New York with a slash-and-burn playing style à la Scottie Pippen, but with the new-jack cockiness of Gary Payton. The working-class attitude of the early '90s Knicks made that predominantly black squad palatable to New York's white fans and media. But now, the last vestige of that kind of attitude on the club is the overpaid point Christian, Charlie Ward.
With the new additions, the Knick neighborhood has now tipped toward an urban angst that's hipper and, as embodied by Sprewell (and to a lesser degree by newcomers Marcus Camby and Dennis Scott), edgier and less lovable. In racial terms, the Knicks are no blacker, but in aesthetic terms they are both more contemporary and flavorful they have crossed to the dark side. All Eyez on Me was the title of a Tupac Shakur album; it could also be the theme of Sprewell's first season in New York.
It was a very contrite 28-year-old Sprewell who said, "I'm sorry," at the press conference formally announcing his acquisition. "We all make mistakes. I made one. I said I'm sorry about that, and I'm asking for a second chance. I'm not someone who has an attitude problem. I'm not mean. People may think that because of the aggressive way I play the game, but I don't walk around the streets like that."
But it's clear that the local and national sports media, much like political reporters and Republicans in D.C., don't accept apologies or believe in charity. Though Sprewell lost 68 games and $6.4 million in salary last season because of his actions, there's no sense he'll be getting the benefit of the doubt in the papers anytime soon. In New York this season, and into the 21st century, we'll see two dramas play out Sprewell's struggle to reclaim his game and fit in with the Knicks and that struggle interpreted through the hostile view of the mainstream media.
Nets coach John Calipari tutor of reformed malcontents Kendall Gill, Jayson Williams, and the eccentric Sam Cassell has attempted to spin the unforgiving take on Sprewell into a plus for his squad. After Sprewell joined the Knicks, Calipari stated, "Two years ago when I came in, I said character is non-negotiable. When we draft and when we trade, I'm bringing in guys that I know have character."
This self-serving stuff would be more convincing if Coach Cal hadn't guided the fragile, practice-phobic Marcus Camby to first-round draft status when both were at the University of Massachusetts. Unlike the opinionated-for-the-sake-of-it sports media, Calipari knows full well that, with the right combination of conversation, motivation, and discipline, most so-called "bad boys" can fit into a team concept. (It's the difference between Dennis Rodman's play with choir boy David Robinson in San Antonio and with that steel-willed genius Michael Jordan in Chi-town.)
Part of what haunts Sprewell's arrival, and that of every player who's worn Knick whites since, is the legacy of Red Holzman's teams from the early '70s. Perhaps no nonbaseball squad has had more melodic prose written in tribute to them than the Willis ReedDave DeBusschereWalt FrazierBill Bradley crew that went to the NBA Finals three times from '70 to '73, taking the crown twice.
But what those warm memories obscure is the commotion the arrival of Earl Monroe created in '71. Aside from being the star of the archrival Baltimore Bullets, the Pearl was the harbinger of undiluted black street-style's arrival in the NBA. Monroe, known to folks in his native Philadelphia as "Black Jesus," was the landlocked Dr. J, the man who brought jazzy syncopation to the floor game. The ABA-merger was four year's away when his Monk-esque dribbling and dazzling "J" had the Garden faithful up in arms. There were columns then about him spoiling the Knicks' rhythm. In truth, Monroe's creativity often carried an injury-plagued and aging team during its last two finals appearances.