All Eyez On Spre

Latrell Sprewell brings his raw aesthetic to the New York Knicks

The post-Monroe history of the Knicks has been marked by a love-hate relationship between flamboyant, troubled African American guards and the fans. During Willis Reed's rocky year-and-a-half coaching tenure in the late '70s, the team had its first all-black twelve, a collective known around the Apple as "the Niggerbockers." Reed's backcourt, Ray Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, was the most athletically gifted the franchise has ever had and also the nuttiest. Williams had amazing hops and speed, but zero court judgment, while Richardson is one of the league's legendary cokeheads. Substance abuse drove him out of the NBA in 1986, but with the Knicks, and later the Nets, Richardson's combination of ball handling, on the ball "D," and ability to penetrate made him a four-time All Star.

During the Patrick Ewing era, the Knicks have twice flirted with school-yard poetry and both times succumbed to tabloid prose. In 1987 they chose Mark "Action" Jackson— point guard by way of St. Albans, Queens, Bishop Loughlin, and St. John's— as their No. 1 draft choice. Through his first two seasons— strong campaigns each— Jackson unveiled the no-look, alley-oop, and precise decision-making on the break that have made him one of the NBA's all-time assist leaders.

His lack of foot speed was a problem that began to manifest itself during a lackluster third season. So were the many press attacks aimed at Jackson's fancy passing and celebratory dancing after he'd completed a spectacular play— offenses that irritated the sporting press to no end. But if beat reporters were miffed at Jackson the extrovert, they truly never understood the impassive demeanor of Bronx-born, pickpocket-quick Rod Strickland, drafted out of DePaul in 1988.

AP/ Wide World

Where Jackson was a showboat trapped in a mailman's frame, Strickland was cool and athletic. Where Jackson was a budding Christian, Strickland had strong knucklehead tendencies. But both were true New York schoolyard talents who desired, and deserved, to still be the Knicks' point guard. Instead each was banished in disastrous deals.

Which brings us back to Sprewell. Knicks fans are well aware of this history. But as much as they crave wins, they also seek fun. Along with his considerable baggage, Sprewell brings a new offensive paradigm to the Knicks. Using three guards and more high post sets, Sprewell and Alan Houston will be free to post up (remember how effective Michael Jordan was on the blocks?), allowing the Knicks to remake themselves into an actually entertaining team. The loudest sounds at the Garden these last two years weren't the chants of "Dee-fense!" but the yawns of season ticket holders. The Nets and Knicks had the same record last year and both were hampered by serious injuries, yet the Jersey team was a better show.

The much-lamented departures of John Starks and Charles Oakley have changed the nature of the Knicks. Both were blue-collar players who worked to overcome their limitations. Their work ethic and small-school backgrounds made them Garden darlings despite the fact that their unfinished games (Oakley's inability to post-up and dreadful dribbling, Starks's poor shot selection and emotional outbursts) were major reasons the Knicks couldn't overcome the Bulls, Rockets, or Pacers. The Knicks era that those two embodied peaked years ago.

The best unsolicited endorsement of Spree's game comes not from a courtside scribe, but that other cornrowed, vilified 21st-century talent, Allen Iverson. "If I could be any other player, I wouldn't be Michael Jordan, man," he said in the March issue of the hip-hop b-ball journal Slam. "I would take Latrell Sprewell's game. . . . He can play the whole damn game. He got pride with his game, you know. And he just hard. When I look at him I see myself, 'cause he don't care who you are, he just go at you. He go right at your chest, crazy hard. He can shoot, he can run, he can dribble, he can jump. He's smart, he know the game."

Depending on your viewpoint, this is one out-of-control player praising another or one great talent in awe of another. I tend to agree with Iverson, but I acknowledge Sprewell is no saint. He fought with teammates even before the Carlesimo incident, and, I suspect, some beef with another Knick will arise sometime this season. That is his track record. But, with the profound exception of the choking incident, Sprewell's personal history isn't dissimilar to a lot of young black sports stars, who struggle to balance celebrity, pressure, money, and ego under the media's essentially unsympathetic scrutiny. Any on- or off-court slipup by Sprewell will be gleefully documented.

Still, it was heartening to see how open the Garden crowd was to his arrival. Certainly Sprewell got a warmer ovation during introductions at last Wednesday's preseason game than union head Patrick Ewing. While there were shouts of "Choke It!" when he fumbled the ball during a sloppy first half, those jeers quickly changed to cheers when he spotted up for threes and slashed to the hoop. Though less spectacular in Friday's loss to the Nets, Sprewell proved difficult for New Jersey to defend and often deferred to the hot-shooting Houston.

Knicks' fans, I believe, are anxious to embrace the dark side. With Jordan gone— leaving the role of clean-cut, upwardly mobile stardom to Grant Hill and Tim Duncan— the most charismatic young stars are hip-hop heads like Shaq O'Neal, Iverson, and Stephon Marbury. It will be their rawer aesthetic that dominates the league in the next few years. With Sprewell in the house, the Knicks can now compete, both in style and attitude. By the spring, there'll be a lot of little kids sporting Sprewell's No. 8 jersey— cornrows optional.

One of two articles in our NBA feature.

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