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"Sprewell is a one-on-one player," observed Steve "Snapper" Jones as Latrell turned a hard right corner on a drive to the hoop. "Well, he's spent a lot of time playing by himself," co-commentator Bill Walton quipped after Spre missed the shot, but drew a foul. Walton was referring, of course, to Sprewell's extended layoff from NBA competition courtesy of his own hot temper and the six-month NBA lockout, during which time he settled for whatever teammates he could rustle up at the local YMCA in Milwaukee.
Since his notorious lunge into the national spotlight in December 1997, the media has converged on Latrell Sprewell like passersby at a fatal car wreck, craning their necks for a closer look with a combination of horror and fascination. Whether it's Sprewell's line of logic during a crucial possession on the floor or his sentiments about coming off the bench for 16 of the 20 games he's played in New York, the media's quest for a Knicks story line never strays far from the 6-5 swingman's locker.
Still, two months and umpteen postgame inquisitions through his first season as a Knick, Sprewell remains something of a mystery to New York fans desperate for their team to break out of the ranks of the also-rans. In spurts of spectacular play, Sprewell has displayed unquestionable talent and athleticism. But it's hasn't been enough to lift the Knicks out of the underachieving doldrums. Sprewell has been an unpredictable contributor. On one play he may sear through defenders toward the basket like a man possessed. But he might just as easily trip into a traveling call as he botches a ball fake behind the three-point line. And as Knick watchers puzzle over his inconsistent production, Sprewell's controversial legacy keeps on coming back to haunt him.
It's easy to blame a player with a volatile reputation for a breakdown in team chemistry. Press coverage of the Knicks in recent weeks has been laden with insinuations that Sprewell's missteps on the court are the result of stubbornly selfish play. He wants to score, so he doesn't look for his teammates on the break, even if he's missed his last three shots. According to these reports, several of his teammates have not been very forgiving of his on-court miscues. And some Knick players have reportedly expressed frustration at Sprewell's lapses in communication. But in conversations with the Voice last week, various Knicks put a different spin on Sprewell's fiery reputation.
Forward Kurt Thomas, whose exit from the starting lineup has piqued considerably less interest than Sprewell's, understands his teammate's sometimes ill-advised offensive aggressiveness. All those years as the bright spot on a losing team has conditioned Sprewell to take the extra shot, said Thomas, because it was the only way to win. "When you have a player that has been in that role for so long, there's no bad shots. No one is going to have a great game every night. He's had some bad nights, but he's had so many good nights you tend to forget about the bad nights."
Chris Childs, who often shares the bench with Sprewell at the start of games, says that the team was pleasantly surprised by Sprewell's willingness to work within the team philosophy. "I think everybody felt that he was gonna come in and take over and try to be the man," Childs said. "He has been nothing but the opposite. He has come in and played his role to the best of his ability." Childs went on to commend his teammate for his response to being benched for most of the fourth quarter in the Cleveland game. "He didn't sulk, he was rootin' guys on. That's the mark of maturity."
(For his part, Sprewell didn't bite the bait when a reporter pressed him to reveal his feelings about the benching: "I wasn't surprised, not at all. I'm not even questioning the issue. It's the way it is and I just deal with it.")
These votes of confidence from well-respected teammates lead one to wonder why the media continues to hammer at the bad-boy-tries-to-make-good story line. With more consistency than he's shown on the court, Sprewell has skirted opportunities to expound on his frustration about playing the Knicks' slower style of basketball or about not having won a permanent spot in the starting lineup. This has led basketball writers to speculate about just how deep the discontent might run beneath his amiable facade. But is Sprewell's unsavory dark side really relevant if it isn't what stands between the Knicks and success?
Whatever lies behind the armor of calm that Sprewell exudes before cameras and microphones, his teammates have plenty to say about another side of Spre that the public rarely sees. In the absence of John Starks and Charles Oakley, it is Sprewell who has consistently brought emotional energy to the locker room. "He's fired up, we got to be ready for him," Childs said of Sprewell's zest for winning. After the Knicks beat Indiana last Tuesday, Childs felt the full force of that energy, "I'm getting ready to give him a high five and he misses my hand and smacks me right in the head," Childs recalled.
Backup point guard Rick Brunson, who has grown close to Sprewell over the last couple of months, said he relies on Sprewell to pick him up when feeling low. "He's very emotional, very intense," the soft-spoken Brunson said of Sprewell. "Through ups and downs he's always the same person."
So Sprewell is actually more giving than the selfishness rap he's stuck with suggests. True, Sprewell is undeniably at his best when he's running the court like the Lone Ranger. But while his freewheeling style may ruffle a few Eastern Conference feathers, Sprewell has demonstrated his ability to contribute in other ways, while adding an offense threat that the Knicks sorely need.