Sprewell In Black and White


He lost it (though it wasn’t the first time) and stepped out of bounds. The assault catapulted him from the back pages to the front pages, made him a national object of derision and ridicule, and led to his unceremonious canning from a job that— everyone acknowledges— few do better. The resentment of his detractors only increased following his less-than-apologetic accounts of the attack, and early calls for his return prompted swift denunciations.

Still, when Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts ended his yearlong exile, New York’s sports media— led by the pundits at the Post— loudly welcomed him back, or graciously bit its tongue.

No, this isn’t an alternate universe: we’re talking about Marv Albert, not Latrell Sprewell.

Indeed, Albert’s treatment by New York’s sports press stands in stark contrast to its excoriation of Sprewell, who last week in the Post alone was called a “thug,” a “phony,” and a “gangsta.” Sprewell’s consummate badness brought on rants from Wallace Matthews, Phil Mushnick, Jay Greenberg, and Mitch Lawrence. The vitriol even spilled over the Post‘s back pages, prompting a screed from Jack Newfield, an op-ed jeremiad from Meredith Berkman, and a typically moralizing editorial.

But when Albert was rehired by the Garden this July, nine months after pleading guilty to assault and battery, Posties took a decidedly different tack. Then, both Matthews and Mushnick penned columns scoring Albert’s critics— NOW had protested his rehiring— and the woman Albert admitted to assaulting. Vanessa Perhach was “a multilingual shakedown artist,” opined Matthews. Mushnick added that “Albert was as much a victim of Virginia’s one-sided rape shield laws as he was a victim of his own devices and rotten judgment.”

Then too, Post sentiment wasn’t confined to the toy department: NOW’s complaint induced a meditation from attack dog Steve Dunleavy on the “double standard” that “liberals live with,” considering their critique of impeachment. Perhaps Steve Serby captured the Post position best, rebuking the “morality police” while quoting Checketts approvingly: ” ‘How long do we have to hold someone up and punish them?”

Funny how all of that compassion went awry last week. Instead, Matthews was in Old Testament mode, harrumphing that Mrs. Betty Spano’s third-grade class— who’d written letters to Sprewell— had grasped the truth that “something is either right or it is wrong. No in-betweens, no special exceptions, no papal dispensations from the likes of Checketts.” Mushnick thundered that the idea that “everyone deserves a second chance” is “inapplicable garbage,” given “bad guy” Sprewell’s multiple fouls (recall, however, that a key moment in Albert’s trial was the testimony of a second alleged victim).

Meanwhile, though, the Post‘s own reporter Brian Lewis was producing a less pat portrait based on interviews with Sprewell’s friends back in Milwaukee. Spree, said his pals, puts on a clinic back at his high school each summer and visits local jails to talk ball and life to inmates. All in all, a man, concluded Lewis, “as complex as he is unpredictable.” And the Post line took on an ironic resonance given Albert’s own take: “What he did was terrible,” Albert told the News‘s Bob Raissman, “but certainly I’m going to believe in a second chance.”

Still, it’s a bit easier to adopt a hard line when you’re not talking about a person but a “symbol of what’s wrong with sports” (Newfield), and a “bad role model” (editorial) whose defenders are like, er, “Clinton loyalists” (Berkman). Post scribes, along with a sizable cohort of back-page hacks, were too busy fighting the Culture Wars to take stock of the actual people involved here.

One measure of this might be that while the News‘s Mike Lupica and Newsday‘s Shaun Powell sounded reasonable notes, and the News‘s Mark Kriegel pointed out the hypocrisy of the NBA’s winking at players who hit players, in all of last week’s voluminous rehearsals of the Sprewell affair, only the Times’s William Rhoden brought up the subject of race. The incident “carried subtle racial undertones,” reminded Rhoden, raising the question of disproportionate penalties for black-on-white crime, and highlighting the lot of “black players chafing under an old-boy power structure that keeps recycling the P.J. Carlesimos.”

None of which is an “excuse” for Sprewell’s violence, but seemingly basic information for any judgment. Yet where Post columnists strove mightily to put Albert’s missteps in context, context for Sprewell’s actions was studiously avoided. The key might be in the phrase Serby used in welcoming Albert back: “He is better off right now among us, because he is one of us.” Serby was referring to New Yorkers, but it was hard to suppress the suspicion last week that he was more accurately describing a smaller, narrower fraternity.