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.
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.
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.