By Neil Beldock
Gritty, talented, lightening quick, unbridled, sinister, undisciplined, dynamic, thuggish, spoiled, insubordinate, hard worker, versatile, competitive, defensive specialist, energizer…..These are just some of the words which can be found amongst the many adjectives used to describe this extremely talented but controversial player and person. From his corn rows and dreadlocks to his immense and unique basketball talents and abilities, Latrell Sprewell, as an NBA basketball player was, well Latrell Sprewell.
A 6 foot 5 inch, 195 pound guard/forward Sprewell played 13 years in the NBA posting impressive career numbers of 18.3 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game, 1.4 steals per game and .4 blocks per game. As the numbers indicate, there wasn’t an aspect of the game in which Latrell Sprewell could not and did not excel.
But it was not his all-star caliber numbers or exciting style of play which propelled Sprewell to the forefront of the basketball world. It was an incident which occurred on December 1st, 1997.
While playing for the Golden State Warriors during the 1997-98 season Sprewell, during practice, had a career altering incident with his then coach P.J. Carlesimo.
Never a fan of Carlesimo’s aggressive, demanding, in-your-face, disciplinarian style of coaching , things began to simmer during an early season blowout loss to the Lakers. During that particular game Carlesimo benched Sprewell for laughing during a time-out.
Things continued to simmer two days later when Carlesimo threw Sprewell out of practice for ignoring his instructions. On November 28th Carlesimo fined Sprewell for missing the posted arrival time for a game. The simmer was quickly turning into a boil.
Two days after being fined by Carlesimo a full boil was reached. During practice Carlesimo was riding Sprewell for what Carlesimo saw as Sprewell putting forth a less than inspired effort. As Carlesimo continued to ride him, it is reported that Sprewell told the coach that he was “not in the mood” for criticism and told Carlesimo to “keep his distance”. As Carlesimo approached, Sprewell grabbed Carlesimo by the throat, choking him and threatended to kill him before teammates and assistant coaches were able to pull Sprewell away.
After going to the locker room and showering, Sprewell returned to the court to once again attack Carlesimo. He landed a glancing punch to Carlesimo’s right cheek before once again being pulled away by assistant coaches.
After being suspended without pay for 10 days the Warriors, largely in response to public outcry, voided the balance of his contract which had 3 years and $23.7 million remaining. The NBA then suspended Sprewell for 1 year. Sprewell appealed; the voiding of the contract was overturned and the one year suspension was reduced to the remaining 68 games of that season.
Sprewell continued his fight against the NBA by filing a $30 million lawsuit charging the NBA with anti-trust and civil rights violations. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in July 1998.
Sprewell did not help his image when, during his suspension, he was arrested for reckless driving after being involved in an auto accident which injured two people. The result was an out-of-court settlement, a fine of $1,000, 3 months of home detention and 2 years probation.
Seeking redemption, Sprewell publicly apologized and claimed to be a changed man. “People are going to see that I’m a lot different from what they think” he said.
But who would touch him? Choking a coach, being arrested, prior violent incidents such as fighting with teammate Jerome Kersey during a 1995 practice in which Sprewell threatened him with a 2 x 4 and gun, getting into a fist fight with teammate Byron Houston during a 1993 practice and suing the NBA. Who indeed….
Who? A team with an aging superstar with deteriorating knees. A team with a rapidly closing window to win a championship. A team with a passionate fan base teased by getting close to a championship and starved for the holy grail of the NBA. And a team who, after a controversial split with their previous legendary coach might and would do anything to attempt to stop that individual from realizing another NBA championship.
Enter the New York Knickerbockers…….
Although Knicks president Dave Checketts initially and quickly denied reports that the Knicks were interested in Sprewell, he just as quickly reversed course stating “It’s not fair for me to judge what people have gone through”. He added, “We really owe it to the fans of New York and the Knicks to do everything I can to win….And you just don’t get a chance to get a talent like this.”
In January of 1999, at the conclusion of an NBA players lockout and collective bargaining strike, the Knicks traded John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry Cummings to the Warriors for the mercurial Sprewell.
Once playing for the Knicks Sprewell quickly became a fan favorite by playing with the type of style and grit which had come to define the Knicks through the early to mid 1990’s. The fans as well as Coach Jeff Van Gundy loved his competitiveness, versatility and fiery personality.
During the spring of 1999 the Knicks, very much spurred on by Sprewell’s play and personality, had a magnificent playoff run capped by an improbable appearance in the NBA finals. During the playoffs Sprewell averaged 20.4 points per game, including averaging 26 points per game during the 5 game championship series loss to the San Antonio Spurs, including a 35 point, 10 rebound performance in the game 5 loss.
Sprewell followed up his inaugural season with the Knicks with an excellent year in 1999-2000. He averaged 18.6 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game and 1.3 steals per game in helping lead the Knicks to a 50-32 record, good for third best in the Eastern Conference. His impressive play continued into the 2000 playoffs where he averaged 18.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game in helping to lead the Knicks to 1st round and 2nd round victories before falling to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Overall, Sprewell wound up playing five years with the Knicks before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, a trade which enraged Sprewell and led him to publicly lash out at Knicks owner James Dolan.
In his first game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden as a member of the Timberwolves, Sprewell scored 31 points in leading the Timberwolves to a 98-92 win. Throughout the game he was heard screaming at Knicks owner James Dolan (who was sitting courtside) with a continuous stream of obscenities. In response, the NBA fined Sprewell $25,000 for his behavior.
Sprewell’s NBA career effectively ended after he refused to sign a 3-year, $21 million contract with the Timberwolves claiming that amount to be significantly less than his worth. Although he received other offers, all were determined by Sprewell to be less than what he was willing to play for.
Sprewell’s post playing days have proved to be as volatile as his tenure as an NBA player was. Reported incidents include Sprewell’s daughter being attacked by his pet dog requiring surgery for her, Sprewell strangling a girl during consensual sex on his yacht (although the charges were dropped), his long term companion suing him for $200 million for not supporting their 4 children while they were in college which she claimed he agreed to, and Sprewell facing foreclosure on his yacht and two homes.
A great basketball player? Yes……A lightening rod? Absolutely…….
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