The rehabilitation of Latrell Sprewell

The Knicks star has gone from villain to hero -- because he challenged authority in a city sick of The Man.

Topics: Basketball,

Four months ago, on the day the New York Knicks opened their season with a loss to the Orlando Magic, the front pages of New York’s papers were all reporting the same dispiriting news that would set the tone in the city for months to come: An unarmed immigrant named Amadou Diallo had been inexplicably gunned down by police in a hailstorm of 41 bullets. At the time, of course, the incident appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with the distressing reports already peppering other sections of the papers, in which the newfangled Knicks were being sold down the river — prematurely, it turns out — for having traded away the gritty, popular guard John Starks for the flashy, coach-choking villain Latrell Sprewell.

But now, as those same down-and-outcast Knicks arrive home for Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, trailing 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs, it’s past time to recognize the fact that the sudden, and frighteningly messianic, popularity of this band of ragamuffins — and Sprewell in particular — is directly related to the Diallo shooting and its aftermath. Quite simply, the ne’er-do-well Knicks, who had been unjustly beaten down by the media and their own hellish corporate management, unsuspectingly became the living embodiment of New York’s roiling anti-establishment fervor.

Of all the Knicks’ hobbling and homely players, the fortunes of Sprewell have surely changed the most dramatically this season. Less than two years after he was tossed out of the league for choking and threatening to kill Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo (an ugly incident he made worse by playing the race card, bringing in Johnnie Cochran and suing the NBA), Sprewell finds himself not only strutting on the NBA’s biggest stage but starring in a national television spot for apparel company And 1 sports, which starts with him admitting he’s made mistakes and finishes with him staring into the camera and saying, “Some people say I’m America’s nightmare. I say I’m the American dream.”

Not surprisingly, much of the media reacted with horror, accusing the ad of glorifying a bad guy. The New York Post’s Phil Mushnick wrote, “The commercial portrays him as an unapologetic creep who couldn’t care less what you think of him.”

New Yorkers’ relationship with Sprewell has been complex from the beginning. Many Knicks fans were uneasy about the baggage he brought, and not entirely convinced that he wasn’t a bomb waiting to go off. If anything, the media was more alarmist than the public. As the Knicks began their amazing postseason run, however, fans and the media alike began to take a kinder view of the enigmatic star.

The venerable hometown New York sports media, which has had a rather unpredictable season of its own, has totally misfired on its analysis of the political overtones of Sprewell’s redemption saga, oversimplifying it as merely another deplorable example of the way sports figures have only to win to find their moral characters magically elevated. Some of Sprewell’s newfound hero status (in a sure sign of his deification, Spike Lee has begun wearing his No. 8 to the games) is no doubt attributable to the upturn in the team’s fortunes. but more is involved. While other rehabilitated or quasi-rehabilitated stars, such as Roberto Alomar of umpire-spitting infamy or rapist and ear-biter Mike Tyson, may eventually have their transgressions forgiven, it is quite another thing for the offending act — particularly the attempted strangling of one’s coach — to become a badge of honor.

Enter Diallo. For many New Yorkers, white and black, united in outrage as they have not been in years at a police department that gunned down Diallo and was proved to have been responsible for the torture of another immigrant, Abner Louima, the fearless defiance Sprewell stood for was emboldening. (Even Roseanne, on a visit last week to the David Letterman show, sang Sprewell’s praises.) And when the team began to show signs that it still had some life left after all the abuse it had taken from impatient ownership and a cynical media, it was a short step for Sprewell to be heralded as the Take Back Our Team player in a Take Back Our Town time.

This remarkable foible reassignment process is part of what has lazily been called the “intangible” edge the Knicks hold in this series — a factor that must be exercised if they are to avoid being dominated by the Spurs’ unstoppable twin towers, David Robinson and Tim Duncan. For the Knicks, winning this series is all about Sprewell. This is his moment to seize.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans, though, he may not be mature enough to take it. Days before the Finals began, Sprewell told teammates that he wouldn’t play for coach Jeff Van Gundy next year, an ill-timed power play that can only hurt the Knicks’ cohesiveness. Yet fortunately for Sprewell, the New York media (and in particular the venerable New York Times, which has yet to right a series of missteps on the Knicks beat) has been too preoccupied with making up for months of scathing and often unfair criticism of him to do much of anything with such a newsworthy nugget. Instead, Times NBA columnist Mike Wise is still doing penance for the 3,000-word piece he wrote about Sprewell for the May 2 Sunday magazine, in which he portrayed Sprewell as a selfish punk who represented the rotten core of the Knicks. “Their goal was a noble one: to transform a good player on a bad team into a great player on a championship team,” Wise wrote of the Knicks’ acquisition of Sprewell. “They never imagined that player could take a good team and play a major role in turning it into a very bad one.”

The day after the piece was published the Knicks clinched a playoff spot, and with Sprewell leading the way, began their improbable march to the Finals. There were plenty of others who had also prematurely dismissed the Knicks, including the team’s upper management, who on April 21 fired general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who is responsible for bringing in Sprewell and trading for “soft and unfocused” (see Wise, Times) forward Marcus Camby in what now looks to be a stroke of genius. Particularly with players union president Patrick Ewing (who did himself and his fellow players no favors during the lockout last fall by actually proposing a charity game to help the game’s needy, unemployed millionaires make their half-dozen mortgage and car payments) out with an Achilles tendon injury, Camby’s rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, has been the most vital contribution from an otherwise thin Knicks front court.

But it was Wise’s constant drubbing of Sprewell — he referred to him as “rudderless” and a “Gen X knucklehead” — that ended up drawing a foul call from, of all people, the New York Post’s strident NBA columnist, Peter Vecsey, making this a memorable if not winning season for Knicks scribes. In his May 28 column, Vecsey, who had defended Sprewell as a player, called Wise the “class creep from the Times” and suggested that Wise was being used as a tool of coach Van Gundy to denounce Sprewell, a charge Wise denies.

Finally, as the Knicks were polishing off the Indiana Pacers in six games in the semifinals, Wise — who broke the story that Knicks president Dave Checketts had met secretly with former Bulls coach Phil Jackson to discuss the possibility of taking over for Van Gundy as coach — began reeling off columns praising Sprewell. In his June 13 column, headlined “Sprewell Has Changed a Critic’s Perception,” he actually reprinted sections of his magazine story followed by the terse mea culpa: “In retrospect, I did not get it.”

Lamentably, the tone of Wise’s recent columns, in which he has praised Sprewell’s attitude as the thing that “made everyone settle down and reevaluate what this team was truly about,” in addition to his unwillingness to call Sprewell on the carpet for his selfish comments about Van Gundy, makes one wonder if he gets it now. It all sounds disappointingly similar to the aforementioned win-you’re-a-hero, lose-you’re-a-bum mentality. If the Knicks lose in the Finals, as they likely will, will Sprewell go back to being a scary, corn-rowed thug?

In the end, the truth is that most of us know very little about who Sprewell really is. As is so often the case with sports figures, he is a blank screen onto which we project our own fantasies, desires and obsessions. Someday, maybe Sprewell will be neither the American Dream nor the American nightmare — he’ll just be a ballplayer who screwed up, paid some dues and resumed making gazillions of dollars. But this is New York, where business, culture, politics, the media and Madison Avenue are always colliding, and so this isn’t just the NBA Finals — it’s a racial morality play, a live psychoanalysis and a struggle for redemption rolled into one. Don’t take your eyes off the screen.

Julian Rubinstein is a staff writer at Gear. He has covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post.

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