I liked Latrell Sprewell from the moment I saw him, not in real-time, but in still image on the cover of Beckett Basketball Monthly, both hands clutching the ball tight, so tight his fingers might press though the surface, so tight the ball might explode. He wasn’t in flight yet, but past his defender, arms all sinew, eyes up just waiting for his body to take flight.
I could relate.
Ask a fan what they know about Sprewell. They won’t tell you about his explosive first step or the year he played more minutes than anyone else in the league.
They’ll tell you about choking.
The impression of red dots beneath the bushy brown beard, on lily white sin. The day Sprewell set out to strangle his coach.
Angry young black man choking an old white man. I’ll let you guess how that story went over.
When the label of thug came down, and discussion of lifetime suspension and a lawsuit took hold, I saw it differently. Thought of my father as the old man. All the times I’d been bullied and slammed my bedroom door so I could cry in private. Thought of daydreams past, about when I was older or when I caught Dad by surprise—
Do all young men fantasize about pummeling their fathers?
Maybe only certain kinds of young men. Certain kinds of fathers.
And Sprewell wasn’t done. Signed by the New York Knicks. My team. The first I’d learned to refer to by the colloquial my, we, and us of dedicated fan-ship. As in we lost. As in we blew it. As in our defense needs to nut up. As in one day we’ll be champions.
And he played for us. The 1999 season everyone hated because millionaire players and billionaire management couldn’t come to terms, so the games didn’t start, and by the time they did, there was only time for fifty.
That season when we were not contenders, when we scratched and clawed just to earn the last spot in the playoffs—ranked sixteen out of sixteen qualifiers, and put into position to be massacred by the top seed—former archrivals, former upstarts to the Knicks’ mainstay status, the Miami Heat.
Then we beat Heat, and after that the Hawks, and after that the Pacers, the first bottom seed to ever make the NBA Finals. Historic. Critics called it a surprise. Called it luck. Called it the kind of gelling that might have happened mid-season had this team, with all its new pieces, had a whole season to play together.
And even as we were overmatched in the Finals—outsized and outgunned by a San Antonio Spurs team that had surprised no one in making it to the end of the tournament, we had the pride of champions. Of champions who overachieved the way only upstate New Yorkers who looked with awe down to the city could truly understand.
Credit Jeff Van Gundy, the workaholic coach perpetually on the cusp of an aneurysm. Credit Patrick Ewing, the stalwart center and superstar, or Allan Houston’s silky jump shot, or Larry Johnson’s bull-headed, won’t-be-denied style of play. It’s all fair.
But I—I’ll remember Sprewell, braids whipping in the air, ball whipped behind his head and flung forward with incalculable force for a tomahawk jam. He gripped that ball tightly enough to leave indentions on its surface. Fingerprints all over the game.