A Real Stretch Convinced at a secret face-to-face meeting that tarnished Latrell Sprewell was worth the gamble, the Knicks transformed themselves--for better or worse

February 01, 1999

They're perfect partners, Latrell Sprewell and the New York
Knicks. Each has clung to a remarkably positive self-image in
the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Sprewell
considers himself a man of normal self-control who is haunted by
one brief flash of temper, conveniently ignoring the other
flare-ups in his past. The Knicks for years believed themselves
to be on the verge of an NBA championship, a belief apparently
unshaken until recently by their four consecutive second-round
playoff exits.

They've held these beliefs, though neither side is supported by
the facts. The 28-year-old Sprewell says that he wants to put
his Dec. 1, 1997, attack on Golden State Warriors coach P.J.
Carlesimo (page 56) behind him, yet he's pressing far-fetched
lawsuits against the league and his former agent, Arn Tellem,
stemming from the incident. As for the Knicks, after every
playoff elimination center Patrick Ewing has insisted that New
York was a better team than its conqueror. Sprewell and the
Knicks should understand each other, even when no one else does.

There are several reasons the trade that sent Sprewell, a 6'5"
guard, from Golden State to the Knicks last week for guard John
Starks and forwards Terry Cummings and Chris Mills sets the
stage for a fascinating season in New York. Not the least of
them is this: We're about to find out if Sprewell is the kind of
man and the Knicks are the kind of team that each has claimed to

Also, the fate of each is dependent on that of the other. If
Sprewell behaves himself and plays like the three-time All-Star
that he is, the Knicks should be championship contenders in the
Jordan-less NBA. Likewise, if New York is successful, Sprewell is
less likely to experience the frustration that helped lead to his
attack on Carlesimo, which earned him a suspension without pay
for the final 68 games of last season.

The grand experiment began well for the Knicks and Sprewell when
he addressed the media last Friday, the day after the trade.
Sprewell reintroduced himself to the basketball world as a
contrite, grateful and optimistic man--but essentially the same
man. He assured the media that what they'll see is not the new
Sprewell but the real Sprewell: the poised, friendly fellow who
sat at the podium next to New York coach Jeff Van Gundy.

If Sprewell had been as humble and apologetic in the days
following the Carlesimo incident as he was at last week's press
conference, the last 14 months of his life might have been
easier. Draped in pastels, he was all smiles, the very picture
of calm. He began by apologizing again to Carlesimo and handled
even the most difficult questions with aplomb. His demeanor was
almost enough to convince onlookers that the player who
throttled Carlesimo must have been Sprewell's evil twin. "I'm
sorry," he said. "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." He also insisted that
he has no fundamental behavioral problems, no difficulty in
managing his anger. "I think it's fair to say I had a bad day,"
he said.

As reprehensible as Sprewell's attack was, it's time for him to
put on a uniform again. The NBA has exacted its pound of flesh
and its pile of cash--Sprewell lost about $6.4 million in salary
during his suspension, not to mention approximately $3 million
during this season's lockout. The notion that the Knicks should
not have lowered themselves to deal for him is misguided.
Assault does not carry a life sentence. Sprewell should be
permitted to play for any team that will have him.

But if he believes the trade to New York constitutes a mere
second chance, either his math or his memory is faulty. In
addition to his attack on Carlesimo, he fought at practice on
separate occasions with at least two Warriors teammates, Byron
Houston and Jerome Kersey, reportedly wielding a two-by-four in
the Kersey episode. Last July he was sentenced to three months
of home detention for a reckless driving incident in which he
forced another car off the road.

The Knicks' management felt apprehensive about trading for him,
which is why New York asked for and received permission from NBA
commissioner David Stern to meet with Sprewell before the
lockout-inspired moratorium on contacting players was lifted
last week. Van Gundy; Dave Checketts, president and CEO of
Madison Square Garden, which owns the Knicks; and team president
Ernie Grunfeld and vice president of player personnel Ed
Tapscott visited Sprewell for about two hours at his house in
Milwaukee on Jan. 17. They questioned him at length about a 1994
incident in which his daughter Page, four years old at the time,
had part of her ear severed by one of his pit bulls and about
reports that he seemed strangely unmoved following the attack.
He told them that despite his lack of outward emotion, he had
been extremely concerned about Page and that he was grateful
that she had received medical attention that left her with no
permanent damage. His other answers were equally reassuring to
the Knicks' brass. Van Gundy later said the only thing that
disappointed him about the session was that Sprewell had no Diet
Coke in his refrigerator.

Still, the Knicks realize there's no guarantee that they won't
experience some of the same difficulties with Sprewell that the
Warriors did. Checketts, in particular, opened himself up to
charges of hypocrisy by making the deal, since he had said on
more than one occasion over the past 2 1/2 years that he didn't
want players of questionable character on his team. According to
him, the trade of forward Anthony Mason to the Charlotte Hornets
in July 1996 was part of an effort to clean up the Knicks'
image. Moreover, Checketts had declared that he would never be
interested in acquiring Dennis Rodman. (Checketts and Grunfeld
last week reiterated that the Knicks still had no interest in
Rodman and denied that they had inquired about a sign-and-trade
deal with the Chicago Bulls for him.)

Checketts gamely took the hits for his about-face on the
character issue. "I know I set myself up," he said. "To make the
statements I have about not wanting certain players on our team,
I guess I'd have to say that was pretty judgmental and almost
self-righteous, and I regret having said those things. It's not
fair for me to judge what people have gone through."

Still, Checketts might not have had such an epiphany if Sprewell
didn't have the talent that might put the Knicks over the top.
He's an accomplished defender (he made the All-Defensive second
team in 1994), and it's not hard to envision him guarding other
teams' most dangerous perimeter scorers--the Miami Heat's Tim
Hardaway, the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill, the Charlotte
Hornets' Glen Rice--no matter what their position. Indiana
Pacers point guard Mark Jackson devastated his New York
counterparts, Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, with his scoring
and passing out of the low post in the Knicks' playoff loss last
season. With Sprewell such damage shouldn't be inflicted again.
"I see my role as a defensive stopper," he says, which is
primarily what he was in college at Alabama and early in his pro
career, before he became the Warriors' first offensive option.

Sprewell, whose career scoring average is 20.1 points, also
gives the Knicks more offensive firepower, but that's where
matters could get complicated. New York had some offensive
conundrums to work out even before his arrival, given the return
of Ewing, who was sidelined nearly all of last season because of
torn and dislocated ligaments in his right wrist. In Ewing's
absence, shooting guard Allan Houston emerged as the Knicks'
main option, developing the confidence to drive to the basket as
a complement to his outside shooting. But the plodding New York
offense has been dominated for years by Ewing, who tends to get
the ball in the low post and hold it, seemingly interminably,
before shooting. There's doubt whether Ewing will be willing or
able to change his approach enough to take advantage of
Houston's talents. The arrival of Sprewell, who as a Warrior
needed the ball a lot, and three-point specialist Dennis Scott,
whom the Knicks signed on Sunday, may further muddle the New
York offense. "Our offense will be fine," says Ewing. "Every
player on this team is willing to make whatever adjustments we
need to make."

"I don't foresee any problems," Houston says. "Spree and I are
very similar players, but I think we'll work well together. It's
going to take some time for everyone to get used to each other
and get in a comfort zone, but I don't think you'll see anyone on
this team complaining about shots."

As practice began last week, Sprewell was warmly received. Even
Ewing, who hated to lose Starks, his teammate of eight years,
felt the trade had to be made, and forward Larry Johnson has
already cast himself as Sprewell's protector, asking to have his
new teammate's locker next to his. But getting all the pieces to
mesh on the court still promises to be a challenge. Neither
Sprewell nor Ewing has shown himself to be particularly adept at
modifying his game, critics be damned. If they don't change
enough, or if Houston has to change too much, New York could
have a tough time.

One certainty is that the Knicks have transformed themselves
from an aging, bruising, unathletic team into a younger,
sleeker, faster one, thanks to the additions of Sprewell and
third-year forward Marcus Camby (obtained from the Toronto
Raptors in a trade for 13-year veteran power forward Charles
Oakley, rookie Sean Marks and cash) and the subtraction of
pounds by Johnson, who shed 25 in the off-season, when he gave
up meat while studying Islam. New York has lost some of its
rebounding and toughness with the departures of Oakley and
Starks, but the Knicks weren't getting any better with that core
group. "It was time to try something different," Checketts says.

The goals are there for the taking: a championship for New York,
redemption for Sprewell. The Knicks, at least the 36-year-old
Ewing's Knicks, may never have a better chance. Sprewell may
never have another one.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON A good impression At his first NBA practices in more than 13 months, Sprewell seemed to have a grip on himself. [Latrell Sprewell stretching leg on floor] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Warm welcome Sprewell's new teammates, like veteran center Herb Williams, were willing to lend their support. [Herb Williams and Latrell Sprewell] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON [Latrell Sprewell practicing shot]

Dropped Shots

If form holds, Latrell Sprewell (above), like Allan Houston and
Larry Johnson before him, will get fewer shots in his first year
with the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks than he did in his last full
season (1996-97 with the Warriors, when he averaged 18.1 field
goal attempts). Houston and Johnson came to New York in 1996-97,
from the Pistons and Hornets, respectively.

PLAYER 1995-96 1996-97

Larry Johnson 15.1 9.7
Allan Houston 15.2 12.7
Patrick Ewing 19.2 17.2

"Spree and I are very similar players, but I think we'll work
well together," says Houston.