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The 'Choke' Artist
Sprewell's Image Remains in a Chokehold
By Mike Puma
Special to ESPN.com
"There was just a buildup of anger and frustration and having it all bottled up and not being able to express myself. At that point, it just came to a head," says Latrell Sprewell on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Regardless of what he accomplishes in basketball, Latrell Sprewell will live in infamy as the player who attacked and threatened to kill his coach. During a Golden State Warriors practice in 1997, Sprewell snapped, choking P.J. Carlesimo before returning about 20 minutes later to continue the assault.
NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Sprewell for 82 games before an arbitrator reduced the sentence to 68 games, costing Sprewell $6.4 million and his shoe deal with Converse.
Sprewell deemed the punishment too harsh. "I wasn't choking P.J. that hard," Sprewell told 60 Minutes. "I mean, he could breathe."
Stern called Sprewell a symbol of the "widening gulf" between professional athletes and the fans. Sprewell claimed his being an African-American tainted the public's view of the attack on his coach. "I want people to know I'm not a bad guy," he said. "I never said I shouldn't be punished for what I did. We just said the punishment was excessive."
He never played another game for the Warriors. The New York Knicks traded for him after his reinstatement, allowing the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Sprewell to resume his career in 1999.
In the autumn of 2002, Sprewell was in trouble again, this time for reporting to camp with a broken shooting hand without having informed the organization. The Knicks fined Sprewell $250,000 - believed to be the largest NBA fine levied on a player by a team - and banished him from the team's practice facility. Sprewell denied a New York Post report that said he broke the hand during a fight on his yacht and filed a $40-million lawsuit against the newspaper.
Sprewell's dark side was evident even before his attack on Carlesimo. In 1995, Sprewell scrapped with Warriors teammate Jerome Kersey and returned to practice carrying a two-by-four. He reportedly threatened to return again, with a gun.
In 1998, Sprewell spent three months under house arrest for a reckless driving incident in California in which he forced another driver off the road.
Sprewell's rap sheet obscures his play on the court. A four-time All-Star, he had career averages of 18.8 points, 4.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds after the 2003-04 season.
"I'm not into having people talking all about what I was like as a kid or what I did way back when," Sprewell said. "That's one of the things I always knew I wouldn't like about being in the public eye. I never asked to be famous."
The second of Latoska Fields' and Pamela Sprewell's three children, Latrell was born on Sept. 8, 1970 in Milwaukee, where he endured a difficult childhood. Fields physically abused Pamela and the children, and the couple split when Latrell was six.
At seven, he moved in with his grandparents in Flint, Mich., before settling in with Fields. But before his junior year of high school, Sprewell returned to Milwaukee; Fields, a small-time marijuana dealer, had been sentenced to two years in prison after a sawed-off shotgun was found in his car.
As a senior at Washington High School, Sprewell was asked to try out for the basketball team by the new coach. Not only did he make the team, he emerged as a star, averaging 28 points while leading Washington to a 24-2 record. Sprewell also won the Jack Takerian Award, given annually to a senior in the area who displays good character and respect for teammates and officials.
Despite his success, Sprewell didn't receive any scholarship offers and went to Three Rivers Junior College in Poplar Bluff, Mo. In his first season he was suspended briefly after an arrest for shoplifting. The next season, he averaged 26.6 points and 9.2 rebounds and led the team to the Final Four of the national junior college tournament.
By then, Sprewell had attracted Division I attention. He transferred to Alabama for his junior season and became a premier defensive player. As a senior, he averaged 17.8 points and earned All-Southeastern Conference honors. The Warriors drafted him with their first pick, No. 24 overall, in 1992.
Struck by injuries, the Warriors started Sprewell and he responded by averaging 15.4 points and 3.8 assists to earn a spot on the NBA All-Rookie second team.
In his second season (1993-94), he leaped to stardom, making the All-NBA first team by averaging 21 points, 4.7 assists and 2.2 steals. He also made his first All-Star Game appearance. That season he fought teammate Byron Houston, ignoring the fact Houston had 50 pounds on him. Coach Don Nelson had his shirt ripped trying to separate the two.
In October 1994, Sprewell's four-year-old daughter, Page, was attacked by one of the family's four pit bulls and had an ear severed. Sprewell didn't put the dog to sleep until the 10th and final day of the animal's quarantine. He said the attack didn't traumatize him. "Stuff happens," he said.
The following year Sprewell was charged in Oakland for driving with a suspended license and speeding. The arresting officer, an Asian-American, reported Sprewell used racial slurs. The charges were eventually dropped.
On the court, he was dynamite, leading the Warriors in scoring in four of his five full seasons. In the 1997 All-Star Game, he led the West with 19 points and was voted MVP. A month later, he recorded his first career triple-double (31 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists). He finished the season averaging 24.2 points, the highest of his career.
In 14 games to start the 1997-98 season, Sprewell was averaging 21.4. Then came his unexpected attack of Carlesimo on December 1 after the coach yelled at Sprewell to make crisper passes. Sprewell responded by telling Carlesimo he wasn't in the mood for criticism and warned the coach to keep his distance. When Carlesimo approached, Sprewell threatened to kill him before dragging him to the ground by his throat. Sprewell kept his hands on Carlesimo's throat for 10-15 seconds before the other players tore him away.
Sprewell returned to the court about 20 minutes later and punched Carlesimo, landing a glancing blow before again being dragged away. The Warriors suspended Sprewell for 10 days, but changed course the next day and voided the remaining three years and $23.7 million left on his contract.
In the spring of 1998, after his punishment had been reduced, Sprewell sued the Warriors and the NBA for the $6.4 million he would lose in salary.
After Sprewell's reinstatement, the Warriors traded him to the Knicks for John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry Cummings in January 1999.
Sprewell's debut with New York came on Feb. 5, 1999, when he scored 24 points against Orlando. Five days later, he was placed on the injured list with a stress fracture in his right heel, sidelining him 13 games. He ended up playing in 37 games, all but four of them off the bench, and averaged 16.4 points. That spring, he got a new sneaker deal, with And 1.
Sprewell was shifted from shooting guard to small forward and started all 82 games in 1999-2000, averaging 18.6 points. After averaging 17.7 points the next season, he agreed to a $62-million, five-year contract extension. Sprewell made his first All-Star appearance as a Knick in 2002, a season in which he averaged 19.4 points and 4.2 assists.
In October 2002, Sprewell explained his broken hand by saying he slipped on his yacht and the injury occurred trying to brace his fall. The New York Post reported that Sprewell took a swing at a guest on his yacht and missed, hitting a wall.
"If I was trying to hit somebody, I think I would hit them," Sprewell said.
After the injury healed, Sprewell returned to the lineup and averaged 16.4 points for the Knicks. In July 2003, he was dealt to Minnesota as part of a four-team trade that involved six players. Averaging 16.8 points, he helped the Timberwolves produce the best record in the Western Conference at 58-24.
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