What if there was one thing in your life that meant everything to you? A thing that you ran to when you were a boy, and your dad was in jail, and you had to move to a strange place. A thing that connected you to your friends always, even when you had nothing to say because you had no words for what was inside of you. A thing you turned to when you had to grow up at 16, when you had a family at 20. A thing you knew so well that you used it to go places no one thought you could go.
What if someone came along and tried to take that thing away from you, tell you that you didn't know it all? What if he told you not just once, but again and again, and not just to you, but in front of the guys you work with, the guys you share this things with? What if he made you feel like you just could … not … take … it … any … more.
What would you do? Would you walk away? Would you change your act?
Or would you go for his throat?
March 8, 1998. Latrell Sprewell is moving from interview to interview, shedding weight as he goes, unloading three months of virtual silence in a barrage of sound bites. The message constructed for him is part candor, part lawyer talk, and is intended to make him seem remorseful but to leave open the possibility that the events of Dec. 1, 1997, were not as we think they were. It's clear that Latrell Sprewell wants to be liked.
It's also clear that he doesn't get what all the fuss was about. One world sees him as a thug who choked P.J. Carlesimo after the coach told him to "put some mustard on it," who deserved the punishment the Warriors and NBA tried to hand down. But that's not Sprewell's world. In his, if someone challenges your manhood, you respond. What's the big deal? Especially since Sprewell says he never choked Carlesimo. "All the things P.J. and I were going through before that," he tells David Aldridge of ESPN, "it really just came to a head that day."
There were other days, too. Days that by themselves wouldn't have foreshadowed Dec. 1, but days that mounted up.
April 24, 1977. Pamela Sprewell has left her three kids with their father, Latoska, for a couple of hours, in their home on North 41st Street in Milwaukee. The oldest child, Teran, decides he wants to go see a friend and takes PPonciana, who's 2, and Latrell, who's 6. Maybe Latoska is drinking, maybe he isn't—the police report doesn't say. But the longer he sits in that apartment in the heart of uptown, the crazier he gets. Soon, this six-foot-tall man who barely tips the scales at 165 pounds is in a rage. He turns over tables. He breaks mirrors. He smashes the color television. The landlord hears breaking glass and yells through the back door, "Man, you sound like you're tearing up the house."
Then Latoska goes over to North 8th Street, where his young wife is hanging out, and tells her he wants the car keys. Now. She watches him drive off in her '74 Chevy Monte Carlo, then races home to find that her place has been wrecked. Missing are clothes, stereo equipment and a $400 mink coat. Fed up, the young mother presses charges, and Latoska goes to prison.
Soon another man enters the picture. Pamela's new boyfriend is an old-school Southerner. When he's around, her demeanor changes. She gets more tense. Latrell doesn't like the changes, or the beatings that he's taking. "Everything had to be perfect in his eyes," he says, thinking back. "I just didn't like him whuppin' me." He vows that he will never let anybody push him around like that again.
This is what he says now: "That's why I'm the way I am. That's why I rock my braids. That's why I listen to hip-hop. That's why I'm not going to take things when other guys would."
Flint, Mich., has the bleak feeling that old beige brick gives off under gray skies. But it was a different city 20 years ago, and Evergreen Valley, where the Sprewell kids landed in the summer of '78, was part of its promise.
They move in with Latoska's parents, Miss Jackie and her husband, Chick, a mixed-race couple living on a block of square grass lawns and ranch homes owned by white families. Miss Jackie is an imposing, proud black woman. But it's Chick, a cross-country chemical tank driver, who lives for these kids. He is the one who fills a closet full of balls for his grandson. "In essence he raised me," says Sprewell. "He was definitely in my corner."
Chick buys the boy a moped for his paper route, and Latrell spends so much time moving those papers that the neighborhood knows him as "The Paper Boy." But as he moves into his teens, he spends less time with the papers and more with the basketballs.
"We'd be dunkin' every night 'til dark," says Floyd Macklin, who was Sprewell's best friend at the time. "And Trell would say, 'If I can just get this dunk, the rest of my game will come along.' " Latrell and Floyd do nothing but play, hoping to reach the local celebrity status of Flint's stars—Glen Rice, Andre Rison, Mark Ingram. They're the ones people pay 50 cents to be near on Wednesday nights at the teen club. But in the ninth grade, Latrell tries out for the varsity at Flint Central, and the coach, Stan Gooch, cuts him after the first practice.
By then, Latoska has come back into his son's life. He moves in a couple of blocks away, and Latrell joins him. Latoska becomes a low-level marijuana dealer, and his son is attracted by the better life that money can buy. "We finally had things, like stereo equipment," he says. The good times don't last past '86, though. While Latoska is out on bail for a drug bust that is later dismissed, Ann Arbor police find Latoska with a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his green Plymouth Fury. He cops to two more years in prison.
"It hurt to see my dad gone," Sprewell says now. "We were so tight, and then he was taken away from me. And then, to see him caged like an animal &hellip "
The summer of '86. Latrell takes his basketball and moves back to Milwaukee to live with his mom. As a junior, he enrolls in Washington High School, located on the north side. The new kid isn't much of a kid, though. "Latrell was grown when he was in high school," says Danny Parker, a high school teammate. Sprewell puts it differently. "I was a kid going my own way, searching for some stability."
His mom lets him drive the family car—an ancient Caprice with a hole in the floor in the back—and since she's always working, he flits between pizza parlors and bowling alleys. One of the girls he sleeps with gets pregnant, and Latrell awakes one day to find himself another teenager with a kid, a father in jail and a mother trying to keep it together. When he looks for a way out, there's only one thing he can turn to.
One autumn day, he decides to go public with his game. It's an open gym session, and all manner of prep hoop wannabes are courtside. Latrell, by now mostly height and sinew, hunches over his dribble in front of Chris Powell, Washington's star center. To those watching the matchup unfold, the new guy's nearly bald head stands out among the Jheri Curls and high-top fades. Powell doesn't know him, and neither does James Gordon, the school's new coach.
Every time the new guy goes on offense, he tries to do the same thing: beat Powell of t he dribble to the basket. Powell tries to push Latrell out toward the free throrw line, the far reach of his range. Powell forces him to the left, where the ball handler is bound to flub his dribble or put up an awkward shot; the new guy's game is almost completely righthanded. From the sidelines, one of the motley students calls out, "You can take him, Latrell!"
"I know," the player says quietly. Then Sprewell explodes forward, taking Powell to the hole. Not just once, but again and again.
James Gordon didn't used to take seniors on his basketball teams. "I thought they were too much trouble," the coach says. Then he pauses for effect before adding, "That is, before Latrell."
Sprewell's game may be raw, but his mind is quick. He becomes a leader on the team and takes Washington High to the state quarterfinals.
And yet he stays in his own world. On the bus, when the kids all play "the dozens," an innocent game of insults that's a precursor of trash-talking, the game stops when it gets to Latrell. He holds up his hand, as if to say: I don't do that. And everybody knows not to.
The Fall of '88. The big college recruiters are not as forgiving of the raw edges of his game. So, after Gordon points him in the right direction, Sprewell enters Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Mo., a small town between Memphis and St. Louis. The Three Rivers coach, Gene Bess, is tough. "Toughest of all," Sprewell says. "We had curfews and plenty of rules. But he's fair." In his two seasons at Three Rivers, Sprewell leads the team to a 57-17 record. But junior college standouts are a dime a dozen. "If you told me that Sprewell would play in the NBA at that point, I would have laughed at you," says his old friend Parker.
Poplar Bluff is 368 miles from Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Wimp Sanderson is looking for a defensive specialist to add to a team that would feature four future NBA players. "I loved him, Sprewell says of Sanderson, who makes him a starter. With Robert Horry and James Robinson doing most of the scoring, Sprewell impresses people with his tenacious ball-hawking.
Defense, though, doesn't pay for the kids, and by now, Sprewell has three of them—by three different mothers in three different states. Plus, his eyes are on a bigger prize. When former Alabama star Derrick McKey shows up on campus in a brand new Mercedes, Latrell notices. "I was, like, hell, I'd like to roll like that," he says.
It was time to get serious. The young Latrell had toyed with gymnastics. Now, over the summer of 1991, he adds 20 hard pounds and turns the lithe moves of a child in the stuff of a monster game. "He improved so much, it was scary," says teammate Jason Caffey, another pro-to-be. Sprewell becomes the leading scorer on this team of pros.
In four years, Sprewell goes from being a black teenager from a broken home to a 22-year-old, first-round draft pick. He does all this without a single consistent mentor, but with a parade of faces. The men in his life are just passing through. His father, his grandfather, Gordon, Bess Sanderson.
Today, Sprewell says, "I think if I was talking and letting people really understand the things I was feeling, I wouldn't have held in that much and maybe this wouldn't have happened."
In the long run, there was never anyone there to teach him the ways of the larger world.
June 24, 1992. Sprewell is drafted by a talent-rich Golden State team to complement Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway. In a practice one day, Sprewell shows his new team a flash of how intense he is. Byron Houston—the team heavy—throwd an elbow at him, and he smashes Houston in the face. It's Houston, not Sprewell who's fined for what happened. In pro ball's version of office politics, Sprewell's stock goes up; he's a man who stands up to the harsh initiation rites of pro ball. In a way, the Warriors reinforced the behavior that would make him the most vilified player in sports.
A year later, Don Nelson trades the rights to Penny Hardaway (and three future No. 1 picks) for Michigan's Chris Webber, the first pick in the draft. The Warriors have every reason to believe they're a coming team in the league.
Webber is confident and young, and comes from a background of stability that Sprewell never had. Despite the obvious differences, the two become inseparable. But Webber has no patience for Nelson. In the fourth quarter of a close game against Charlotte in February of '94, Webber turns over the ball. Nelson calls a timeout and is on his feet yelling before Webber reaches the bench. In the middle of the tirade, Webber gets into his coach's face and hollers, "Treat me like a man." A few games into the '94-95 season, Webber is gone, traded to Washington. Sprewell's happy life as a star on a contending team, alongside his new best friend, is over. "We had won 50 the year before," Sprewell says. "Why break that up? I was hurt, angry. And then to see Chris vilified in the press … " All that's left is Webber's number written on the side of Sprewell's shoe.
July 22, 1996. The Warriors sign Sprewell to a four-year, $32 million contract, having decided to build the team around him. This, despite Sprewell's support of Webber, another fight— this time with Jerome Kersey—and his failure to get along with Tim Hardaway, who was traded the previous season. Sprewell buys his mother a house in Milwaukee, and one for himself in Hayward Hills, an affluent section of Alameda County. He takes in his father, who continues to have troubles with the law. He takes custody of his first child, Aquilla, and brings her under the same roof as her half-brother and sister (Latrell Jr. and Page). The kid who left for college and never looked back now visits his mother, Pamela, in Milwaukee, entertaining his old high school teammates in a basement full of state-of-the-art video games. If you're keeping score, he's 25.
His new coach, Rick Adelman, makes Sprewell his team leader, and Sprewell returns the respect. "He wasn't a screamer, he wasn't in your face." Sprewell says.
But on too many nights, the fans see Sprewell as an out-of-control gunner. The club gets wrose and Adelman is fired at the end of the '96-97 season, becoming another two-year man in his life.
That's when the Warriors pin their hopes on their new coach: P.J. Carlesimo.
No one thinks Sprewell was right. Even the players who testified in his behalf, the ones who downplayed his threats during the incident and echoed his sense that Carlesimo was constantly picking on him, knew that he was wrong. His father thought he was wrong too, but for a different reason. Wrong for not finishing the job. "My father is on the extreme, because he knows how P.J. is," says Sprewell.
By now, Sprewell knows what pro basketball wants from him. I'll be a good boy," he giggled at one interviewer on March 8. It galls him to have to say this. He is a man with an inordinate amount of money and an extraordinary amount of responsibility. So why should he be treated like a child when he steps on the court?
After all, he was never a child.