"When he was asked if Sprewell is simply misunderstood -- the most shopworn excuse of all -- Carlesimo said, 'That's not for me to say.' What he should have said was: 'Misunderstood? Misunderstood is when you get arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed your kids. This guy's just spoiled and disturbed.' "
Latrell Sprewell was the subject of the strangest interview of my career. It was early in the 1994 NBA season, and the premise of the piece, for the San Francisco Chronicle, was to get inside the head of a guy who did things on the court that nobody else could do. Those things weren't always pretty, but they were wild and frantic and inspiring. As you watched his body as it seemed to liquify in midair, you wondered what it would feel like, just once, to experience that kind of explosiveness. There was only one word for the way Sprewell played back in '94: authentic. There was no one else like him.
Unfortunately, he didn't want to let the world in on his secrets. Either that, or he didn't own the words to express them. I was fine with that. I was happy to attempt to provide the words as long as he kept playing the music. Usually, the athletes themselves are the last ones who can provide insight into what they do. Still, speaking to Sprewell in '94 was like verbal racquetball: Everything bounced back, often at odd angles.
This was a few weeks after his daughter had been mauled by one of his pit bulls, losing most of one ear, and I asked him how it had affected him. This was a softball question, a chance for him to show a side of himself he had, to that point, refused to show. So he said the dog attack didn't affect him. He shrugged. He stared into my eyes, daring me to react. He said if it had been worse -- "People die every day," he said -- it might have affected him. He said he still had the dog, even though weeks later it was revealed that he had had the dog put to sleep shortly after the incident.
I didn't know what to make of him. His eyes looked right through you. He was unsettling, intentionally so. Giving him the extreme benefit of the doubt, I figured he didn't want anything to do with stardom. He wanted the basketball part of it, but he mistakenly believed that reporters and broadcasters would eventually ignore him if he specialized in obfuscation and misdirection.
Then, of course, came the choking incident with P.J. Carlesimo on Dec. 1, 1997. He became one of our culture's bizarre touchstones -- he was the embodiment of evil, which was such a typically preposterous knee-jerk that made you almost want to side with Sprewell. CNN got a week's worth of programming out of it. Johnnie Cochran showed up to represent Sprewell at a press conference. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown suggested that perhaps Carlesimo deserved a choking. At the time, as a columnist at the Chronicle, I wrote, "The pop-culture imprimatur has stamped itself on the proceedings, and Latrell Sprewell just became a bit player in his own drama."
I believed then and I believe now that Sprewell was the culprit and not the victim when he attacked Carlesimo. Of course, that stance is as brave as coming out in favor of orange juice. But I also believe Sprewell has managed to break free of that pop-culture freak world, and he's done it by showing those sides of himself he previously refused to show, or even acknowledge.
He's done it without handlers, without contrivance, without letting the strain show. I don't know whether the new Sprewell arose from introspection, maturation or the good vibes that come with playing for a winning team, but I do know one thing:
During the past few weeks, I've conducted some of my most pleasant interviews as a journalist, and the subject was Latrell Sprewell.
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