Why I Love Spree

I used to hate basketball. I come from a long line of jocks and was constantly encouraged (and sometimes forced) to go out for swimming or softball or what have you. But, having achieved my present height of 6 feet by my 13th birthday, the constant nagging about whether I could or would play basketball drove me crazy. It didn’t take me long to develop a particular loathing for the sport, out of a mix of natural contrariness, hatred of the high school coach and the other players, and the simple fact that in those pre-Rodman days, tattoos and luridly dyed hair did not mix with sweat socks and high tops. I didn’t play it, didn’t watch it, didn’t care, leave me alone.

Several years later, I had an apartment with pirate cable and a Knickerbocker-worshiping roommate. Tired of the snotty remarks every time I walked through the living room during MSG game nights, he offered to share his six-pack with me if I would actually sit and watch a quarter. I stayed until the end of the fourth. And I was hooked. The Knicks weren’t a bunch of faceless overachievers or morons. These guys had personality, they had style. They were tough, wore sharp suits off court, and were as New York as high rents, heroin and the Empire State Building.

Every season, by the time playoffs rolled around, I was building little altars of orange and blue candles with offerings of malt liquor around the television. Sometimes it helped. But mostly it didn’t, and the team of bruisers that had so enthralled me was scattered from Canada to California. Goodbye to the ever-changing hair of Anthony Mason, adieu to what Clyde Frazier used to call “the rugged grandeur” of Charles Oakley, farewell to John Starks, hero and goat all in one puppy-eyed package. All that remained was Patrick Ewing, crumbling slowly in the sunset like a majestic Roman ruin.

And what did I get in return? Larry Johnson and his bad back. Marcus Camby and his questionable work ethic. But, in the coup de grâce , there was the man who has replaced Dennis Rodman as basketball’s Public Enemy No. 1, Latrell Sprewell. Yup, the guy with the cornrows who tried to strangle his coach and got suspended for a year. Him. There was an uproar and outcry from the press and all the appropriate talking heads, but I was psyched.

Say what you like about Latrell Sprewell, the guy plays great basketball-fast, exciting basketball. He is the pure antidote to my main criticism of the Knicks, a slow-moving, nondriving, predictable team. Spree’s style is pretty much the exact opposite of their Jurassic pace. He’s the sort of player that sparks a game, and the Knicks truly need a god of chaos for a sixth man. Many nights they get lazy, drop a 15-point lead or just go cold and freeze up somewhere in the third quarter, and I imagined Spree running out onto the court to set off one of his coast-to-coast, steal-run-and-jam maneuvers or get on one of those shooting streaks when he just can’t miss. The crowd goes ballistic, the other team’s coach calls time out, the Knicks start hollering at each other, and their heads are back in the game. Yeah, Spree!

After the trades settled, the unpopular minority who favored the acquisition of the world’s most dangerous forward justified their opinion by insisting that he had served his punishment and if the league wants to let him play, he may as well help us win. Patrick Ewing needs a championship and so do the season ticketholders. Others hoped for Spree’s eventual reform, figuring that sitting on the sidelines for 13 months thinking about what he’s done has changed something inside him. Then, I suppose, there was that small segment watching for the train wreck.

Me, I liked his playing style, but I have to admit I gave him a few punk rock points as part of his stick-it-to-the-man, take-this-job-and-shove-it constituency. I like that’s he’s a loner, that he’s neither embraced the thug tag or tried to be goody-goody to get rid of it. I even respect him for wearing those ugly Cosby sweaters instead of the same snazzy tailoring as his new teammates. And he seems quietly articulate. Sure, he may be trouble, but to me he seems more messed up than malicious. I was hoping another belligerent kid who hated the coach could eventually straighten out.

I became an even stronger defender after I read the scathing profile of Spree in The New York Times Magazine by writer Mike Wise, who didn’t even bother to acknowledge that he was a good basketball player, but one who ran up and down the court “without purpose or symmetry.” Mr. Wise hit all the bases: neglectful unwed father, disrespectful player, reckless driver, religious hypocrite. Spree doesn’t care about the game, doesn’t mind losing because he’s used to it, doesn’t pass, doesn’t work hard. Still, Mr. Wise couldn’t cut away all the “troubled young man” tinges, aspects of Spree’s tough-guy reputation that make him likable or at least forgivable-his fondness for video games and cars, his tendency to hang out with the youngest teammates.

The way I see it, he spent five years with the Golden State Warriors. Every night he was playing to an empty arena and every night-no matter how many points he scored-he lost. He might as well try to score 35 points: The most the rest of the team’s going to come up with is 30. And that’s a hard habit to break.

Watching the first playoff game on May 8 was déjà vu for a Knicks fan. Here we were again, yet another spring break in Miami, when Jeff Van Gundy faces Pat Riley for his annual ritual attempt at slaying the father. When Patrick Ewing faces his own miscreant protégé in Alonzo Mourning. But out of all the battles in this grudge match, none was as riveting as Latrell Sprewell’s struggle with himself … and everyone else.

Was Spree’s sparkplug performance the beginning of the redemption of Public Enemy No. 1? After the game, he told reporters, “I’m dying for more … I’m hungry. Feed me.” Maybe walking off the court after Game 1 a winner for the first time will speed up the laborious process of turning the lone gunman-rusty after five years in hell and 13 months in limbo-into a team player? Or maybe Spree just read that Times article and got pissed.

Plus, Spree didn’t start playing team ball until his senior year in high school. I wonder if everyone bullied him into it.