The Selling of Latrell Sprewell-Still Bad, but in a 30-Second Ad

Every time the ball came near Latrell Sprewell in the last game of the Indiana series, Keith Livingston, a compact man with a shaved head and glasses, slammed his hand against a post at the Dean Street Cafe in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and shouted, “American Dream, American Dream.” The sports bar was packed with black people from the outer boroughs, few of them quiet-still, Mr. Livingston’s cry rose above the din: “Give it to American Dream!”

The nickname comes from a stunning advertisement aired during the playoffs by And 1, a basketball sneaker company. The 30-second spot featured a close-up shot of Mr. Sprewell, a basketball player most famous for a violent outburst against a former coach, as he got his hair cornrowed and offered what the company called an “intensely personal communication” about who he is.

“I’ve made mistakes, but I don’t let them keep me down,” he said. “People say I’m America’s worst nightmare. I say I’m the American dream.” In the background, a guitar played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sounding very much like Jimi Hendrix’s indelible rendition of the anthem at Woodstock, 1969.

It goes without saying that as the finals get underway, Mr. Sprewell, who choked his former coach, P.J. Carlesimo of the Golden State Warriors, in 1997 and lost a year of his career before the Knicks traded for him in January, has been vindicated in the eyes of most New Yorkers. At once mellow and explosive, his game is a big reason the Knicks are in the finals. And his story, of being derided by the press through a lackluster season, labeled dysfunctional by The New York Times , looks like a thrilling redemption tale.

“He’s done something that’s really interesting,” said Jerry Della Femina, the ad man. “At the end of every game, he gives the most reasonable of interviews. I’m almost convinced he’s been coached, that there’s a sinister P.R. person behind this who’s told him, Never raise your voice. And he’s good. He seems like a very decent guy. My 10-year-old son adores him. No one wants to bring up the choking incident anymore. If it is an act, we’re going to find out before too long.”

Then Mr. Della Femina dismissed a rumor I’ve heard, that he’s tried to meet with Mr. Sprewell.

“I’d be afraid to meet him,” he told me. “Maybe I’m not being forgiving enough.”

For many young people, blacks especially, the idea of Sprewell could not be more different. It is not about black menace, violence or racism. It’s about rebirth, creativity, colorblindness and hard work. The “American Dream” ad was designed by a small multiracial company to allow Mr. Sprewell to go over the heads of the media, older white men who Mr. Sprewell’s supporters felt were misreading the player’s introversion as racial defiance, and it has struck a chord. The idea of Sprewell is the idea of inclusion and individuality, the very things that white Americans have long celebrated as their American inheritance and that black Americans are now embracing as theirs.

“The stereotype doesn’t fit,” Keith Livingston told me at the Dean Street Cafe. “Yes, some people are going to find him intimidating. His outer person-he does look fairly intimidating, with the braids. And, yes, he has a mean look. But then you realize you can’t judge him by that. He lost a lot of money. He lost his livelihood for a brief moment. He came from nowhere and now look at him. He’s on top, he’s a leader of his team. In the ad you hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ It’s like apple pie and baseball. You can’t get more American than that.”

On Dec. 1, 1997, P.J. Carlesimo, the Golden State Warriors coach who has a reputation for riding players, got on Latrell Sprewell during a practice for not making good passes, and for Mr. Sprewell it represented the culmination of a month of verbal abuse. Tempers flared; Mr. Sprewell rushed at Mr. Carlesimo’s neck. He was thrown out of the gym, and is alleged to have come back 20 minutes later to attack Mr. Carlesimo again. (Mr. Sprewell denies this.) The player soon apologized for his conduct, backed by many members of the Golden State Warriors, even as he expressed indifference about ever returning to the game. He was suspended and lost his salary.

For many people, Mr. Sprewell’s behavior fit an obvious category: black hostility toward whites. When I told Mr. Della Femina that he was judging Mr. Sprewell on the basis of one piece of data, he said, “I had only one piece of data on O.J. Simpson, too.” On the And 1 Web site, “JoCouch” said the Sprewell ad was “the equivalent of putting O.J. on for a knife commercial.” Some of these judgments are voiced by black people. At the Dean Street Cafe the other night, a young black man from Queens told me that he was disturbed when the Knicks traded for Mr. Sprewell.

“But when I saw him on television, I saw that he was well-spoken. He didn’t talk like he was on the street,” the man said. “Still, if I choked my boss, would I still have a job?”

No. But neither did Latrell Sprewell. This is a crucial element of the idea of Sprewell. He is post-O.J. O.J. surely had the impulse to confess. In a jailhouse interview with Rosie Grier, the minister and former football star, O.J. is said to have confessed and asked Mr. Grier what to do. Mr. Grier told him that he must acknowledge the crime and beg forgiveness. O.J. never took this advice. No, we live in a legalistic society where people like Alan Dershowitz exist to beat raps. So O.J. won his case-and has become a burnt shell of a human being. But Mr. Sprewell confessed, and was punished severely. While he is still suing the National Basketball Association and the Warriors (saying he should get back all but $1 million of the $6.4 million he lost), his story is the opposite of O.J.’s.

The latent racism in Latrell Sprewell’s treatment is the refusal to allow him to get past a crime he paid for. “If Latrell Sprewell was white, would his punishment be different?” asked “CP” on And 1’s Web site, not long ago. “Ernesto R” responded that the punishment might have been the same, but the media coverage “would have died out really fast.” The New York Times has at times been punitive, characterizing his play as “dysfunctional.” Mike Wise’s story on Mr. Sprewell in the May 2 Times Magazine said that Mr. Sprewell’s contemptuous behavior justified the “worst thoughts” about his character, a miasma that he implied had swallowed the team’s championship hopes. (Mr. Wise manfully recanted this story in the June 13 Times .)

Younger students of basketball have tended to see Latrell Sprewell in a much less threatening context. They look past the anger and see the skills, an open-court throwback to Elgin Baylor, a work-ethic defensive player who does everything that coaches teach in Catholic Youth Organization leagues.

“I was at the Garden when I saw on the Jumbotron that his hobby is fixing old stereos,” Tony Gervino, the editor of Slam magazine, said. “I got a chuckle out of that. Is he a violent threat like America thinks, or a very intense athlete, like Ty Cobb? There was no one more intense than Ty Cobb. Cobb was a maniac. But he’s also an American hero.”

Larry Platt, the author of Keepin’ It Real, A Turbulent Season at the Crossroads With the N.B.A. , said that Mr. Sprewell is in a post-Jordan category, indeed a category made possible by Michael Jordan, of hard-working capitalists who are determined to maintain their character even as they try and build economic empires to rival Michael Jordan’s.

“It used to be that black athletes had to be made palatable to be marketed,” Mr. Platt said. “In the 70’s, Julius Erving said ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’ in a dutiful way, and shaved his Afro when he opened a shoe store. Not long ago, Fila presented Grant Hill in a tuxedo and tap shoes. Well, you will never see Allen Iverson or Latrell Sprewell lose the cornrows to appease white businessmen. Mr. Iverson just fired David Falk, the man who created the Jordan crossover. He said, ‘I felt like I was the prey.'”

Mr. Platt said the culture clash of N.B.A. locker rooms these days is between older white sportswriters who are used to the Jordan paradigm-a politically savvy black man, exchanging goods, services and smiles with the majority society-and younger athletes who see their place in that society as more established, less color-coded.

Seth Berger, the president of the shoe company And 1, agreed. He said that music television created a youth market in which blacks and whites are surprisingly indifferent to color. “It’s a race-neutral culture that is open to endorsers and heroes that look different,” he said. “These people are comfortable with tattoos and cornrows.”

And 1 is a multiracial company in suburban Philadelphia (it has black and white partners; one of its white partners is married to a black woman). It started by selling T-shirts that glorified trash talk; in Mr. Sprewell it saw a player with “mad skillz,” to use the hip-hop term for creative game. After the choking incident, Converse promptly dropped Latrell Sprewell as an endorser. And 1 partners called friends in the league, and reached a sympathetic view of the case: Mr. Sprewell is a hard-working, independent player who had been provoked. And 1 offered to pick him up at once. His agent said it wasn’t time.

Then on April 19, Mr. Sprewell signed with the company. “Latrell said to me, ‘My gosh, this is more than an apparel company. This is a company that understands me. Its ideology reflects mine. We can grow together,'” said Robert Gist, Mr. Sprewell’s agent and one of his lawyers. “Their feeling is, ‘Let’s sell Latrell.’ We don’t want a better image, we want Latrell’s image, because we know people will accept Latrell for who he is. It’s not a management image or a corporate American image.”

That was the whole point of the American Dream ad. “If you have a problem with this, then your problem is you,” Seth Berger explained. And 1 made the commercial in the last week of the season, when it became apparent that the Knicks were going to squeak into the playoffs. “We decided on a Thursday and met Latrell on Friday in the locker room at the Garden, after the Knicks played the Celtics,” Mr. Berger said. “It was shot that weekend.”

The Miami ad firm of Crispin Porter and Bogusky made the ad in around four days, for about $80,000. Alex Burnard, the firm’s art director, said the script was specifically intended not to “give him a second chance” but to let Mr. Sprewell say who he is. “We weren’t trying to go, here we have a basketball player with a sketchy past, we want to fix him. But we have a powerful person, show him in his true light.” Thought was given to staging the ad in a barbershop, before a more personal space was used: Mr. Sprewell’s hotel room, in Westchester County. “It was always going to be ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ or ‘God Bless America,'” Mr. Berger said. But Mr. Burnard said they wanted to recall the shocking effect that Jimi Hendrix had had. Why did they use a blues guitarist to “funk up” the anthem, and not Hendrix’s own licks? “Probably money,” Mr. Burnard said.

The ad began running the first day of the playoffs, mostly on Turner Broadcasting, MTV and Black Entertainment Television. It has played only three times on NBC, where 30 seconds costs $200,000. But the message has gone out, drawing enormous hostility. Bill Walton, onetime hippie and NBC commentator, has opined that Mr. Sprewell isn’t in Jimi Hendrix’s league, and the ad has regularly been attacked by Phil Mushnick of the Post . On the And 1 on-line bulletin board, some people have attacked the ad. “African-American kids are desperate for good role models … Sprewell is the perfect example of what is wrong in our society,” said “Michele.” Others have lashed back. “Giv it ^,” wrote “j-dogg.” “Spree got more game than you got remarks. Why ya wastin his flava.”

“This is the first time a black athlete has been marketed as a rebel,” said Mr. Platt. “Back when Muhammad Ali refused to change, he didn’t get endorsements. I think he got one, from D-Con, the roach killer. This reminds me of that rap song, by Nas. ‘You can hate me now, because I’m paid.'”

These stars offer glimpses of a race-neutral culture. When the Sacramento Kings dubbed white rookie sensation Jayson Williams “white chocolate,” because of his style of play, Mr. Williams rejected the label. “He didn’t like the nickname,” Mr. Platt said. “He was influenced by black playground legends. I don’t think it’s colorblindness, but it’s a true recognition of meritocracy. One of the new rappers these days is a white kid from Detroit, Eminem, a protégé of Doctor Dre. He owes more to black masters than to Vanilla Ice.”

There are rumors of more Sprewell endorsements to come. Mr. Della Femina said a mainstream ad would have to feature P.J. Carlesimo, too. “You can’t have the choker without the chokee,” he said. Robert Gist, Mr. Sprewell’s agent, laughed this off but said that he looks forward to a reconciliation, some day, between the player and coach. Mr. Gist said he has gotten overtures from Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss (Mr. Klein’s company denied this, Boss didn’t return my call), but now is not the time. Mr. Sprewell has to stay focused on a deal he made with the people of New York. “There was an unconditional acceptance from the fans,” Mr. Gist said, “and Latrell has tried to meet their charge: ‘We want you to be our next Walt Frazier.'”

Jimi Hendrix died in London just two weeks after Latrell Sprewell was born in Milwaukee. Hendrix was then Latrell Sprewell’s current age, 28-29, and I remember lying for hours on the floor of my friend Greg McNair’s house, listening to Band of Gypsies, staring at Hendrix’s image in posters and album covers.

Greg and I attended a predominantly black high school in Baltimore, but Greg, a middle-class black kid, stood out way more than I did as a privileged white one. He combed his hair out like Hendrix’s, wore bell bottoms, tied a bandanna around his knee, played guitar. He stayed at my house and I stayed at his, and the whole white-black thing, the labeling, the difference, so interesting to me, seemed to make Greg weary. He wanted to get past it. That’s something that drew him to Hendrix, who came out of a black blues tradition but set about to defy labels. “I’m going to wave my freak flag high,” Hendrix said.

Today, a broad band in the culture wants to get past it, to be freaks, capitalists or something else. The economic boom and Bill Clinton’s policy of inclusion have brought the American dream alive for black Americans. That dream turns out to be the same one that Jews-Jewish writers, artists, doctors-had 40 and 50 years ago: the dream of the end of the ghetto.

The last night of the semifinals at the Dean Street Cafe, I was stunned by the Americanness of the people around me. When the black crowd started chanting, as one, the Knicks slogan, “Go New York, Go New York, Go,” it was a far cry from the fabulously menacing cheers my high school teammates and I used to chant when running off the bus at white schools. When Reggie Miller missed a shot, and the crowd started chanting, “Reg-gie Sucks,” they were as dorky as suburban white kids.

The game ended. Latrell Sprewell ran around the Garden floor thanking the fans who had supported him. Nearby me, a young black man went up to the bar. “Hey, put on that record, ‘New York, New York,'” he said. “By Frank Sinatra. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”