When Latrell Sprewell was named to his first All-Star team in 1994, in only his second NBA season, someone suggested to him that his days of anonymity were over. No longer would public-address announcers mistakenly introduce him as Ladell or turn his last name into "Sprool." He was a celebrity now, which meant he was about to be discovered by the media. The public would have a chance to get to know him. A slight smile crossed his face as Sprewell considered that possibility. "Everybody's going to get to know me?" he said. "I don't think so."
He was right. Very few people have really come to know Sprewell, 27, during his NBA career. Throughout his six years with the Golden State Warriors he guarded his past and his private life as tenaciously as he guarded opposing players, often politely asking reporters who wanted to write feature stories about him not to bother calling his family or friends back home in Milwaukee. "I'm not into having people talking all about what I was like as a kid or what I did way back when," he said at that All-Star Game. "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."
Now, of course, Sprewell has traded in his fame for a far greater infamy. When he assaulted and threatened to kill his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, during a Dec. 1 practice, he committed one of the most outrageous acts on the court or field of play that American professional sports in the modern era has known, and that act will surely follow him for the rest of his life. Even those who have risen to Sprewell's defense have been careful to acknowledge that they do not condone his actions. "The players are concerned about what led up to this," says New York Knicks forward Buck Williams, who played for Carlesimo as a Portland Trail Blazer and who is a former president of the National Basketball Players Association. "They are angry that Sprewell has not had the chance to tell his side of the story. They're not taking Sprewell's side, because nobody in his right mind can really take his side. He was totally wrong."
Even in light of Carlesimo's reputation as a coach who is hard on his players, Sprewell's attack was inexcusable, though not unexpected. Anyone who had followed the Warriors could see that a confrontation between Sprewell and Carlesimo was brewing. Even though Sprewell was sticking to his policy (declared during the preseason) of not giving interviews, he made his disdain for his coach clear. On Nov. 9, while the Warriors were being blown out by the Los Angeles Lakers, Carlesimo saw Sprewell laughing in the huddle during a timeout. Carlesimo told the team to get serious. When Sprewell didn't, Carlesimo substituted for him, and Sprewell said to Carlesimo in front of the team, "You're a f——— joke." Carlesimo held Sprewell out of the starting lineup in the following game, against the Detroit Pistons.
Three days before the choking incident, Sprewell was fined when he missed the team flight from Oakland to Salt Lake City and didn't arrive on his own by the team-appointed deadline, midnight the night before the game. Some Golden State players say that Sprewell often failed to give his best effort at practice, sometimes even refusing to shoot the ball during scrimmages.
Thus the stage was set for the ill-fated workout. During a drill about midway through practice at their downtown training facility, Carlesimo told Sprewell to "put a little mustard on those passes," to which Sprewell, according to witnesses, replied, "I don't want to hear it today." Carlesimo then approached Sprewell despite the player's warnings. "Don't come up on me, don't come up on me," he said. When Carlesimo kept walking toward him, Sprewell threatened to kill him and grabbed the coach by the throat, dragging him to the ground and choking him for 10 or 15 seconds before other players tore Sprewell away. (Observers said some of the players were in no great hurry to pull Sprewell off Carlesimo.)
About 20 minutes later Sprewell returned while the team was scrimmaging. According to several Warriors players, he went after Carlesimo again and threw punches at the coach, connecting with one glancing blow before he could again be hauled away. Sprewell, who declined to talk to SI for this story, has denied that he struck Carlesimo when he returned, saying that he was restrained before he ever got close enough to land a blow. He later issued an apology to his family and fans but not to Carlesimo. (According to Sprewell's agent, Arn Tellem, Sprewell called Carlesimo last weekend and apologized.)
Golden State responded to Sprewell's attack by first suspending him for 10 games, then, two days later, terminating his four-year, $32 million contract, which had nearly three years and about $25 million remaining, citing the conduct clause in the basic player agreement. That clause says players must conform to standards of good citizenship. (Sprewell also lost an endorsement deal with Converse, valued at a reported $300,000 to $600,000 annually.) After the Warriors kicked Sprewell out the door, NBA commissioner David Stern locked it behind him by suspending him for one year, during which he cannot be paid by an NBA team. An extended battle pitting the league against Sprewell, his representatives and his union—a tussle that may well spill into the courts—is probably inevitable. Moreover, Sprewell has become the topic of discussion in barbershops and boardrooms, among politicians and preachers. He is now the target of the public's disgust with the modern pro athlete, a rage that has been years in the making. To many fans Sprewell is every millionaire player who ever complained that he should be a bigger millionaire, every arrogant star who ever refused to sign an autograph, every hot-tempered athlete who has ever bumped a referee or brawled in a nightclub and been punished with a fine he could take out of petty cash. He has become not so much a person as an issue, one that develops more facets daily. He is labor versus management, black versus white, the individual versus the system.
Although Sprewell is suddenly well-known, he still is not known well. "He's not just a case, you know, or a subject for the talk shows," says Warriors guard Muggsy Bogues. "He's a person. He's flesh and blood. A lot of people have been talking about what he did, but I haven't heard many people talking about who he is."
A paragraph in the Warriors' media guide probably reveals everything Sprewell would like the public to know about what kind of person he is: He likes jet-skiing, the Dallas Cowboys, repairing stereo equipment and eating his mother's spaghetti; he didn't play organized basketball until his senior year at Milwaukee's Washington High School; he has two daughters, ages 9 and 7, and a son, 2.