New York knicks guard Chris Childs was sitting at his locker during the Knicks' first-round NBA playoff series with the Miami Heat when he was asked about teammate Latrell Sprewell's new TV commercial for the shoe company And1, in which Sprewell appears with his trademark corn-rows unbraided. "We're going to have to get on him about that," Childs said with a laugh. "Man, he looked like Buckwheat!"
As jolting as Sprewell's daring 'do is in the ad, however, it was nothing compared with his derring-do on Sunday, when he injected high-voltage energy into the often-stultifying grudge match that is the Heat versus the Knicks. The result: a come-from-behind 78-77 victory in Game 5 at Miami Arena that made New York only the second No. 8 seed in NBA history to topple a No. 1. For the second straight year Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy had stormed into the house of his mentor, former New York coach Pat Riley, to hand him an opening-round defeat. "I don't know what it is," said Knicks guard Allan Houston, who hit the series-winning shot on a running 10-footer with .8 of a second left. "We just seem to play better when our backs are against the wall."
With 7:51 left in the first quarter the Heat led 10-3, and the 14,985 fans at Miami Arena smelled blood. Enter Sprewell, New York's 6'6" sixth man. He quickly went to work, scoring 11 points to help the Knicks cut the lead to 41-37 at the half. In the fourth quarter he again came up big, hitting a baseline turnaround jumper over Terry Porter and helping to strip Tim Hardaway of the ball in the closing seconds. For the series Sprewell led the Knicks in scoring, with 16.2 points per game. "Spree came up big," Childs said. "He gets us going in transition, and we wind up with easy baskets. That makes the game a lot easier."
Just a few weeks earlier the Knicks' off-season acquisition of Sprewell, the onetime coach choker, was widely regarded as a failure. On offense he would often fly solo, jacking up outside shots when he felt like it or taking off on wild drives to the basket. On defense he would lapse at critical times, leaving his man open for perimeter jumpers. His commercial aside, Sprewell was more nightmare than American dream. Struggling to make the playoffs despite a league-high $68.5 million payroll, the Knicks on April 21 fired general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who had made the deal for Spree.
Worse, to many New York fans who had lamented the off-season trades of the spirited Charles Oakley and John Starks, Sprewell seemed too tolerant of losing. On the flight back from a humiliating loss to the Bulls in Chicago on March 12, he cut up with forward Dennis Scott, an incident that contributed to Van Gundy's decision to waive Scott the next day. After a 24-point drubbing in Charlotte on April 7—the Knicks' fourth defeat in six nights—Sprewell seemed to shrug off the loss, saying New York would soon turn itself around. "I've played on losing teams before," he said. "I know what it takes."
The nadir for Sprewell, however, came on April 21, when his agent, Robert Gist, ripped Knicks management in a back-page story in the New York Post. Claiming that Van Gundy had mistreated Sprewell by playing him off the bench and at small forward, Gist said Spree would seek a trade at season's end if he wasn't used more to his liking. Knicks president Dave Checketts fined Sprewell $25,000. Although Sprewell distanced himself from Gist's comments, the damage was done. Once again he was seen as somebody who couldn't work in a team structure.
Just when the Sprewell Experiment seemed a failure, however, it got new life. With Patrick Ewing's playing time limited by his chronically sore right Achilles tendon and athletic Marcus Camby seeing more minutes in Ewing's stead, Sprewell suddenly found himself with more opportunities to shine, better spacing on the floor and teammates who enhanced his open-court game. He found creases in the defense. He hit the open man. He became a complement to Houston, giving the Knicks a two-pronged outside-in attack as opposed to the previous inside-out attack anchored by Ewing.
Against the Heat the 28-year-old Sprewell took his game to near All-Star level. Using his quickness against gimpy Miami guards Tim Hardaway and Dan Majerle, he slashed his way to 22 points in New York's 95-75 win in Game 1 and led the Knicks with 20 points in a 97-73 blowout in Game 3. He also played aggressive defense, helping turn Heat forward Jamal Mashburn into a rumor for much of the series.
When it was over, Sprewell threw his arms up over his head in a triumphant V and bounded around the court like a kid on Christmas. Then he pumped his fist at the stunned crowd and ran over to a group of teammates huddled in the middle of the floor. In the locker room he chanted, "S-E-C! S-E-C!" with Houston, a reference to their collegiate days in the Southeastern Conference—Sprewell at Alabama, Houston at Tennessee. "This is what it's all about," Sprewell said. "I'm at an alltime high right now."
For Sprewell, the victory was more than just his first taste of playoff success. It was a measure of vindication, an answer to the critics who said he couldn't blend his skills with those of his teammates. "Nothing's going to come overnight, especially when you bring in a couple of new guys—it takes time for people to jell," Sprewell said of his early struggles. "But we haven't done anything yet. It's only the first round."