From coaches and teammates you've heard the testimonials about his character and his commitment, and with your own eyes you've seen his steady and unselfish play. But you still have doubts about New York Knicks swingman Latrell Sprewell, don't you? You gaze uncertainly at his cornrows, his goatee and his scowl; you remember his refusal to communicate with team officials before his tardy arrival at preseason training camp last fall. You see in your mind's eye his hands around the neck of former Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo and the rage on his face, and you wonder: When will Jekyll show up in the Knicks' locker room and Hyde take the floor wearing that number 8 jersey? "There are a lot of people who think they know 'the real Sprewell,' " the real Sprewell said last week. "I know what they're saying: 'He's the kind of person you light a match around and—boom—he goes off.' "
An ever-so-slight smile appeared on a face not much given to showing teeth. "But they're going to be disappointed," he said. "They don't know me. This is who I am."
Who he was on Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena was a minor character in an 87-83 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The man at center stage was center Alonzo Mourning, whose game-high 26 points included a layup that broke an 83-83 tie with 41 seconds remaining and a 17-foot jumper that clinched the win with 5.6 seconds left. Earlier in the week Mourning had been called the second-best center in the Eastern Conference by the man who professed to be the best, Patrick Ewing. The less said about that analysis the better. Mourning was not only the best center but also the East's best player this season. Ewing, meanwhile, still a game warrior at 37, is a gimpy-legged, stiff-backed version of his old self.
Yet the Knicks still lean on Ewing (17 points on 16 shots) at crunch time, and he shares, with shooting guard Allan Houston (21 points on 18 shots), the role of primary option in the half-court offense. If the Knicks are to advance, it would seem that Sprewell (11 points on 12 shots) has to score more in transition, as he has all season, and find a way to counter the Heat "blitz," the double-team Miami has thrown at him when he comes off screens.
Sprewell did not advance this theory after Game 1 but smiled coyly and said, "Think so?" when it was suggested to him. For a guy who came to New York as, at best, "a West Coast up-and-down player" ( Knicks assistant Brendan Malone's description at the time) and, at worst, a conscienceless gunner, the 6'5", 190-pound Sprewell has turned himself into the complete package, willing to defer to Ewing and Houston and is now, not incidentally, the Knicks' glue. In the process he has become one of Gotham's most beloved jocks, a Jeter who gets hip-hop props, a Sehorn with an air of mystery.
How to explain or characterize what has happened since Dec. 1, 1997, the day he laid hands on Carlesimo and became the poster boy for bad behavior in sports? This change in the public's perception is one for the ages, one so dramatic that the same people who suspended him for a season have enlisted him to appear in their TV commercials. NBA commissioner David Stern gave a thumbs-up to Spree's presence in the ads running on TBS and TNT even as the player's lawsuit against the league (to recover the $6.4 million in salary he lost during his 68-game suspension) continues. "I'll see where things are with that this summer," Sprewell, 29, says of the suit. Meanwhile, he signed on for the long haul in New York with a five-year, $62 million contract extension last November.
Is Spree's transformation cosmetic? (Doesn't seem so.) Is it the fruit of a skilled public relations campaign? (Absolutely not.) The by-product of his maturation? (Partly.) The result of being on a contender instead of a cellar dweller, as the Warriors were? (Yes.) A benefit of landing in a vast metropolis where, heck, your neighbor might have choked his boss, a city that, as Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy says, "loves reclamation projects?" (Definitely.) Most intriguingly, is the change permanent? (A tentative yes.)
There are legions of Sprewell doubters—given his history, he has earned that skepticism—but a glimpse into the man's lifestyle would probably surprise them. He lives quietly on three acres in Purchase, the woody, well-manicured Westchester suburb where the Knicks practice, 22 miles north of New York City, and rarely goes anywhere in Manhattan except to Madison Square Garden. During his two seasons in New York he has turned down many opportunities to muscle up his Q rating, rejecting invitations to appear, for example, on the recently canceled sitcom Suddenly Susan and on Queen Latifah's talk show. Sprewell's fianc�e, Candace Cabbil, whom he has known since his college days at Alabama, lives in Milwaukee, where she cares for their three sons, Latrell II, 4; Ray, nearly 2; and Billy, eight months. "Just consider me married," he says, a status he and Cabbil plan to achieve after the season.
Sprewell also says that he has two daughters—Aquilla, 11, and Page, 9—from two other women. In the fall Candace, the three boys and Page are coming to live with him in Purchase, which will put Sprewell's harshest critic under foot: Page is the one most likely to get on him if his shot isn't falling. He eats most of his meals at home (a former fast-food freak, Sprewell, thinner than dental floss but extraordinarily strong, now eschews red meat) and even gets his hair braided there; a woman named Rose Davies, whom he met at a Knicks charity function, comes in to do it three or four times a month.
From time to time his neighbors might see one of his 10 or so luxury rides up on blocks because one of Sprewell's hobbies is working on cars, though not, he says, "during playoff time." His paternal grandfather, Cecil, was a mechanic, as is his brother Terran. Like his father, Latoska Fields, Sprewell is a tinkerer, a man who will pull out the tool set to fix something and rarely gives up until he does. "I can still see me looking at him blankly as he gave me a lecture on gear differentiation," says his agent, Robert Gist.