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Checketts gamely took the hits for his about-face on the character issue. "I know I set myself up," he said. "To make the statements I have about not wanting certain players on our team, I guess I'd have to say that was pretty judgmental and almost self-righteous, and I regret having said those things. It's not fair for me to judge what people have gone through."
Still, Checketts might not have had such an epiphany if Sprewell didn't have the talent that might put the Knicks over the top. He's an accomplished defender (he made the All-Defensive second team in 1994), and it's not hard to envision him guarding other teams' most dangerous perimeter scorers—the Miami Heat's Tim Hard-away, the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill, the Charlotte Hornets' Glen Rice no matter what their position. Indiana Pacers point guard Mark Jackson devastated his New York counterparts, Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, with his scoring and passing out of the low post in the Knicks' playoff loss last season. With Sprewell such damage shouldn't be inflicted again. "I see my role as a defensive stopper," he says, which is primarily what he was in college at Alabama and early in his pro career, before he became the Warriors' first offensive option.
Sprewell, whose career scoring average is 20.1 points, also gives the Knicks more offensive firepower, but that's where matters could get complicated. New York had some offensive conundrums to work out even before his arrival, given the return of Ewing, who was sidelined nearly all of last season because of torn and dislocated ligaments in his right wrist. In Ewing's absence, shooting guard Allan Houston emerged as the Knicks' main option, developing the confidence to drive to the basket as a complement to his outside shooting. But the plodding New York offense has been dominated for years by Ewing, who tends to get the ball in the low post and hold it, seemingly interminably, before shooting. There's doubt whether Ewing will be willing or able to change his approach enough to take advantage of Houston's talents. The arrival of Sprewell, who as a Warrior needed the ball a lot, and three-point specialist Dennis Scott, whom the Knicks signed on Sunday, may further muddle the New York offense. "Our offense will be fine," says Ewing. "Every player on this team is willing to make whatever adjustments we need to make."
"I don't foresee any problems," Houston says. "Spree and I are very similar players, but I think we'll work well together. It's going to take some time for everyone to get used to each other and get in a comfort zone, but I don't think you'll see anyone on this team complaining about shots."
As practice began last week, Sprewell was warmly received. Even Ewing, who hated to lose Starks, his teammate of eight years, felt the trade had to be made, and forward Larry Johnson has already cast himself as Sprewell's protector, asking to have his new teammate's locker next to his. But getting all the pieces to mesh on the court still promises to be a challenge. Neither Sprewell nor Ewing has shown himself to be particularly adept at modifying his game, critics be damned. If they don't change enough, or if Houston has to change too much, New York could have a tough time.
One certainty is that the Knicks have transformed themselves from an aging, bruising, unathletic team into a younger, sleeker, faster one, thanks to the additions of Sprewell and third-year forward Marcus Camby (obtained from the Toronto Raptors in a trade for 13-year veteran power forward Charles Oakley, rookie Sean Marks and cash) and the subtraction of pounds by Johnson, who shed 25 in the off-season, when he gave up meat while studying Islam. New York has lost some of its rebounding and toughness with the departures of Oakley and Starks, but the Knicks weren't getting any better with that core group. "It was time to try something different," Checketts says.
The goals are there for the taking: a championship for New York, redemption for Sprewell. The Knicks, at least the 36-year-old Ewing's Knicks, may never have a better chance. Sprewell may never have another one.