Written By Jesse Byrd Jr.
Learning vicariously through dynamic sports figures has been inescapable over the past twenty years. Some of those lessons have been good and some have been not so good. O.J. Simpson, Plaxico Burress, Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods have schooled us more on life than any institution could ever hope to. Regardless of innocence or guilt, from each situation we can still take away something worthwhile. Don’t stab. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot up. Don’t rape, and don’t forget to duck. This episode in history, like many others before it, has such a meaningful message that it’d be unwise to ignore.
Latrell Fontaine Sprewell could have been the poster-boy for tenacity in the NBA of the 1990’s. Tomahawk dunks, mean mugs and trash talking came to embody his on court demeanor, and the fans grew to love him for it. The rim had never been molested quite like when Spree was on the fast break. It was just nasty and indecent. (I know I wouldn’t let my kids watch it. Not without supervision.) In a few short years, that amicable spark lured many impassioned sports fans to rock his navy and gold #15 when he ran with the Warriors. But there came a point in his young career when that same spark became a little too savage, and flickered out of control.
Since new head coach P.J. Carlesimo’s arrival earlier that year, there had been a multitude of strife between him and Latrell. Spree had been benched for laughing during a loss, thrown out of practice two days after that, and then fined for a late arrival to a game against the Utah Jazz. The controversy reached its climax during a practice in the winter of ’97 when P.J. reportedly told Sprewell to make crisper passes in a team drill.
What ensued was tragic.
Resolving to get himself a firm grip on P.J. Carlesimo’s neck-bone, Latrell went for the trachea and didn’t ease up until teammates intervened. Media reports at the time claimed that the two had a bubbling disrespect for one another that had finally reached its boiling point. Players who had played for Carlesimo in the past did attest to the fact that he can be verbally aggressive, but then again what coach isn’t?
I’ve had a friend of mine tell me a story about coach Bobby Knight. At half time the team was doing so bad that he went into the bathroom, wiped his ass, brought back the tissue, held it in front of their faces and said “this is what you’re playing like out there.” Threw it down and walk out the room.
Not condoning Bobby or P.J.’s behavior, if he was in fact antagonizing Latrell, but the illustration was just to show that no matter what Carlesimo could’ve possibly been saying to Sprewellâ€¦ coaches have done worse. Although the ugly truth is that behind closed doors most coaches weigh more on the side of a military drill instructor like Bobby Knight than they do a Zen master like Phil Jackson, it doesn’t mean you can just go around choking people.
If pre-school has taught us nothing it is that everything in life has its cubby. If you don’t keep certain things in their cubby, it can get messy. Unfortunately, Sprewell let more than a few things out of his cubby on that fateful Monday. Not only did he reportedly strangle P.J. and drag him across the floor, but he returned 20 minutes later to deliver some grown man language, punch P.J. twice in the head and threaten his life. He then paid a visit to the Warriors general manager, who was on the phone with Sprewell’s agent at the time, ripped the phone out of the wall and told him he wanted to be traded.
Sprewell denied the accusations after the incident saying that it wasn’t a choke. I grabbed him. And that he didn’t go back in there to hit P.J., he just wanted to talk to him about something. Sadly, Latrell was the only one with that story.
In light of the situation, the Warriors Front Office did what any iron-fisted disciplinarian would in their position and punished their best player to a smooth ten days without pay. Side-noting that it could be less if, and only if, he decided to act like a human being. Who can blame them? Pro sports is a business and coming down hard on a guy who averaged 24 points, 4 boards and 6 assists the season prior must’ve been a tough thing for the Warriors organization to do.
So the league helped them out.
Feeling like a choke on the neck was worth more than a slap on the wrist, the NBA issued a 68 game suspension for the then 27-year-old superstar. Latrell would miss the remainder of the season along with millions of dollars in pay that year but had the opportunity to make millions more the following season in the Big Apple.
Fortunately for fans of Spree, he bounced back strong during his tenure in New York helping the Knicks to an NBA finals appearance, and more importantly blessing the world with the spinning rim. Where oh where would we be today if it weren’t for spinners? He also made an appearance on MTV Cribs showcasing his new cars, his new dealership and his new life. Latrell seemed to have a fresh start and those in his corner hoped that his days of making sub-par decisions were behind him.
But hope just wasn’t enough.
Two years after being traded to Minnesota, the Timberwolves wanted to resign Spree to a three-year $21 million dollar contract in 2005, despite his questionable performances and a dwindling point per game average. Latrell declined the offer claiming that the dollar amount was disrespectful. When asked to comment on why he would turn down $21 mill as a role player in the dusk of his career he responded:
“I’ve got a lot at risk here. I’ve got my family to feed.”
(Sigh) Damnit Spree.
This turned out to be one of the most infamous quotes in sports history that left the world wondering: “What the hell yo kids be eatin?”
When the Timberwolves refused to put more on the table, Latrell walked away from the deal and in turn the entire National Basketball Association. His agent at the time was quoted saying Sprewell didn’t need the money that badly anyways.
Oh but he soon would.
After earning over $150 million dollars as an athlete and an entrepreneur, Sprewell couldn’t even afford the $10,000 dollar monthly note on his boat. His ex-girlfriend filed a $200 million dollar lawsuit against him and two of his houses were foreclosed upon.
It’s never satisfying but it’s always intriguing to see a person go from poverty to prosperity and then end up teetering somewhere in the balance. Looking back, I think there’s a point in life where we all feel like we could’ve made a better decision. DUIs, pissing in public citations, and getting your fake ID confiscated when the guy on the license looks like Carl Winslow and you look like Karl Malone.
The good news is we don’t really begin to lose in life until our poor choices become less of a drunken hookup and more of a Sunday kick-it session. Then that persona latches on to our identity and we get to be known as just â€œthat guyâ€ or â€œthat girlâ€. Latrell has suffered through some serious “that guy” syndrome over the past decade and a half. But I sincerely hope that the spectacle of his superstar seasons hasn’t drowned in the seas of his shortcomings. With four All-Star years, one NBA Finals appearance and a career average of 18 points 4 assists and 4 rebounds, he has done some worthwhile things with his time in the league.
I guess the moral of the story is as follows: $21 mill is enough to feed your family, spinning rims can go out of style, and keep your hands to yourself.
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