- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2000

NEW YORK Of all the places Latrell Sprewell could have wound up following his infamous choking of former Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo, New York had to be the worst. After all, it's hard to imagine a more hostile environment for a player to flourish when his resume includes a 64-game suspension, a history of feuding with coaches and teammates, and demands to be traded.

But since he was traded to New York for John Starks, Terry Cummings and Chris Mills on Jan. 21, 1999, Sprewell has won over the most cynical city in the land and, more importantly, captured the respect and admiration of his teammates and coaches. He has even supplanted future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing as the leader of a team full of stars, and nobody seems to mind.

"People seem to have a hard time believing it, but it has been easy, very easy," said coach Jeff Van Gundy, who at first opposed the trade for Sprewell, "He is coachable he listens.

"That doesn't mean that he always agrees," Van Gundy said. "But there were never any rocky moments. Just the starting issue [last season, when Sprewell came off the bench]. That was built up to a disagreement that we had, but it never affected me dealing with him."

When the Knicks obtained Sprewell, temperamental All-Star Allan Houston clearly was not happy. He and Sprewell were both shooting guards, and Houston, whom the Knicks signed in 1996, was starting to get comfortable at the position. The last thing he needed was the addition of a controversial player who not only played his position but who was good enough to be named All-NBA first team and NBA All-Defensive second team in the same season (1994).

But Sprewell made it easy on Houston. Van Gundy didn't begin starting the newcomer him until last season's playoffs, and Sprewell requested that he play small forward rather than shooting guard. This pairing, along with the emergence of 6-foot-11 Marcus Camby, fueled the Knicks' improbable run to the Finals last season, when they were the Eastern Conference's eighth seed.

"Spree always does what he does for the betterment of the team," Houston said. "If I'm open and he sees me, he's going to throw me the ball. Now when I'm out there and he's not, I have feelings like, 'Come on, let's put Spree back in the game.' "

It is because of Sprewell more than any other player that the Knicks have a 2-0 lead over Toronto in their best-of-5 series, which resumes Sunday in Toronto. The Knicks dropped three of four games to the Raptors during the regular season and had been scorched by Vince Carter. No team did more for Carter's ascension to superstar status this season than the Knicks, against whom he averaged 33 points and hit 60 percent from the floor.

But the 6-foot-5 Sprewell, who gives up an inch and 35 pounds to Carter, held him to a very mortal 16 points on 3-for-20 shooting in New York's 92-88 win in Game 1. And in last Friday's 84-83 come-from-behind victory New York trailed by 12 at the start of the fourth quarter Sprewell scored 16 of his team-high 25 points in the final 12 minutes, including his game-winning jumper over Carter with 7.9 seconds left.

After seeing Sprewell step up to lead the Knicks, Camby made a statement that just over a year ago would have seemed highly unlikely: "He's our leader."

Following a recent bad practice before the playoffs began, Sprewell showed how much of a leader he was when he berated his teammates for giving less than 100 percent. According to Houston, Sprewell never did such things last year. Instead, he would sit back and let Ewing or forward Larry Johnson try to light a fire under the Knicks.

"I'm feeling more comfortable," Sprewell said. "Now I have a better understanding of my teammates. And they understand me and where I'm coming from, when I'm serious and when I'm joking around. Things are very serious these days. I usually don't have much to say. But if I have something to say, guys take it pretty seriously. Usually, it's pretty important to me."

One sign that Sprewell has moved beyond the Carlesimo incident is the manner in which the league is marketing him. Sprewell, Ewing and Houston are featured in some NBC spots promoting the playoffs.

"It's good for me," said Sprewell, 29. "At least they don't look at me like the villain of old, so to speak, and that is nice."

The ride hasn't been entirely bump-free for Sprewell, who says he has made no conscious effort to change his once-tarnished image. He was fined $25,000 by the league earlier in the season for hurling profanities at fans seated courtside. And he was suspended and fined $130,000 in October when he showed up late for training camp. But for the most part the Knicks are satisfied with Sprewell, who has turned out to be nothing but good for the team.

"That's why you don't want to judge what happened in other places, to stereotype," Van Gundy said. "He doesn't pout about [getting] enough shots, doesn't pout about the few games he didn't finish, doesn't pout about playing small forward. He's been easy and enjoyable."

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