Free to be Spree

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He plays basketball, he says, for six reasons: his three girls and three boys. He's unmarried but active in their lives, and he often shows up (late, sometimes, even on game day) at the Garden with four or five of them in tow. "[Having kids so early] pushed me toward wanting to do something with my life. At 17 I was, like, 'O.K., you've got a kid--you've got to make a way.'"

That he has, and it allows him a second love, the open road. Near his home in Los Angeles is Sprewell Racing. It's a high-performance tire- and wheel-shop featuring lots of things that make you go zoom. "I drive all the time," he says. "I used to drive back and forth to school--to my junior college in Missouri, then from Alabama to Milwaukee. I've driven from California to Milwaukee by myself three times. I stop--sleep in the car for a couple of hours and then back on the road. I enjoy driving...not as much as basketball."

Then, with quiet weight, Sprewell says, "I'm a fighter, definitely. But I don't pick fights. I'm more the type that's defensive. If you're pushing me to the wall, I'm going to come out the corner swinging hard."

So it comes back, as it so often does, to Dec. 1, 1997, when Sprewell throttled Carlesimo. He then left the building, drove away, came back, went into practice and took a swing at the coach. It has been reported that Sprewell's explosion was in response to some criticism from Carlesimo, a man noted for his perfectionism and intensity. Neither Sprewell nor Carlesimo has spoken about exactly what was said in the moments before the attack. Ironically, Carlesimo, the victim, is out of the NBA, having been fired as coach of the sinking Warriors. (Many things are pardoned in pro sports. Failure isn't one of them.) Attorney Johnnie Cochran, who represented Sprewell for a short time, has said race was not the issue.

"What can make me mad?" says Sprewell. "In general, I don't get upset unless somebody's doing something to me or to my family--disrespecting me to where I just can't tolerate it." Asked if that's what happened in Oakland in 1997, he says, "To make a long story short, yes."

University of Washington professor David Shields, author of Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, sees Spree's silence as finesse. "He's never gonna tell. He'd be playing into sports journalism's hand. Like the racial situation in America--silences speak more than the utterances." Shields says Sprewell is one of the few players in the NBA--along with Seattle's Gary Payton, Houston's retiring veteran Charles Barkley and former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman--who consistently, either consciously or subconsciously, bring racial issues to the fore through their use of language and symbols.

"Sprewell shows the racial subtext of the league," says Shields. "His hair forces conversation about a taboo subject. The librarian-like glasses [which he often wears postgame] press you to consider him a mental as well as a physical being. His nonchalance and distance force talk about how black men are 'supposed' to act. Sprewell is sophisticated and transgressive. He pushes the envelope."

He doesn't push it where he lives, though: at home Spree's cornrows are fuzzy, not as tight and glossy as they are on game nights. "The bad-boy thing doesn't bother me," he says. "People are going to think what they're going to think. The first impression of me is the incident with P.J. I understand why I have the image. I'm not trying to downplay the incident. It wasn't right. We make mistakes, and we've got to move on."

Then he's into the ebony dream buggy, pedal to the metal, cornrows in the wind.

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