Latrell Sprewell was a centerpiece of the 1999 New York Knicks team that miraculously made a run to the NBA Finals. To me, he represented a paradigm of masculinity and a signature type of unjustified, ill-conceived and immediate rage with which I, as a 23-year old Jewish kid from the Upper East Side, completely identified. In those days, Sprewell would hurtle down the court with no plan whatsoever, then just take it to the hole or hoist up a shot that would make his coach cringe. And if that coach didn’t like it, Spree just might choke the motherfucker.
Often, and improbably, Sprewell would take over games because he didn’t know any better. This almost willful ignorance, this incomparable ability to tune out the haters, put his head down and just drive, actually kinda worked. The Knicks, who barely made the playoffs in 1999 with a 28-23 record, proceeded to become the first eighth-seeded team to get to the NBA Finals, blowing right by anyone who told them they weren’t good enough. It was around this time that I bought Spree’s number 8 Knicks jersey in the away blue and orange.
I bought it at Gerry Cosby’s. It fit snug. And my wearing it was an act of embracing my inner Spree: the guy who would defy you by hoisting up a 30-foot jumper, or choke you for no apparent reason at all. Now, I wasn’t particularly good at basketball—some might say I was awful—and I have long suffered from a debilitating neck injury that makes it difficult to run or jump. But I identified with Spree nonetheless.
I wore the jersey in my Brown University thesis film, which I directed and in which I was also charged with the unfortunate duty of acting. I liked the finished product and I liked the way I looked in the Spree jersey, so I wore it on the first day of my next film in film school. And the next. It became something of a good luck charm, as well as a hidden mission statement. See, as I got older, any bluster Latrell and I shared dissipated with each passing year. The notion that I would identify with a 6’5” corn-rowed 2-guard actually ended up seeming pretty ridiculous. But wearing this jersey signaled that it was still within me, somewhere. That if you pushed me far enough, I just might choke you out. Metaphorically.
The jersey was lucky until it wasn’t. I remember wearing it on one particularly ignominious professional occasion and cursing Spree as I slunk home in defeat, vowing never to wear it again. I guess the jersey’s luck had run out. The Knicks’ luck ran out, too. In 1999, when they finally arrived at the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs defeated them in five games. The Spurs were bigger, better, and they made the Knicks look every bit the slightly above-average team we all feared they might be. They haven’t gotten anywhere close to the Finals since.
So I guess the whole “lucky item of clothing thing” is kinda silly. I liked this jersey cuz of the way it made me feel and because of what it represented, not because it had any sort of magical powers. I’m sure Spree didn’t believe in luck. He didn’t believe in shit, except himself. And he believed in himself even when he had absolutely no business believing in himself. And a lot of the time that worked. Maybe that’s what some mistake for luck. I don’t really know.
I do know that I never could bring myself to toss the Spree jersey. I still wear it, but most often when I’m doing laundry or when I have to dig particularly deep in my clothing rotation. And sometimes when I rock it—as I’m gingerly placing a dryer sheet atop a pile of dirty laundry in my Los Angeles apartment complex, so far from New York and from the person I was when I bought it—I remember that remarkable Knicks team. And for a fleeting moment, I feel like anything is possible.
Jonathan Levine wrote and directed The Wackness. He recently wrapped production on the upcoming Untitled Cancer Comedy, starring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he directed and will be released in 2011.