Redeeming Qualities
Post-Jordanism asks if we should be like Latrell

By Randy Horick

Two questions still loom after Michael Jordan announced his departure from professional basketball last week. Unfortunately, during his meet with the press, MJ resolved only one of them, confirming at last that he is not Mother Teresa.

No, responded His Airness to an overly eager question from an under-thinking reporter, he does not plan to devote his energies and newfound free time addressing the major problems of the world.

Now that THAT's settled, the second, more pressing question involves the major problem of NBA commissioner David Stern, who is frantically scrambling to identify MJ's successor--a new icon around whom the league can be marketed.

Like a captured frontiersman staked to an ant mound, Stern desperately hopes that the cavalry will come galloping over the hill--in the persons of Shaq or Grant Hill, or maybe David "The Admiral" Robinson, or a rejuvenated Penny Hardaway. What Stern fears, however, is that new symbols for the post-Jordan NBA already have been imprinted on fans' brains, and they're not exactly from the commissioner's A list: Latrell Sprewell and Allen Iverson.

Many fans perceive Sprewell--last seen administering a choke-hold to his coach--as the embodiment of all their negative stereotypes about NBA players: mollycoddled, overpaid, and dangerously selfish (if not plain dangerous). Perhaps even more than fans' lack of empathy for the financial plight of the millionaire players' club, the lingering image of Sprewell may have contributed to the yawns that greeted the prospect of a cancelled NBA season.

This week, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's birthday, it's worth noting how little light these perceptions shed on professional athletes--and how much they illuminate the gap between reality and Dr. King's ideal: a society in which people would be judged by the content of their character.

Particularly in the NBA, race is a prism through which most issues are refracted (and distorted). During the late, unlamented lockout, for example, some players accused the owners of racism. Their logic was reduced to simple math: 85 percent of the players are African-American, and an even more overwhelming percentage of the owners are white.

Similarly, if you're white, it's difficult to lambaste Sprewell's thuggish behavior (or the widespread use of marijuana among players, or the alarming number of children they have fathered out of wedlock) without receiving criticism for being, at best, insensitive. Yet Willie Brown, the African American mayor of San Francisco, could suggest in Spree's defense--without bringing general condemnation upon himself--that "some coaches need choking."

On the big, ugly other hand, some white fans who were quick to condemn Sprewell chose not to pass similar judgment in the case of Kevin Greene, a white NFL star who assaulted one of his coaches during a game last fall. (Nor does Larry Bird's name generally come up when these same fans decry unwed NBA fathers.)

Then there's Iverson, who is tarred with the same brush as Sprewell, though their cases are linked only by stereotypical symbols and a misleading coincidence. Iverson favors heavy gold jewelry, stocking caps, and a cocksure attitude. Like Sprewell, he braids his hair in cornrows. And, like Sprewell, his past is marked by violence.

Unlike Sprewell, though, Iverson did not merit his punishment. As a high schooler in Virginia, he took part in a bowling alley brawl precipitated by whites. Alone among more than a dozen participants, he was singled out for arrest. Then, in the face of exculpatory evidence and no prior history of trouble, he was sentenced to prison by a judge with a reputation for racial bias.

Iverson was nevertheless fortunate; after his release, Georgetown coach John Thompson entrusted him with a college scholarship, and Iverson parlayed that opportunity not only into an NBA career but into freedom from poverty for nine members of his extended family. In his own way, Allen is as much a role model as Michael.

Nor is it inconceivable that even Sprewell, so reviled now, may yet become a positive exemplar, too. As Dr. King understood, character not only is the standard by which we should be measured but a work in progress--and that the possibility of redemption is not only a hope but an article of faith.

From elsewhere in the athletic world, we recently have received confirmation of those ideas.

As a college athlete, Randy Moss was as colossal an achiever as he was a spectacular failure as a college student. Before he could finish three years of eligibility, he washed out of two universities and was convicted of assault. Many NFL teams (including the Oilers) were so concerned about risking a first-round draft pick and an elephantine salary that they passed over him.

In Minnesota, however, Moss fortuitously found mentors in a coach and players who could relate to his experiences, and he has blossomed. As a rookie, he is arguably the best wide receiver in the entire league. Without argument, though, he has become one of the NFL's cleanest citizens.

Moss' teammate, Randall Cunningham, reached the same spot by a different route. As a young star with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was selfish, egotistical, and as showy as his golden shoelaces.

In 1996, dismissed as a gimpy-legged has-been, he spent a year constructing tables. The experience, he says, taught him humility. Now, making the most of his second chance, Cunningham speaks of living each day appreciatively, in a state of grace.

A friend of mine once told of his encounter with a priest at a prison ministries workshop. At the end of a discussion session, the priest stood and described an inmate and a chaplain at a prison where he once served. Regularly, he said, the inmate cadged favors from the chaplain--money to phone home or buy gifts for relatives. Always, the chaplain gave.

Finally, the day of the prisoner's release arrived, and he happened to see the chaplain as he was leaving. "I just want you to know," said the inmate scornfully, "you're the dumbest priest I ever met. I lied to you every time I wanted something, and you never caught on."

"I knew you were lying," replied the chaplain. "But I decided a long time ago I'd rather be a sucker than a cynic."

The meeting room was silent as the others in the workshop absorbed the priest's story. Finally, the moderator asked, "Father, were you that chaplain?"

"No," answered the priest. "I was that prisoner."

Right now, the only certainties about Sprewell's second opportunity are that, within the next couple of weeks, he will have one--with a new club that wants him--and that, like all of us, he deserves one.

Even if he succeeds, he will never be recognized as the role model that Jordan or David Robinson represent. But he will have come farther than either of them were ever asked to travel.

I hope he makes it.

Copyright 1998, CityPress Publishing, Inc.