Charles Oakley is out, but Latrell Sprewell is back in.
Sprewell had not been welcome at Madison Square Garden after cursing at Knicks owner James Dolan during a game in 2003. The popular former Knick not only was back in the building Sunday but sat right next to Dolan four days after Oakley, another beloved former Knick, was physically removed from his seat, arrested and ultimately banned from the Garden.
“I can’t tell you why I haven’t been back here, but I’ll tell you when I left, I was not happy,” Sprewell, 46, said in an interview with ABC. “I’m just happy to be back now.”
The Knicks traded Sprewell to Minnesota in 2003. In his first game back on Dec. 23, 2003, Sprewell hurled expletives at Dolan and was fined $25,000 by the NBA.
But Sprewell was given the red-carpet treatment Sunday. He received a video tribute on the giant video board above the floor and then had the camera on him so he could wave to the crowd. He hadn’t played at the Garden since Dec. 29, 2004, in his final NBA season.
Making the scene even more surreal was that P.J. Carlesimo was at the Garden calling Sunday’s game for ESPN Radio. In 1997, Sprewell choked Carlesimo, his coach with the Warriors, earning a one-year suspension from the NBA.
Several former Knicks sat near Sprewell and Dolan, including team employee Larry Johnson (a former teammate of Oakley’s), Bernard King and Vin Baker. Other alumni present included Herb Williams, also one of Oakley’s ex-teammates and a Liberty assistant coach, plus John Wallace, Kenny Walker, Gerald Wilkins and Hall of Famer Bill Bradley. Each was shown on the Jumbotron.
Dolan and the old Knicks joined the current team in the postgame locker room, where Johnson addressed the players after the surprising win over the Spurs. The Knicks tweeted a picture of them bringing it in after the game, with Johnson, Wallace, Baker and Sprewell prominently shown.
“They all came in the back,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Talked to them, mingled with them a little bit. It’s good to see Spree back, good to see him back.”
Anthony said he knows Sprewell and his history with the organization. “I’m a student of the game,” Anthony said. “I know the history. I’m glad to see him back in the building, though. He had prime seats tonight.”
Oakley has had a long-running feud with Dolan. During an interview Friday with “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN Radio, Dolan said Oakley was ejected Wednesday for being verbally abusive. Many current and former NBA players have spoken out in support of Oakley. Longtime Knicks fan Spike Lee, who was in his usual courtside seat, wore an Oakley No. 34 jersey.
Sprewell, who never played with Oakley, called it an “unfortunate situation.”
“Obviously, it’s a disappointing thing,” Sprewell said. “No one wants to see anything like that. Not just for New York, but for the NBA family. Hopefully, it will be something that everybody can just somehow iron out and get past.”