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Breaking Down the NBA F*** You Performance

Latrell Sprewell vs. the Knicks or Allen Iverson vs. a booing Cleveland crowd: Who had the better revenge game?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

A F*** You Performance is an excellent game a basketball player has in righteous response to something that’s happened prior. There are four main types:

  • Player vs. Player: One player is mad at another player, and sets out to demolish him. A good example is Hakeem Olajuwon blowing a hole through my beloved David Robinson’s chest in the 1995 Western Conference finals after David had been awarded the MVP award for that season. (Hakeem gave an interview to the Rockets website in 2015 saying that David deserved the MVP that season and that he wasn’t mad about it happening, but it’s just more fun to believe Kenny Smith, a teammate of Olajuwon’s at the time, who’s said numerous times that Olajuwon played so well because he was mad at Robinson.)
  • Player vs. Owner: LeBron leaves Cleveland for Miami. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert blasts LeBron in The Letter. LeBron returns to Cleveland for his first game against the Cavs and puts up 38 points, five rebounds, and eight assists in 30 minutes. The Heat crush the Cavs by 28.
  • Player vs. GM: In the early ’90s, Bulls GM Jerry Krause makes a big show of how great Toni Kukoc is going to be when he finally gets to the Bulls (they drafted him in the second round in 1990). The Dream Team, featuring Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, end up playing Kukoc’s Croatia in the ’92 Olympics. Said Jordan: “We were not playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatian jersey.” They obliterate him. Said Kukoc: “It was hard to run across the half court without a ball. And with the ball it was just, ‘Here. Somebody else get it.’”
  • Player vs. Team: In 1996, Charles Barkley demands to be traded from the Phoenix Suns. They trade him to the Rockets. His first game back in Phoenix, Barkley grabs 33 rebounds, which is three more rebounds than the Suns grab as a team.

Let’s take two great, wonderful F*** You Performances — Latrell Sprewell’s return to the Garden after the Knicks traded him to the Timberwolves in 2003 and Allen Iverson’s second game in Cleveland after the fans booed him for winning the MVP award in the Rookie Game in 1997 — and figure out which one was better. To do so, we’ll set five different categories, measure the results of each performance in each category, and see who wins.

1. Whose F*** You Performance had the better origin story?

Sprewell was traded away from the Knicks, a team he loved playing for in a city he loved living in. The trade followed the deterioration of Sprewell’s relationship with Knicks GM Scott Layden and James Dolan, CEO of the company that owned (and still owns) the Knicks. From a New York Times story following Sprewell’s trade: “Sprewell … often found himself at odds with management and team ownership for his tardiness and unreliability. When his play slipped last season, the irksome details of his relationship with management seemed harder to justify for team officials.” The trade was a four-team, six-player deal, but basically the Knicks gave up Sprewell for Keith Van Horn, who made it all of 47 games before he was traded himself.

Iverson was booed while receiving his trophy for MVP in the Rookie Game during the 1997 All-Star Weekend. He didn’t know why he was getting booed, he told media four years later: “All I heard was boos, and I didn’t understand it. I don’t know why. Maybe they felt somebody else should have won it. But I just felt bad, the way they treated me for no reason.” (Thinking about Young Allen Iverson being sad that he’s getting booed is just really the most heartbreaking thing to me, man.) There was never any big reveal as to why they were booing him — nobody gathered up all of the fans in Cleveland to ask them. Were I to guess, though, it was because they thought Kobe Bryant, who was also playing in that game and put up 31 points to Iverson’s 19 points, should have won the award. (Kobe’s Western Conference team, though, lost the game to the East, Iverson’s team.) (Antoine Walker played for the East and scored one more point than Iverson, but you can eat a sock if you think Antoine Walker should’ve ever been picked above Allen Iverson in anything basketball-related.)

So, given that Layden and the Knicks had been trying to trade Sprewell for two seasons, which made for no small amount of friction, and given that Iverson’s booing came as a complete surprise to him, which meant there was no real time for hatred to build up over time, this category goes to Sprewell. His F*** You Performance had the better origin story.

Winner: Spree

Score: 1–0, Spree

2. Whose F*** You Performance led to a win?

An important part of a F*** You Performance is that your team wins the game, because giving an L to the other side is generally the juiciest part of interactions like these. That being the case, Spree gets the win here because his Timberwolves beat the Knicks during his F*** You Performance, while Iverson’s Sixers lost to the Cavs.

Winner: Spree

Score: 2–0, Spree

3. Whose F*** You Performance featured the better stat line?

Sprewell put up 31 points (on 9-for-20 shooting), three rebounds, one assist, and two steals in his game. More important than that, though, is that he hit the shot that effectively won the game for the Timberwolves: a 3 to put the Wolves up five in the final minute or so. Even more important than that is that Sprewell spent a good portion of the game shouting and cussing at James Dolan, who was sitting near the court, and Knicks assistant coach Lon Kruger. Two days after the game, the NBA fined Sprewell $25,000.

A neat thing: Sprewell’s 31 broke the record for the most points scored in the Garden by a former Knicks player in his first trip back. The previous record had been when Walt Frazier put up 28 for the Cavs in 1977. It stood until Zach Randolph hung 33 on the Knicks in 2009. And then that one stood until Danilo Gallinari put up 37 on the Knicks in 2012. I can’t wait to see how many Carmelo Anthony puts up in his return game.

A fun thing: Sprewell had a very similar F*** You Performance against the Warriors after they traded him to the Knicks in 1999. (This followed Sprewell choking Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo.) Sprewell was fined $10,000 for cussing out some fans during his return to Golden State.

Anyway, that was Spree’s stat line: 31–3–1–2, including the death-blow 3. It was good.

Iverson, however, went atomic.

Iverson put up 50 points (17-for-32), five rebounds, six assists, and two steals. Plus, it was his rookie year in the league. Plus, he’d scored 40 or more in his three previous games, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s then-nearly-four-decade-old record for rookies. Plus, he was only 5-foot-7 even though he was listed at 6-foot. Plus, he scored 39 of his 50 points in the second half, including 23 in the fourth quarter alone. Plus, Iverson was way more handsome than Sprewell, so we have to consider that, too. All of that together is just too much for Spree to overcome. A.I. gets the nod here.

Winner: Iverson

Score: 2–1, Spree

4. Whose F*** You Performance came against the tougher opponent?

The Cavs were tougher. Not only did they end up with a better record (42–40, compared with 39–43 for the Knicks), but they also played at an incredibly slow pace, which, per Basketball-Reference, helped them allow the fewest points per game in the history of the NBA to that point. That’s wild. Scoring 50 points against the 1997 Cavs was like scoring 185 points against the 2011 Cavs. Iverson takes this one.

Winner: Iverson

Score: 2–2

5. Whose F*** You Performance had the better villain?

This seems close, but actually is not close at all. On the one side, you’ve got Allen Iverson vs. the entire city of Cleveland, which is a very great Spartans-in-300-type story line, and on the other side, you’ve got Latrell Sprewell vs. James Dolan, who is like if the city of Cleveland was a human. It’s easy to find yourself leaning toward Iverson, what with him being a considerably more sympathetic character in history, but this category has to go Spree. It’s just way, way, way cooler when there’s an actual bad guy you can see and root against. It’s why movies where the bad guy is “the internet” or “big business” or whatever always end up feeling just a little bit flat. You need someone there to actually fight.

Two quick things to point out: (1) My favorite line I read while researching for this was from Steve Aschburner, writing for the Star Tribune. At the end of the game, after he’d made that final 3, Sprewell was going off at Dolan. Spree got T’d up, and Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders ran out there to try to corral Spree. Aschburner wrote that Saunders looked like he was “trying to catch a tornado in a lawn bag.” (2) The only player currently in the NBA who’s disparaged an entire city and made it feel like a real fight is Joakim Noah. Back in 2010, after the Cavs knocked Noah’s Bulls out of the playoffs, Noah said, “You think Cleveland’s cool? I never heard anybody say, ‘I’m going to Cleveland on vacation.’ What’s so good about Cleveland?” Noah is an expert needler. His very best non-city-directed barb came in 2015 when, after LeBron dunked on him and then stared him down, Noah responded with, “You’re still a bitch, though,” immediately scrubbing away the coolness of the dunk.

To get back to the original point: Sprewell taking on Dolan feels bigger and more important than Iverson taking on Cleveland, even if only because we get to see a real and specific target. Specificity is important.

Winner: Sprewell

Final tally: 3–2, Sprewell

Latrell Sprewell’s F*** You Performance was better than Allen Iverson’s F*** You Performance.

(USA Today)
(USA Today)