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The Art of the Wheel

Times Staff Writer

Latrell Sprewell has once again placed his fingerprints on society, this time in a way that has endeared him to a cross-section of Generation Y and led to near-icon status in growing circles outside his basketball career.

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ swingman is being hailed as a visionary in the custom-car business, successfully branding his name with the popular spinning wheel rims called “spinners” or “Sprewells.”

In the ever-growing business of auto jewelry, Sprewell has become a five-karat hood ornament, his Sprewell Racing store in San Gabriel selling spinner sets for $4,000-$20,000.

The eye-catching spinner rims have a second face that continues to rotate even when the car has stopped. They have no function other than to look hip, their constant-motion appearance helping teens and early 20-somethings achieve status at a time where “dub-deuces” (22-inch wheels) and sparkling, showy rims are part of urban chic.

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Spinners were first marketed five years ago by Davin Wheels, but when Sprewell endorsed them on an automobile edition of MTV’s “Cribs” in February 2001, the Davin logo was blurred, causing viewers to associate Sprewell with spinners.

As such, the style now often takes Sprewell’s name, even though his isn’t among 20 or so companies already marketing the wheels.

Sprewell won’t have his own line to sell until this summer, but his store, which he purchased in 1998, is kept busy even when Sprewell is on the road with the Timberwolves.

“You’ve got a lot of car enthusiasts here in L.A.,” said Sprewell’s older brother, Terran, vice president of Sprewell Racing. “People love spending $50,000 or $60,000 on a car and putting another $20,000 in it too. That’s what people like to do out here. Everybody’s into fashion. Either you’re looking good or you’re not, period.”

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Terran Sprewell declined to give the company’s annual revenue, saying it fluctuates monthly.

“Some months, you might do $300,000 or $400,000 and some months you might do $50,000,” he said. “Last year, we did better than in years before. It’s definitely moving up.”

Sprewell Racing isn’t the only business profiting from the spinner boom. The custom-wheel market as a whole had $3.3 billion in retail sales in 2003, a 6.8% increase from 2002, according to data released by the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., a custom-auto industry trade group.

SEMA spokesman Jim Spoonhower says it is difficult to track a specific rise in sales of spinners because they represent one of many niche markets within the specialty-wheel industry, but there is little debate over their attractiveness to the PlayStation2 Generation.

“They’ve been a real hot item, particularly with the younger crowd and some of the urban groups,” Spoonhower said.

“Some of it is a matter of being unique. You’ve had polished aluminum, chrome steel and wire wheels, but nobody has ever done anything like a spinner before. It’s about uniqueness. You want to stand out from the rest of the crowd.”

Being different has always been a trait of Sprewell, for better or worse.

Until making his mark on the auto accessories business, Sprewell’s most famous fingerprints were the ones he left around the neck of former coach P.J. Carlesimo when both were with the Golden State Warriors in December 1997.

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During a dispute about playing time, Sprewell choked the coach, an action that prompted a 68-game suspension from the NBA that cost him $6.4 million in forfeited salary.

Now 33, Sprewell is viewed as a leader on the Timberwolves, who trail the Lakers, 3-1, in the Western Conference finals. Game 5 is tonight in Minneapolis, a short plane ride from Milwaukee, where Sprewell grew up.

Sprewell was introduced to automobiles by his grandfather, a mechanic who was often working on cars when his grandkids would stop by his home. Sprewell and his brothers began tricking out their bicycles, loading them up with flagpoles, streamers and other preteen accessories.

“We did crazy stuff to our bikes,” Sprewell said. “We’d put clothes hangers and playing cards in the spokes so they’d make a little engine noise. We always were accessorizing, so to speak.”

Years later, with time on his hands during the 1997-98 NBA season because of his suspension, Sprewell became a majority owner of Dad’s Motorsports, putting his name on the store and eventually taking over full ownership.

“Basketball’s going to end,” said Sprewell, in his 12th season. “We obviously needed something to fall back on. This has been a great opportunity for me and also to be able to provide jobs for family members and things like that.”

The Sprewell Racing website offers everything from a fully loaded $150,000 convertible Mercedes, billed as “Latrell Sprewell’s SL55 AMG,” to $109 hi-top shoes with a built-in rim on the side that spins when the wearer walks or runs. Sprewell wears the shoes during practices and games.

“He’s a visionary,” said Myles Kovacs, president of Dub magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to rims and tires. “He saw a lot of these pro athletes, artists and entertainers wanting and desiring to have fixed-up cars so he started a shop to fill that niche.

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“He’s very well respected among the different ethnicities in the urban marketplace. I look at him as an icon for automotive fashion.”

Sprewell boosted the magazine’s popularity simply by appearing on its first cover in May 2000. His reputation within the industry added a sense of legitimacy to the magazine, which has since landed on its cover rappers Eminem and 50 Cent, skateboarding idol Tony Hawk, Lakers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody.

“Spree gave us our stamp of authenticity,” Kovacs said. “If he’s on our cover, it had to be hot.”

It all began with a blurred Davin logo, a fortuitous, and financial, gain for Sprewell.

“I never thought that it would have the impact that it’s had,” he said. “I’m glad that it did. We have our own brand now, so to speak.

“I’m just trying to keep it rolling with the shoes and what have you. We’re doing something that we like doing, so it’s cool.”


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