"I was disappointed" is how Najee Ali describes his reaction to Latrell Sprewell's reinstatement, and the words sound a little surprising coming from a man who once assaulted an NBA team official.
Sprewell was the big-time winner of an arbitrator's ruling Wednesday. The arbitrator deemed that the NBA's one-year suspension of Sprewell for his December attack on Golden State Warrior Coach P.J. Carlesimo was too long, and that Sprewell can return July 1. On that date, the Warriors are once again accountable for the $17.3 million remaining on his contract over the next two years.
Sure Sprewell will miss out on 68 games and $6.4 million in salary this season. But come July 1, everything reverts to the way it was. The Warriors tried to fire him and were told they couldn't.
"It just shows if you have talent, a special skill or ability, you're treated different," Ali said. "The best example of that right now is Robert Downey Jr., who got out of jail to go act. It's really offensive. I could see if he was a doctor, who had to perform a skill to save someone's life. He's an actor.
"It's very dangerous. The younger generation, they see the amount of money that's being made. They don't see the discipline put into effect. They see the laws being compromised."
Ali didn't even have NBA talent, and he still went unpunished. That, he says, is the problem. Let people get away with it once and they'll see how much farther they can go the next time.
Ten years ago, Ali was what he called "The typical inner-city youth in South-Central."
Or perhaps that should be the stereotypical inner-city youth in South-Central.
"I was the same kid you see about on the news or on TV," Ali said.
His life of crime and violence can be succinctly summarized by the huge scars on his hands and right arm. He went by the name of Todd Eskew. He was 23, a former ball boy for the Clippers, and still good friends with a number of the players.
Back then, the small stuff mattered most to him. Turf. Respect.
He showed up at a Clipper practice on March 28, 1988, and Clipper Vice President Andy Roeser told him to leave the closed practice. Long before the phrase entered the lexicon, Ali went Sprewell.
"I grew up around the Sports Arena," Ali said. "That's my neighborhood. I felt territorial. Being a gang member, these people were in my territory. How dare you come disrespect me?"
Larry Drew, who was playing his second season with the Clippers, remembers hearing the strange sound of dress shoes running on the court during practice, then turning around and seeing Roeser.
"We were in practice and we saw Andy run in and Todd was behind him," said Drew, now an assistant coach with the Lakers. "There were some words exchanged. When Todd caught up to him and swung and hit him, I just remember seeing Todd hit him and Andy hit the deck."
Ali pummeled Roeser, breaking several of his ribs and puncturing a lung. They were separated, and then. . .
"Nothing happened to me," Ali said. "Next game I was there, I was getting congratulated by disgruntled employees. The danger was, they did me more harm than good. Here they were treating me like a hero and encouraging it. In my mind, I was like, 'Yeah, the solution is to take things into your own hands.' As a result, my life went into a downward spiral. I thought violence was the solution."
In 1990 he was caught after holding up a Thrifty Drug store and served three years for armed robbery. While in prison, another inmate gave him a copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." He converted to Islam and changed his name to Najee Ali.
Since his release, Ali has dedicated his life to making a difference. He founded Project Islamic HOPE, which helps feed the poor and homeless. Ali is well known in the South-Central community; it seemed as though he knew half the people in the restaurant at breakfast in the Crenshaw District on Thursday. His efforts have taken him from skid row to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
Now he has a simple wish for Sprewell.
"I want to see him grow and mature, where whatever problem he had in the past, that he learn how to channel his anger and frustration effectively, where he won't have to resort to violence," Ali said. "When he attacks someone to cope with his problems, he's the big loser, along with the victim he attacked.
"I plan on writing him a letter. Just because he got the rest of his money, money can't save his life. What good is it if you have millions of dollars if you lose your soul?"
Days after he attacked Roeser (who declined comment for this story), Ali rounded up some gang members and went to Roeser's house with the intent to kill.
While they waited for Roeser to get home, Ali looked through the living room window and saw Roeser's wife playing with a child. He couldn't bring himself to deprive a family of a father, the way he and so many of his friends had missed out on having fathers. Ali left.
He stopped himself when no one else did. Is $6.4 million enough to teach Sprewell, or will the forthcoming $17.3 million make him forget he choked a man who told him to put more energy into a passing drill?
"Even with the work I've done, with the spiritual transformation, I'm still haunted by the memories that I almost killed someone over something stupid," Ali said. "This is the message that I wanted to articulate."
Are you listening, Latrell? Or are you simply counting down the days until July 1?