All his life, people told Larry Spriggs what a good basketball player he was.
All his life -- until just before the start of the 1981-82 National Basketball Association season. Then he was told he was good, but not good enough. He was released by the Houston Rockets, who had drafted him in the fourth round out of Howard University. He was the last man cut.
"It was quite a rough turnaround," Spriggs says now.
But the turnaround continued, and has become a positive one for Spriggs and the Rockets. After a year of refining his game in the Continental Basketball Association and the Los Angeles Pro Summer League, Spriggs has gone from being the odd man out on the Rockets to a contender for the starting spot at small forward.
His statistics tell part of the story: 42 games with Rochester in the CBA, 25.3 points, 12.4 rebounds, 55.6 field-goal percentage. In the Los Angeles league last summer, 25.7 points (including one 45-point game), 8.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 3 steals. First team all-CBA and rookie of the year. First team on the summer league all-star team.
The rest of the story, say the people who know him, is not so easily discerned. It involves a gifted young man who survived a potentially devastating turn in his life, who turned rejection into a strength-giving experience.
"I got a little taste of the NBA in rookie camp last year," Spriggs says. "You don't forget it. It makes you work and play that much harder."
"He was able to reason it out," says Mario Panaggio, his coach at Rochester. "He said, 'I'm not going to grumble or feel sorry for myself. I'm going to do a little more schooling.'
"It wasn't, 'I didn't get a break.' It was more like, 'What can I do to get another shot?' "
"It (being cut) killed him, but he handled it real well," said Carroll Dawson, a Houston assistant coach. "It killed us, too, because we all recognized the raw talent there. But he knew what he needed to work on, and he did."
Now, Dawson says, Spriggs can participate in the current training camp without fear of being cut. "He's one of our top eight or nine players."
Making the pros -- the first from Howard, at that -- took nothing less than a transformation for Spriggs. The Rockets told him right away that Moses Malone (since gone to Philadelphia) and Elvin Hayes would play near the basket. Spriggs had to become an outside player, a small forward.
This wasn't easy. A solid 6 feet 8, 220 pounds, he had been strictly an inside player at Northwestern High School, San Jacinto Junior College and Howard. Although he never led the Bison in scoring or rebounding, or averaged more than 15.5 points a game, he was the most valuable player in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference all three years at Howard.
"He was our main man inside," says Howard Coach A.B. Williamson. "We all called him 'Horse,' because he was so strong. He could really move people around."
But in training camp, Spriggs couldn't move out Jawann Oldham, a second-year player from Seattle University. "It was the numbers game," Spriggs says. "It came down to a 7-footer and a guy 6-8, so they kept Jawann."
Says Williamson: "Larry accepted it like a business. Even before he was cut, he had called me up and said, 'Coach, it is cold-blooded here. They play for keeps.'
"Sure, the rejection was difficult. He was down. But he didn't hide from anyone. He came right back up here, and paid his way to Rochester."
In Rochester, Spriggs and Panaggio began a concerted effort to work on deficiencies in Spriggs' game, as seen by the Rockets. He wasn't good enough on defense; like many young players, Spriggs didn't stay low or move his feet quickly. His shooting and passing were erratic.
This time, he even merits a tutor. Rudy Tomjanovich, a former Rocket who was a fine outside shooter, has been working with Spriggs on his jumper.
"I would trust Larry up to 18 feet now on his outside shot," says Dawson. "Before . . . well, you never knew if he was going to make it or not."
And whether he earns the starting job -- his chief rivals are Joe Bryant, acquired from San Diego, and Wally Walker, formerly of Seattle -- Spriggs is convinced he and his shot now are headed in the right direction.