A month ago, after the Los Angeles Lakers had won just three of their first eight games, their coach, Pat Riley, gathered the team together in Portland and announced he was going to make some changes in the lineup.
Larry Spriggs, who had appeared in only 38 games with the Lakers during the 1983-84 season, and in but 13 other NBA games since being drafted by Houston in 1981, had no reason to believe the changes would involve him. Regardless of how poorly L.A. was playing, the talent was there, especially at forward. For Riley to name Spriggs as a starter, James Worthy or Jamaal Wilkes had to sit, and Bob McAdoo and Kurt Rambis had to be passed over.
"My first reaction was, 'Huh?' " Spriggs said after Riley sat Wilkes down in favor of Spriggs, whose career scoring average was barely breathing, 3.1 points a game. "But as surprised as I was, I was ready. My attitude always was: If you call my number, I'll be there. My opportunity was knocking. The way I looked at it, Coach Riley opened the door and saw me standing there."
Since then, the Lakers have won 11 of 15 games, and Spriggs, although seeing less than 20 minutes playing time per game, has averaged close to eight points. More significantly, Spriggs -- a sweet kid off the court, but a chain saw on it -- has demonstrated an aggressiveness all over the floor, particularly on defense, that the talented-but-tame Lakers sorely need. "He gives us more energy, more zip," Riley said. "We've got lots of talent, but the greatest talent in the world is a guy who'll bust his tail. A lot won't. Larry will." A case in point: Saturday night, during the Bullets' dreamlike 101-98 victory over the Lakers, Spriggs guarded high-scoring Cliff Robinson for 17 minutes in the first and third quarters and held him to two points; in Robinson's other 22 minutes he scored 23.
This, then, is a Local Kid Makes Good story.
Spriggs, a 6-foot-7 forward, is out of Northwestern High School in Hyattsville by way of Howard University. Although Spriggs was lightly recruited, Howard's A.B. Williamson says he "could see greatness in him." After transferring from San Jacinto Junior College in Texas, Spriggs played three years for Williamson, averaging 15.3 points per game, and leading Howard's "Dunk Patrol" team to the NCAA tournament his senior year. "He was a step above all the players in our conference," Williamson said. "He was our intimidator. He's got that little bit of mean in him that you need."
But in the pros, intimidators usually bottom out at 6-10, and Spriggs lasted only four games with the Rockets, who had drafted him in the fourth round. When Houston cut him, Spriggs went to the Continental Basketball Association and was named the 1981-82 CBA rookie of the year after averaging 25.3 for Rochester. "I believed I could play in the NBA; I didn't want to give up," Spriggs said. "The CBA was just a means of getting from one place to another. I kept saying, 'God, get me out of here.' " In 1982-83, Spriggs moved to the CBA's Las Vegas team and averaged 23.4, earning him a nine-game trial with the Chicago Bulls.
Released by a Houston team that went on to win 14 games, the fewest in the league, then unloved by a Chicago team that won just 28.
Two brief shots, in two years, with two awful clubs.
"It hurts you more than it helps," Spriggs conceded.
His pro career epitaph was all but etched in stone: Hasta luego, Larry.
Then, like pennies from heaven (and at about that price), the Lakers signed him as a free agent before the 1983-84 season. "They had a bunch of no-cuts and guaranteed contracts," Spriggs said. "It was questionable if I could make their team. But there were openings, so I thought I'd give it my all and take it from there. I was playing on sheer determination. I wanted to prove to myself that I could play in the NBA."
To this day, Spriggs isn't sure what the Lakers saw in him.
"It might have been my hustle, and my aggressiveness," he said. "Maybe they thought they could use some of that. Maybe they saw raw talent and they thought they could refine it."
Whatever it was they saw, they liked.
Spriggs made the team, and went from cellar to ceiling.
"It was amazing," he said. "Just playing alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson was such a 'Wow!' I still get excited about it, especially when I come home and the fellas from the neighborhood go crazy seeing me with them. It felt good last year, just being on the Lakers' bench. It feels great now, being a starter."
Realistically, if you lined up the Lakers in order of sheer talent, Spriggs would be well back. As good as he was at Howard, he is far better with L.A. But he still plays an awkward, bumpy game; heavy on power, and light on finesse. He will never be nicknamed "Silk," like Wilkes, or "Magic." Yet, if anyone was ever in the right place at the right time, it's Spriggs.
"And he'll stick," Magic said. "Because he wants it bad enough. Because he has as much -- no, make that more desire than anybody in the league."
And maybe that's the lesson to the Larry Spriggs story. At least he thinks it is. "I'm sure you hear it quite often, that whatever you want, you can achieve it if you work at it," Spriggs said. "But it's true. It might not come instantly, but it can happen."
Spriggs thumped his chest with his hand. "It comes down to what's here, in your heart. I dig way down inside myself. I've always been that way."
He smiled. "You see, I don't mind digging."