It's been a pretty boring five months on the Latrell Sprewell watch. No physical confrontations, no temper tantrums that amounted to anything, essentially no incidents of any kind on or off the basketball court since he arrived in New York. Oh, there was that silly incident a couple of months ago when Sprewell's agent complained about his client not starting and not getting enough playing time, but other than that and these absurd lawsuits against the NBA and a one-time representative, barely a peep.

What he did 18 months ago to P.J. Carlesimo was dumb and thuggish.

What he's done the last few months is exactly what a man should do when given a second chance.

"I was at the bottom of the barrel and I somehow climbed my way out of it," Sprewell said here this week. "And I'm [in] the NBA Finals. It's all been pretty incredible."

It has been a dramatic trip: He choked his coach, he was suspended, he pled no contest to a reckless driving charge, he was traded from Golden State to New York, he suffered an early season injury, his team barely made the playoffs, he was inserted into the starting lineup, he became the darling of Madison Square Garden, he led his injury-depleted team to the NBA Finals. En route to the championship series, Sprewell already has beaten two of the three teams -- Miami and Indiana -- that seriously considered trading for him before this season. The third? NBA Finals opponent San Antonio. Scripts with half this much melodrama get tossed in the waste basket every day.

But here's Sprewell getting love from coast to coast. He receives the largest cheers at Madison Square Garden; Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has talked openly about trying to beat the Knicks to Sprewell even before the altercation with Carlesimo. "People have a tendency," Sprewell said, "to forgive and forget as time goes along and I think that has been the case with me."

Popovich took less time than most, it seems. He was an assistant at Golden State early in Sprewell's career and the two have been close since. "We were very interested in Spree," Popovich said. "I like him very much. We were in the ballgame, but not as much as others apparently."

And Sprewell said here the other day, "I was thinking I was going to be here, but it didn't happen. But there was a good chance it was going to happen. It was very close."

Had Popovich gotten Sprewell before the 1997-98 season, it's likely Sprewell might be reveling in celebrity, not dogged by notoriety. Still, Sprewell's ability to avoid getting into any further trouble -- so far -- has kept the discussion focused on his basketball abilities. He's been such a good teammate, so thoughtful and expressive in public, so accepting of coaching and his role with the Knicks, that even those who presumed they'd hate his guts have found it difficult to dislike him.

"He was never a selfish guy or a bad guy," said one NBA player who knows Sprewell fairly well. "His problem was he has a temper. But if he can conduct himself with this kind of restraint in New York, it says a lot about him. New York breaks a lot of people, but Spree seems to be thriving there."

And if the Knicks are going to seriously threaten San Antonio in these NBA Finals, it will probably have to be Sprewell who carries the load more than any other player. He was easily the fastest, most explosive player on the court in Game 1 here Wednesday night. The Spurs, like Indiana and Atlanta and Miami before them, don't have anybody who can stay with him in the open court.

With the Warriors being such an afterthought team, folks on the East Coast are just now seeing enough of Sprewell to appreciate his game. "I'm definitely an open-court player," he said. "I need space and room to do my thing. That's when I'm at my best, when I can go left and right, when I can use my speed and quickness to get around people."

That athleticism is the primary reason that the Knicks have been able to go from a plodding half-court snore to an exciting open-court team. Coach Jeff Van Gundy's reticence to play a running style annoyed Sprewell early in the season. But Van Gundy said Thursday, addressing a Sports Illustrated article that said Sprewell might not want to play for him next year, that Sprewell has been as coachable as any player on the team this season.

Avery Johnson, the San Antonio point guard, recalled Thursday his first meeting with Sprewell. "My first time meeting him was in practice; he had a fight that day with Byron Houston," Johnson said, laughing at the irony. "I had just signed with the Warriors that day [in 1993]. I see this and I'm thinking, `Man, what have I gotten myself into?' But right away I could see that Latrell was a high-flying, very athletic player. It was like, `Wow.' We developed a great relationship."

Johnson said he found himself "torn" when the Spurs were trying to acquire Sprewell. "I was in favor of Spree coming in if it didn't mean Sean [Elliott] leaving," he said. "I've been with Sean for several years here. But I enjoyed playing with Spree. He was all about the team in Golden State. He was a guy who made the extra pass, did whatever the team needed. New York needs him to score because Patrick Ewing is out."

Of course, there are still a whole lot of folks who won't root for the Knicks because Sprewell is a member of the team.

It's a wonderful thing when you run across an Arthur Ashe or Calvin Hill in the world of sports, athletes who are scholars and gentlemen and civic pillars. If you're really fortunate somebody like Boomer Esiason or Darrell Green, men of great depth and charity from a very young age, lands in your community for a dozen or so years. But if you tie your emotions, generally speaking, to the personal lives of the people who play the games we love, you run the risk of being sorely disappointed, maybe even enraged.

But I'm getting a little tired of Sprewell, the morality play. He's neither the singular hero of the Knicks' season nor the most villainous figure in sports. He's neither a nightmare nor the American dream, as he suggests in his sports apparel TV commercial. As long as the NBA Finals last, we're going to be told either that Sprewell is searching for redemption or that he represents everything that is wrong with today's athlete.

Choking his coach was inexcusable, but it's almost not the most heinous thing in the history of sports either.

I don't find what Sprewell did one-tenth as bad as Lawrence Phillips dragging a coed down a flight of stairs by her hair. I don't know that Sprewell's transgression would make Phillips's top five list of egregious offenses. I find Charles Haley urinating on a teammate's car nearly as disgusting, though I suppose a neck is of more value than a bumper. I think Sprewell is almost harmless relative to Christian Peter. I was much more sickened by the sight of Mike Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear.

His road to personal rehabilitation has been longer than some have had to travel, not as long as others. As long as Sprewell understands the trip involved, sometimes turbulent, sometimes fulfilling, and always demanding, maybe he will have earned that forgiveness.

CAPTION: Knicks' Latrell Spreewell is center of attention the day after.