Recently, Andrew Polaniecki wrote about the best Knicks players to wear the number 2. One of those greats, Rory Sparrow, graciously agreed to sit down for a conversation about his time in the NBA, the Knicks, Michael Jordan, and more.
A 6’2” point guard, Sparrow joined the league in 1980 and played 12 seasons for seven teams, including the Knicks (six seasons) and Bulls. Sparrow was a member of the expansion Miami Heat, where he made the first basket in franchise history. All told, he averaged nine points, five assists, and two rebounds over 836 regular-season games. After over a decade in the Association, Sparrow hung up his sneakers in 1992. Today, Sparrow continues to be an ambassador in the community. His most recent endeavor, “The Sparrow Foundation Institute” states a mission to bring sustainable and clean energy technologies to underserved communities.
In Part One of this exclusive interview, he describes his formative years, young Patrick Ewing, and how the NBA he knew compares to what it is today.
Andrew Polaniecki: How would you compare the NBA of the 80s to the NBA of today?
Rory Sparrow: Obviously, it was a much more physical game. Those guys were very skilled, but they had roles that they played more so than in today’s game. Today’s game is a more free-flowing, athletic, less team-centric type of play. In the eighties, even though you had individual stars, you won as a team.
AP: I grew up a Knicks fan during the 90’s; My Knicks were Ewing, Starks, Oakley, and Mason. One thing that’s really changed a lot since then, is the level of free agency driven by the relationships guys have with one another off the court. Back then, if you got knocked out of the playoffs, you came back the next season even more hungry. You were a unit. This just doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. You were with the Knicks for four plus seasons. You, Bernard King, and Bill Cartwright always had a great camaraderie and were hungrier each and every season.
RS: Well, the longer you can keep a team together the more cohesive and better they become if you have the right pieces in place. In 1983, I think we had the right pieces in place. In 1984, we were going to compete, but then Bernard got hurt and then everything changes in 1985. In today’s market and free agency, guys have the ability to play where they want to play, whereas before you were limited in the movement you could make.
For example, if your star player like Bernard King gets hurt, but you still wanted to compete and win, the options were more limited in the former market of the 80’s. You could demand a trade, but even if you did, you wouldn’t necessarily get it, or you didn’t get sent to where you wanted to be. You could never pick your teammates like they do now. In today’s market, you have a guy like James Harden, who says he won’t play for a guy because he lied. It’s a totally different aspect in professional sports. In my opinion it helps the players, but it hurts the product.
AP: What would happen in the 80s if a star player came out and refused to play for his current team? How would it have affected his relationships inside of the locker room?
RS: It was a different mentality back then. It would have been looked at as a move against the team and against your teammates. Me personally, would have looked at the guy and asked myself if he were trying to establish himself as a prima donna, is he better than us, is he different than us . . . or does he even want to be here? If he wants to be here, then let’s get back to the business of competing and trying to win. If not, get going, and leave us alone. The attitude would have been very different. There were guys who did that. Even in the 80’s guys would go to their agents and told them that they wanted a trade, and they couldn’t play for this guy, or that guy, or with this guy, but it was all behind the scenes. It wasn’t such a public display of malcontent or displeasure with where you are.
AP: You mentioned how much things changed in 1985 with the arrival of Patrick Ewing. What were some of the immediate changes you saw upon his arrival?
RS: Patrick Ewing, as they say, was a fixed lottery pick. But, upon his arrival, the expectation level just heightened. Even though Bill Cartwright was very good at what he did and how he played, they believed that Patrick Ewing was the next level and would be able to take the Knicks to compete with the Celtics and the Sixers in the Eastern Conference.
Patrick was an incredible, incredible, defensive player at Georgetown, but he didn’t really have the opportunity to discover his offensive prowess in college. But when he got into the pros, he discovered that he could score as well. Our game changed. We were very Bernard King focused but now we had two great options to go to. Just finding that correct balance was what we were trying to do before Bernard got hurt.
AP: You went to Eastside HS in Paterson, NJ. Growing up in Paterson, how did you use basketball as your tool to make it out of the rough streets of Paterson?
RS: Basketball in Paterson was very competitive, but it wasn’t the only sport that you played as a kid. One thing that I think is hurting the sport (of basketball) is the centralization, and everybody being very specialized in the sport of basketball at the early age of seven or eight years old and that is the only sport that players play.
When I grew up, I was a baseball player already at eight years old. I had three triples in a game. I was a football player as a wide receiver, I was a basketball player, we boxed, we did everything in terms of being an athlete and overall competitor. Today’s society is very specialized. Once an individual identifies as a basketball player, that is all they practice. That is all they do. I think it limits some of the growth of that particular athlete and that athletes translation of their skills at the next level.
With that being said, most of my experiences in Paterson came from playing for all these different teams. One team was across town, another team was here, another team would be there. It gave me the opportunity to travel around the city, meet different people and be exposed to a lot of different things in my environment. I grew up in the Alexander Hamilton Projects where things were very limited. But because of sports, because of the different variety of sports that I played, and the different people that I met, it gave me the opportunity to explore exactly what I do, who I was, and what opportunities were out there. I ended up settling into basketball because it was the most popular in our community at the time.
AP: How old were you when you settled on basketball?
RS: About 14.
AP: Did you try to go pro in any other sports, or once you had your mind on basketball set there was no turning back.
RS: I never set out the notion of becoming a pro. I just had the notion to be better. To be the next Julius Erving. He was my idol. I would just work at that every day. Even when I got drafted, I wasn’t ever convinced that I was good enough to play at the next level, at the professional level. I just wanted to compete and get better. That’s basically how I attacked my development. Every day, every year, I wanted to be a better player. Wherever that lands me, wherever that places me… so be it.
I was very fortunate and very lucky to play on a great High School team. I was very fortunate and very lucky to go to Villanova and get some exposure. And I was very lucky and very fortunate to get drafted. I say that, but I also say that I was very prepared. I was ready. Both mentally and physically for the challenge that was ahead of me and I always embraced it and fought for it every day.
To be continued in Part Two.