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By Jill Stewart
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Photos by Gregory Bojorquez
There is no better place in the world to see the most cutting-edge, tricked-out custom cars than Southern California. Just drive down Ventura or Van Nuys Boulevard in the Valley or pull into any of the mini-malls in Monterey Park or San Gabriel, and you’ll see the art of the custom car writ large. These rolling beauties encompass the ultimate end of automotive styling with rims and body packages that rival a Nancy Rubins sculpture for bolt-on complexity. Here in SoCal, a ride featuring only factory parts no longer cuts it.
One of the reasons for that is Latrell Sprewell, the NBA star and owner of Sprewell Motorsports, which is located on a nondescript section of San Gabriel Boulevard surrounded by minimarkets and Chinese restaurants. Perhaps best known for choking his then-coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997, Spree has found new life as a player (now with the Minnesota Timberwolves) and as an entrepreneur.
Sprewell Motorsports is a family-owned and -run affair, with Latrell’s mother, Pamela, and older brother Terran running the ship while Spree is off playing hoops. (At press time, the Timberwolves were still alive in the NBA playoffs.) And the Sprewells have fitted it with all the accouterments you can expect from today’s high-end automotive shop: a waiting room with a big-screen TV, plush leather sofas, a well-used foosball table and a couple of video games, backed by walls and walls of rims and car parts and enough high-end Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac customs to make even the most jaundiced automotive journalists salivate. The shop is staffed by a multicultural array of car-obsessed young men whose conversations tend to run like this:
“Do you want to buy a [Mercedes] twin-turbo CLK for real cheap?”
“Man, that’s too much.”
Pamela Sprewell, at 53, exudes a matriarchal charm that would make anyone feel at home while dropping 20 grand on rims, partly because she drives her own lowered black 2002 Mercedes-Benz S500 sitting on chrome dubs. Automobiles are a Sprewell family tradition, she tells me. Her father has owned an auto shop — “just basic auto repair, nothing fancy like this” — in Milwaukee for the past 53 years, and Spree is keeping on with the family tradition. She came out from Milwaukee last October to help at the shop. “We like to have a family environment here.”
Terran explains how Latrell came to purchase the shop in 1998 from Dazz Motorsports: “When Spree used to play for the Golden State Warriors, he would get his wheels done at Dazz. He knew there weren’t any shops in the San Gabriel Valley, and there was a lot of money in the area, so he just took it from there.”
The shop does everything from custom interior and body work to dropping suspensions, but its bread and butter is selling a mind-boggling variety of rims and tires. Sprewell features more than 100 brands, from low-end five-spokes to high-end chromed-out 22-inch Löwenharts. Spree even sells two signature models, one by Lexani and the other by BR9. And next year, he’s coming out with a full line of both high- and low-end Spree’s custom wheels and accessories. None of these should be confused with those ubiquitous “spinner” rims, which are known as Sprewells but were in fact invented by David Folkes of Dävin Wheels.
“The original idea came from a class project in 1991,” explains Folkes over the phone, “and I thought it would be great to design something that would continue the motion of a car. Fast-forward to starting Dävin in 1998 and coming across Sprewell Motorsports. They were the first shop to buy and prominently display our product. In fact, they showed the rims on an MTV Cribs episode but didn’t mention our name, so people started to call them Sprewells.”
Latrell went with the flow: His line of basketball shoes made by Dada even features little chrome spinners that keep on moving after you’ve driven the lane and dunked. The shoes are an apt symbol, as most of Spree’s clients are athletes or hip-hop stars like the Dirty South’s own crunkster, Lil’ Jon, and Missy Elliot. Their cars, mostly big-sticker, blinged-out Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz models, are the flip side to the over-the-top import tuner cars. Here the custom work is like a fine men’s suit, where you don’t fully appreciate the superior craftsmanship until you’re in it.
On one of Spree’s personal whips, a black Cadillac Escalade EXT, the rear seat folds down to reveal a custom-built wood-and-suede subwoofer cabinet that matches the rest of the interior. Even the $20,000, 26-inch Dävin Revolution rims have wood insets on the spinners. All of Sprewell’s personal cars are black and exude the muted elegance of Prada. He personally sets the tone for what’s done not only in his shop but in the entire marketplace. He was the first person on the cover of Dub magazine, the bible of hip-hop bling, and he helped create the whole scene.
He’s always had that kind of effect, says Terran, watching as a brand-new white Mercedes-Benz E500 is fitted with a new pair of shoes. “When we were just kids, you just knew he had talent and was a great ballplayer. Even with all the trials in the media he has been through. People just love Spree. They see what he does with his cars — and he has a lot of cars — and when he does something extra-special with them, people think, ‘I’ve got to have me a piece of that pie.’”