Fall 2013

A Wheel in a Wheel

Sprewells and the unleashing of blur

D. Graham Burnett

The wheels of perception.

In February of 2001, the New York Knicks’ volatile shooting guard, Latrell “Spree” Sprewell (who had, several years earlier, lost more than six million dollars and his position with the Golden State Warriors after repeatedly assaulting the team’s coach in the course of a dispute at practice), appeared on the MTV lifestyle program Cribs. There, he briefly mugged before a customized sport vehicle outfitted with an unusual accessory: a highly polished hubcap device on each wheel had been mounted in such a way as to spin freely, like a pinwheel rosette of steel. As a result, when the car began to roll, its shiny wheels initially seemed not to turn at all. Then, as the automobile picked up speed, the bling rims began, slowly, to rotate—gradually coming into sync with the motion of the vehicle itself (the roller bearings that permitted each hubcap-pinwheel to turn on its own were not, of course, perfectly frictionless, so the rotational force of the actual underlying wheel progressively overcame the inertia of its showy doppelganger). Finally, when the vehicle came to a stop, its four wheels appeared, disconcertingly, to continue spinning. Glinting metal rolled on flashily in the middle of each stationary tire.

For reasons that remain to be fully understood, this fleeting moment of celebrity exposure occasioned a veritable explosion of public comment on, and commercial interest in, this technology—hitherto known as “spinner” wheels (or just “spinners”) among a circumscribed coterie of hot rod aficionados, they were thenceforth universally dubbed “Sprewells.” Before the spasmodic swell of cultish enthusiasm receded, the devices had made appearances on countless lowriders and tricked-out funny cars, in addition to sneakers, wheelchairs, hats, belts, roller skates, and other unlikely knickknacks. Lyrical encomia proliferated—often truculent, sometimes pimpishly self-regarding; not infrequently, both. Properly pornographic cameos followed, and then, in train: fretting lawmakers; patent infringement cases; a long, spinning fall from grace; jets of caustic satire here and there; and, finally, something like oblivion.

Let us put this fetching cultural history aside. There is work to do in that arena, but I leave it to others. It is my contention here that these devices—which represent, I believe, a significant moment in the history of wheels—merit closer critical/analytic attention than they have yet received.

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