Las Vegas 8 News Now

July 20, 2012

Haywood Recalls Upheaval Surrounding 1968 Olympic Games

LAS VEGAS - The 1992 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team was known as the original "Dream Team", but the real "dream team" may have played in Mexico City in 1968 when this country was in turmoil.

From 1936 to 1964, the U.S. men's team dominated world basketball. The team was unbeaten – tallying 45 straight wins and collecting six Olympic gold medals.

When the 1968 games rolled around, for various reasons, there were no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Wes Unseld or Elvin Hayes.

U.S. tryouts were held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eighty eight players tried out for 12 spots. Spencer Haywood from Mississippi made the team, but needed a passport. So, he needed a birth certificate. He called his mother.

"'Sure baby, I have it right here. It's in the bible,'" Haywood recalls his mother saying. When he asked her to send it to him, she told her son he never had a real birth certificate.

"'I wrote it on John 21. Your dad is John,'" Haywood says his mother told him.

He cleared that hurdle, but faced a bigger obstacle. The U.S. was in social upheaval. The Vietnam War was underway. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated. Protesters took over at the Democratic National Convention.

Some called on black athletes to boycott the games. Haywood refused.

"We are the dream team, because we played on dreams," Haywood said. "I'm not about a black movement or anything. I'm an American. I have a passport here to prove I'm an American. This is bigger than anything, than movements or anything political right now. We have to save this country."

Haywood, then 19 years old, led the U.S. to a gold medal and was named Most Valuable Player. He still holds the record as the youngest U.S. Olympic basketball player ever. The team went 9-0. The Mexican fans who booed the team when they arrived gave them a long standing ovation when they won gold.

"That's something that I have never experienced in life," he said. "The tears were rolling down my face. That's a proud, proud moment, because we accomplished something that no one thought we were going to do. They thought we were going to lose, the public."

Thursday on 8 News NOW, find out how Spencer Haywood paved the way for future Olympians like the current U.S. men's basketball team, which leaves this week for the Olympics in London. (video)

Former Olympian Helped Shape Today's NBA

LAS VEGAS - Spencer Haywood grew up in Silver City, Mississippi - population 200.

"I picked cotton from the time I was six, until I was 14, until I left my mother's home," he said.

He remembers those early years - from the field to the court - playing hoops barefoot on dirt roads. "I didn't have gym shoes. My biggest dream in life was to get a pair of Converse," he said.

Spencer left Silver City in 1965 and landed in Detroit. Three years later, he led the 1968 Olympic team to gold. It was a few years later, however, when Haywood made his most significant contribution to basketball - shooting down the NBA's rule that prohibited college students from leaving school early to join the NBA.

"I went to the U.S. Supreme Court to free up the opportunity so players could come in early. It's called Haywood vs. the NBA," he said. "That was a major, major case, because prior to me winning that case, the NBA, the NCAA, everyone said you must stay out of professional basketball for four years after your high school class had graduated."

The league sued, but Haywood won. He paved the way for players to leave school early. Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are just some of the many superstars who benefited from the decision. Many of today's superstars are unaware of Haywood's influence on the game.

"No, they don't. I was with them guys last week, and people were walking up and saying, ‘Hey, do you know who you're talking to? That's Spencer Haywood. He's the guy that went to the Supreme Court,'" Haywood said. "They're like, ‘Yeah right.' Sort of sounding like my daughters. ‘Yeah, okay, whatever.'"

Today's athletes can be thankful for this gold medal winner. Someday, they may learn who fought the law and won.

"Carmelo (Anthony) says to me, ‘Oh, Spencer, you're pretty famous, because you were married to Iman," Haywood joked.

Hopefully someday, these kids will understand what Haywood did so many years ago, so they can appreciate the fruits of his labor.

"I think they will learn, and I think they will appreciate me in time," he said. "It's in God's hands, not in mine." (video)