Spencer Haywood blazed trails for generations ahead

February 6, 2015

By Paul Corliss & Teresa Galvez

This is the second in a four-part series of ‘Legends Reflect’ features celebrating Black History Month, February, 2015. Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC is the presenting partner for the NBRPA’s Black History Month Celebration.

Of the 44 underclassmen from the United States that declared themselves eligible for the 2014 NBA draft, all but four were African-Americans. Young men of color with NBA aspirations leave college early for many reasons – family support, economic opportunity, academic issues, fear of injury. But none of the 41 African-American underclassmen that entered last year’s draft would have had that opportunity had it not been for one man – Spencer Haywood.

Haywood, who serves on the Board of Directors for the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), was born in 1949 into extreme poverty in Silver City, Miss. – where his mother worked on a farm picking cotton and raising 10 children. That he emerged from such humble beginnings is an accomplishment in itself, but the Spencer Haywood story – from poverty, to basketball stardom, to celebrity, to drug addiction, to recovery and eventually to redemption – has all the making of a Hollywood movie. But of all the exciting chapters in the “Book of Spencer,” none has been more impactful on the lives of young, aspiring African-American basketball players than his landmark 1970 Supreme Court Case, Haywood v. National Basketball Association.

On the heels of the historic summer of love in 1967, Haywood burst onto the national college basketball scene after a state championship career at Detroit’s Persching High School. He spent one dominant year at Colorado’s Trinidad State Junior College and another at the University of Detroit. In between, Haywood spent the summer of 1968 in Mexico City where he participated in the Olympics, leading Team USA’s journey to the Gold Medal and setting an American Olympic record for scoring.

During Haywood’s time at the University of Detroit, he led the nation in rebounding, averaging 21.5 board per game, while also knocking down 32.1 points per game. Simply put, he was dominant. Haywood was prepared to return for his second season at Detroit had they hired Willie Robinson and made his high school coach from Persching the first African-American Division I coach in NCAA history. But when that didn’t happen (Robinson would later coach the Detroit Pistons), Haywood had a decision to make – either transfer or try and help his family.

“I could have sat out and come back senior year at another college,” he said. “But at the same time, my mother was still picking cotton in Mississippi for $2 an hour. So I weighed the options and I opted for trying to help my family.”

Bound and determined to get his mother off the cotton farm and armed with a dizzying array of physical ability, the 20-year old Haywood decided it was time to go pro. Unfortunately, however, Haywood’s college experience would not fulfill the NBA’s, or even the ABA’s, eligibility requirements. But when the middling ABA heard the talented Haywood’s knock on its door, league leadership decided to make an exception to their four-year rule in an effort to land a young star.

“They wanted to have someone save the league, so they went after Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and then they came after me,” Haywood said.

While the man then known as Lew Alcindor made his way to the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA, Haywood joined the ABA’s Denver Rockets and took the upstart league by storm. In one of professional basketball’s most dominant seasons in history, Haywood averaged 30 points, 19.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, All-Star MVP and scoring title.

Haywood’s ABA dominance certainly made waves in basketball circles and soon the NBA came calling. The NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics made their move and signed Haywood to a contract following his breakout season, defying the league’s underclassman policy, which still applied to Haywood (who would have been a college senior had he not gone to the ABA).

As the NBA positioned itself to block Haywood from playing, Sonics owner Sam Schulman and Haywood filed an anti-trust suit against the league that opened the door for him to take the court in Seattle while the case was being settled. The suit stated that the four-year college rule infringed on Haywood’s right to earn a living as a professional.

Eligible to play in the NBA while the case made its way upward through the United States judicial system, the 21-year old power forward was jeered and booed by fans that viewed him as anti-establishment during a tumultuous time of civil unrest in America.

Haywood’s case progressed to the Supreme Court and in March 1971, the United States’ highest court upheld a lower court decision that said barring Haywood from the NBA would cause him “irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated.”

“I had a feeling it was going to be hard, but I didn’t have the feeling that it would be as harsh as it was,” Haywood said, looking back on the disapproval he received from fans and the rest of the league. “My mother encouraged me and said, ‘You got Martin Luther King … you got Muhammad Ali … everybody fighting for rights, and you don’t want to go out on the limb for this?”

As the Supreme Court case settled, history was made and the NBA created its “hardship” rule, allowing underclassmen to enter the league early if they could prove financial hardship. And thus doors were opened for dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of young African-American men to declare themselves eligible for the NBA Draft as underclassmen.

Eventually many young African-American men, including stars like NBRPA Members Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins, as well as current NBA players Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, went straight to the NBA from high school. And while today’s eligibility rules state that a player must play at least one season of college (or other) basketball after high school, there’s no denying Spencer Haywood’s role as a trailblazer.

“There wouldn’t be Daryl Dawkins, there wouldn’t be Kevin Garnett, there wouldn’t be Bill Willoughby,” Garnett said. “"There wouldn’t even be a Moses Malone.”

Today, Haywood is a peaceful and reflective man having road a thrilling and sometimes terrifying roller-coaster of life. The fast life of the 1980s, when he was married to the supermodel, Iman, and fell into drug addiction, almost claimed Spencer Haywood. But he fought back, found peace and today lives as a successful businessman, family man and member of the NBRPA Board of Directors. He knows his place in history is secure as a great Olympian, ABA MVP, NBA All-Star and NBA Champion.

“I’m proud of my career and I’ve had a wonderful life,” Haywood said. “Every day is a blessing to be alive and I’m enjoying my family, my golf and my work with youngsters through the NBRPA.”

A Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame finalist the last two years, Haywood won’t hang his hat on whether or not he gets into the Hall this year. But others, including the outspoken power forward-turned- broadcaster Charles Barkley, who entered the NBA as an underclassman, will do it for him.

“I think the Hall of Fame will never be complete until the first guy who made it possible for myself and all the guys to go pro … Spencer Haywood,” Barkley recently said during an NBA broadcast on TNT. “For him not to be elected, especially for him to make it possible for all of us to leave college early … for Spencer Haywood not to be in the Hall of Fame is a travesty.”

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