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Steve Aschburner

Spencer Haywood had his jersey retired in Seattle in 2007.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE via Getty Images

Haywood made a stand, and today's players benefit from it

Posted Mar 16 2010 11:00AM - Updated Mar 16 2010 5:19PM

Imagine if Kevin Garnett couldn't come up with pizza money halfway through his freshman year at the University of Michigan. Think about Kobe Bryant as a senior in college, tearing up his knee on the eve of Duke's March Madness run in 2000. What if LeBron James never had passed his sophomore history class at Ohio State?

The scenarios seem outlandish now -- what, those guys actually attending college? -- but that was the norm until about 40 years ago. That's when Spencer Haywood put his career on the line and his name to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that won for players like himself and all who have followed into professional basketball -- including Garnett, Bryant and James -- the right to enter the NBA Draft.


What so many take for granted, Haywood fought for, hard, in the courts and on the courts. A hoops prodigy out of Detroit, he was a skilled and stylish 6-foot-9 forward who helped the U.S. win Olympic gold as a teenager and went on to average 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds across 13 seasons in the ABA (one, Denver) and NBA (12, Seattle, New York, L.A. Lakers and Washington). More than that, though, Haywood was a pioneer, a rebel and now a reflective man; disappointed that the stand he took isn't appreciated or even known more by the fellows it helped, yet proud that he took it.

"Back in those days, you always thought you were doing something for the next generation," he said recently. "I had seen so many players fall by the wayside because they couldn't make it through college, the academics. Or they got hurt -- my brother got hurt, got his knee torn up and they put him out of school. I had seen so many tragic people walking around, waiting for their four years so they could get into the Draft. And they never got there."

Well, Haywood got "there" at All-Star Weekend in Dallas, when the NBA honored him in a brief, on-court, video-and-standing ovation ceremony during the Saturday night events. He was startled, frankly, by the reaction of some past and current players, along with the fans at the American Airlines Center. His wife of 20 years, Linda, and his four lovely daughters ranging from 29 years old down to 15 were proud of him all over again.

Now Haywood -- who works as a corporate speaker and real-estate developer in Las Vegas and Michigan, while helping others battle addictions -- will feel just a little better about the Draft this spring, when another crop of early entry candidates put their NBA dreams on the big board. Curiously, the man who largely redefined the league's June Draft has never actually attended one -- including his own, which was a just-in-case, second-round pick by Buffalo in 1971 even as Haywood's case was being decided in his favor.

That was just one of the surprises he dropped on me in a series of February phone conversations: As the guy who opened the door for players of any age to enter the NBA, how do you feel about the current one-and-done rule requiring at least one year between high school and draft eligibility?

Spencer Haywood: I think they should have two. The skill level is just not there. You have some of the No. 1s, you've got your guys like [Derrick] Rose, they're great and I guess they should have a chance to do that. But as a whole, I'm just looking at the skill set and thinking, "How much more diminished can things get?" And "What could a veteran be doing while this rookie is sitting on the bench for three years?" It's about the product. I go to Detroit games a lot, I go to Utah games, I go to L.A. and Phoenix games. I don't like paying money and seeing a guy sitting there. They say he's got "possibilities." Isn't blocking the entry of high school kids contrary to your beliefs?

SH: No, no. I wanted the freedom to do it, but I did it [came into the NBA] in my senior year. In over 30 years, there were only three players who did it [straight out of high school] and, really, there were only two -- Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins -- because Bill Willoughby failed. Then all of a sudden, everybody was running out of high school to get the money. I was like "Wait a minute here!" You felt responsible?

SH: I opened the door. People beat me down over it. I've been beat down so low on all this stuff. I was sitting with the guys last year at the Final Four, and the coaches beat me down so bad. I walked out of there, I thought I was Toulose-Lautrec [famously short French painter]. They said, "If it wasn't for you ..." and they said it jokingly but there was a lot of sincerity in that joke. Because you were challenging both systems, college and pro.

SH: But the players now, they don't know who I am. They think Darryl Dawkins did it [first]. I'm like, "He never went to the Supreme Court. Don't you guys read?" We live in a much more litigious culture now, where 10-year-olds will sue their parents. Back then, though, you were just one guy taking on some pretty heavy establishments.

SH: I got my ass whupped. I mean, I got beat up every day that I fought it. The NBA really went after me -- and that was without lawyers. They did a number on the court, beat my butt many a night. And they had cameras there waiting for me to strike back because then the case would be thrown out for sure, because I wasn't "qualified," I couldn't "hold my temper." Lenny knows all about that. Lenny Wilkens and Rod Thorn were my coaches back then, they saw it. You were threatening their very foundations, they thought at the time.

SH: It was their livelihood, their income. Not only that, but college basketball was going to be destroyed, as they put it to me. Their base of fans, their alumni. "We've got to destroy this guy before he destroys us." It was not pleasant, my friend. Then I had the NBA and everybody else. I had Denver in the ABA coming after me for leaving their team, for leaving their league. I had three lawsuits coming after me. You spent one year after high school at Trinidate State junior college and one year at the University of Detroit. You jumped to Denver in the ABA and then signed the contract with Seattle for what would have been your senior year. So your college class was graduating even as this was going all the way to the Supreme Court.

SH: I could have just sat out. Milwaukee and the Lakers, other teams in the NBA, were willing to pay to have me sit out -- and pay me more than what I was getting paid by the Sonics -- to sit out and the next year, come right in with them. I would have been with Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Woo! But my loyalty was with Seattle. Who benefitted from this first? By 1971, the NBA had its first official "hardship draft" in which Nate Williams, Tom Payne, Cyril Baptiste, Phil Chenier and Joe Hammond were selected separately, as underclassmen.

SH: Then Bob McAdoo [in 1972], he was right after me. Julius Erving, George Gervin ... after me, they walked right in. Nobody has sent me a thank-you note. Well, the league finally sent a big one in Dallas at All-Star Weekend. What was that like for you?

SH: I got a lot of love from the current players. Some of them will be blank, but some of them like Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Dwight Howard, they gave me big love. Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe, those guys were great. Guys who weren't under the ruling, too, like Steve Nash. The league did such a powerful [video] piece, I've been trying to get the DVD. People have to see the response of the audience. Sure, it's been 40 years, but they didn't have to do that, either. It's first-class love!

You've got to see how the players on the floor, Steve Smith, the girls, Dirk Nowitzki, they all stopped. They were, like, bowing down. And the 22,000 people in the arena stood up and were cheering. And I'm like, "Hey! Me?" The players came over. Charles Barkley, Chris Webber. Kisses all over my head and face and stuff. I told 'em, "Guys, I'm just eating vegetables and working out every day. I'm going to stick around! Because no one was letting me have it earlier!" You've lasted long enough to be appreciated.

SH: Yeah. Because my "partner" with the Supreme Court at the time, Curt Flood, I saw him before he died. And he passed at age [59]. I saw him, he was like broken. Spiritless. Just down. He said, "[Baseball] never forgave me for what I did. And they never honored me. The players that I fought for never honored me." When we were fighting it, that's all we talked about: "These players are going to love us. Even if we don't play anymore, the players are going to take care of us." The damn players didn't even speak to us! Flood, a superb outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, basically cut his career short by challenging baseball's reserve clause when he was traded after the 1969 season. He missed a whole year, his skills waned and he felt he was treated like a pariah by the teams. How did you connect?

SH: When you have a similar battle, people tend to talk to each other ... I saw him in New York before he passed. We talked and we talked. We went to a place near 90th and Columbus to hear some music, because Curt was into guitar, y'know. We heard some young guys who came up, I think, from New Orleans. They were playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I was like, "Who are these guys? Marsalis? Wynton? Who?" The year you fought your legal battle, you played in only 33 games for Seattle. How come?

SH: There was an injunction against me that year. Some nights I'd walk out on that floor and the announcer would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor. We have an injunction and No. 24 must be thrown out of the arena!" How grueling was that to endure?

SH: To be thrown out of games was quite tough. And not knowing what the outcome would be. To hear the opposing attorneys from the NBA, the ABA and the University of Detroit with the NCAA, I was never going to play basketball again. It was quite frightening. But you know, I figured at least I gave it a try, because so many guys before me didn't do it even though they were unhappy with it. Wilt Chamberlain told me, "You're much crazier than me, because I never would have done that." What sort of reaction or support did you get from your peers at that time?

SH: I had to be out there alone. The Players Association didn't endorse me. If they had stepped over the line, they would have been in trouble, too, because they would have been going against their owners. Oscar [Robertson] was always giving me his support, and he was the [union] president, but he couldn't come out and do it because they were squeezing him in Cincinnati. He had just broke the rules and set up the union a few years earlier. One way the NBA could have recognized your accomplishment would have been to refer to the "Haywood rule." To this day, they have "Bird rights" named after Larry Bird to cover a particular contract status. But for players entering the league, it has been either "hardship" or "early entry." I think the ABA had a "special circumstances" draft for a while.

SH: It was Haywood v. National Basketball Association but it's never been known as the Spencer Haywood rule. Hello?! At least they dropped the "hardship" tag after a while.

SH: That was my way of proving a need, because my mother was picking cotton for $2 a day. I think it was [Phoenix center] Alvan Adams who stopped that whole charade. His father was an oil man in Oklahoma. He didn't need the money. [Laughs]. So people said, "Wait a minute, we thought it was only going to be black guys." [Fabled L.A. Times sportswriter Jim Murray wrote in 1976: "Alvan Adams' father is a petroleum geologist, a profession slightly less lucrative than owning your own diamond mine. The only hardship anyone could discern about Alvan was that he had to wash his own car."] How much do you feel your fight affected your career?

SH: You tell me about the All-Star Game in Seattle in 1974. I was getting ready to walk up and get the MVP award, but they gave it to Bob Lanier. And it's in my town! I was crushed. I cried for two weeks. To this day, I kid Bob Lanier: "You got my trophy?" [Haywood had 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists that day to Lanier's 24 points, 10 boards and two assists.] If the commercial was right -- you never get a second chance to make a first impression -- it could be that you never got a second chance to make a final impression. Some folks still see you as a symbol of the 1970s NBA, when the league had financial problems and, especially, a reputation for illegal drug use. [Haywood infamously nodded off while stretching at a Lakers practice during the 1980 NBA Finals and was immediately cut from the club in mid-series.]

SH: If that's the case, what about the other players and all the executives of the league who used drugs back then? What about alcoholism? This is my 25th year of sobriety. C'mon, man. And what about the ones who never said anything about it publicly, they just went and got treatment and nobody made a big deal about it? I'm just saying, I see other people in the NBA and the NCAA who had problems. But I've been told that's why I'm being held out of the Hall of Fame.

I took the blame for all of it. Think about it. John Lucas, Micheal Ray [Richardson], everybody else, they're never mentioned. I've always been the one who was really the troublemaker. It's not payback, it's just the way things are. I hate to be negative about it. If you get bitter and angry, you're gonna get yourself old and you'll die away. But it's like Bruce Hornsby sang, "That's just the way it is."

Then I have to hear the kids, my last two, they always say "Nah, he didn't do that. Tupac did that." I'm like, "Oh gosh ..."


Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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