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Hall inductee Haywood takes up another fight -- cancer

POSTED: Jul 14, 2015 11:54 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Spencer Haywood has been cancer-free for two years since his prostate cancer diagnosis in 2013.

— Spencer Haywood thought it was tough, getting that bad news each spring that he had failed again to be elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Then he got the results of his biopsy: Prostate cancer.

"Cancer? Nooooo," Haywood said, recalling his reaction to that diagnosis back in 2013. " 'Not me -- I've got to get into the Hall of Fame.' I was just in shock and I was in denial at first. I didn't want to believe it."

Enough with the drama here: Haywood, 66, faced his health crisis head on, underwent robotic surgery and has been cancer-free for two years now. He also learned in April, finally, he had made it into the Hall; he will be enshrined with the rest of the Class of 2015 Sept. 11 in Springfield, Mass.

Some, Haywood included, have wondered why it took so long for a player who seemed qualified in multiple ways: the star of the U.S. gold-medal winning 1968 Olympic team, an All-Star in both the ABA and the NBA from 1969-83, an athletic and entertaining 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds across 844 games for six teams.

Spencer Haywood Career Highlights

Check out career highlights from 2015 Hall of Fame Inductee Spencer Haywood.

That doesn't even include Haywood's status as a landmark figure in pro sports history -- he was the player who challenged the NBA's eligibility restrictions and made it possible for undergraduates to enter the league under what used to be called the "hardship" rule. That, along with Haywood's one ABA season and well-publicized drug problems deep in his career, made him a pariah of sorts for years around the NBA.

Time and Haywood's generally gracious reactions each time he missed out on the Hall have helped to smooth things over. And on Monday, he was front and center in the National Basketball Retired Players Association's new partnership with Cancer Treatment Centers of America to increase awareness of prostate cancer.

The disease is particularly pertinent to the NBRPA's membership; nearly one in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. An estimated 28,000 men, according to the U.S. Cancer Society, will die from it in 2015.

And the incidence is especially high among African-American men. Sean Cavanaugh, chief of radiation oncology at CTCA's Southeastern Regional Medical Center said Monday black men are "60 percent more likely to be diagnosed and 250 percent more likely to die" from prostate cancer.

Haywood maintains his residence in Las Vegas but came out to promote the need for men to get screened. It was during some work Haywood did with Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USA Basketball, that Colangelo suggested he consider the robotic surgery, considered less invasive than some other methods but also focused on removing the damaged tissue.

From the Hardcourt to the Supreme Court

Spencer Haywood provided the 1970 legal test case that opened the NBA to undergraduate college players, an effect that is still felt today.

"Now I just feel it's my duty to educate and pass on the education," Haywood said. "Like in sobriety and in cancer recovery, you can't have the recovery unless you give it away, unless you make other people aware. For men, the first step is getting tested."

Haywood said he has talked with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Charlie Rosenzweig, the league's senior VP of entertainment and player marketing, about developing a national awareness program. And even if prostate cancer is not a health concern for most men when they're the ages of current NBA players, it still can impact their lives.

"Their uncles, their aunts, all of their family members are dying off of this disease. So they should be on my team," Haywood said. "Hell, when I fought all the way to the Supreme Court so they can make this kind of money and enjoy the kind of wealth that they have, I didn't think 'Well, it's not affecting me.' "

Haywood said that his new status as a Hall of Fame electee has boosted his platform with NBA players, some of whom have added millions of dollars to their career earnings by turning pro early. "Players are looking at me completely different," he said. "LeBron [James] and some of them guys will say, 'Man, you were a baller.' "

But that career acknowledgment hits Haywood a little differently these days. When he got the disappointing call in 2013, he was about to embark on his cancer surgery and recovery. When the Hall kept him out again in 2014, he said, it somehow didn't seem like a such big deal.

And now that it has come in 2015?

"The appreciation level, the gratitude is so significantly more," Haywood said. "But it also gave me a chance to know that things don't happen on my time. It's best to let it happen on God's time, which is always right on time."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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