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Haywood's story is the story of NBA ups and downs

After 27-year wait, pioneer ready to march into Hall of Fame

POSTED: Sep 10, 2015 3:43 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Spencer Haywood Career Highlights

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

Tracking Spencer Haywood's career is like walking through a portal into a couple of basketball's most pivotal decades of the 20th century.

Haywood touched and was touched by, both creator and casualty of, so many of the events and issues woven into the sport's fabric -- good, bad and significant -- from the 1960s right through the '80s. As he prepares for enshrinement this weekend with the rest of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2015, some 27 years after he first became eligible, the 66-year-old former superstar is a walking, talking history text, warts and all, of many of the NBA's and the game's highs and lows.

From high school championships to Olympics sleeper-turned-savior, from an unknown junior-college transfer to the original "one and done" guy in the NCAA game, the early churning in Haywood's career was an indication of things to come.

He played in and dominated in the old American Basketball Association, then changed the game forever when he switched a year later to the NBA. Haywood came along at a time when (and was partially responsible for) salaries hitting six figures and contracts pushing into seven. He was among the ranks of the NBA's "Superfly" chic, in both style and (illicit) substances.

A man-child on the court before anyone applied that label to Darryl Dawkins, a prodigy on par with LeBron James early in their respective careers, Haywood wound up later as a poster guy for players whose performances were waylaid by drug use, a trend that dealt serious blows to the entire league. And he was an early example of a sports star whose fame spilled over into pop-culture celebrity; Haywood married a supermodel (Iman) before Tom Brady and Gisele were even born or anyone envisioned the "Real Housewives of..." school of reality TV.

Most important, Haywood was front-and-center in a landmark legal case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the outcome of which still resonates through the NBA today.

The man has been not merely an eyewitness to but a participant in a whole lot of the league's history.

"They should view my career in a total package," Haywood said earlier this year, as a way of aiding Hall voters. "I have the Olympic career. I was the outstanding college player of the year. I won a high school championship. I went to the ABA, was Rookie of the Year, leading scorer, leading rebounder, player of the year and MVP of the All-Star game. I left the game after 14 years with 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. That's pretty serious stuff there.

"And also, I went to the Supreme Court to have Haywood vs. the NBA. That rule has ushered in all of these players. The Jordans, the Magics, the Birds. All the way up to LeBron and Kobe and those guys today."

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.

Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the Naismith Hall's Board of Governors, has been a supporter of Haywood for years for the very impact he mentioned. This sport's shrine, after all, honors folks from across basketball, not just NBA participants, with Haywood checking a lot of the boxes.

"He was close on a number of occasions, but he just couldn't get to the finish line," Colangelo said last month. "He went through some personal issues, he beat the demons, he did all the things he needed to do. He paid his dues and he waited a long time, so I couldn't be happier for Spencer Haywood."

One of 11 children, born to a mother who picked cotton in Silver City, Miss., for $2 a day and a father who died a month before Haywood's birth, he was raised "a step below poor" in the deep South of the 1950s and '60s. That meant hunger, hand-me-downs and humiliation, while learning to play basketball barefoot on dirt courts, using a cotton "ball" -- undribble-able -- stuffed with socks.

Haywood's pace and game picked up considerably when he moved in high school to Detroit to live with his brother Roy. Once his skills caught up with a growth spurt, he helped lead Pershing High to Michigan's Class A championship in 1967 and was nearly pro size (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) when he headed to Trinidad State J.C. in Colorado (where he put up 28.2 ppg, 22.1 rpg).

That summer, though still essentially an unknown, Haywood was one of 88 players invited to the U.S. Olympic trials. The collegiate talent pool had been thinned -- no Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), no Elvin Hayes, no Wes Unseld -- by a boycott by notable black athletes, organized by activist professor Harry Edwards, to focus attention on civil rights issues. Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and Dan Issel got cut, Bob Lanier wasn't invited and Haywood -- whose dunking ability impressed coach Hank Iba almost immediately -- wound up at 19 on a squad featuring Jo Jo White (a fellow Class of 2015 HOFer), Charlie Scott and an unremarkable supporting cast.

In fact, procuring a passport from the shoddy records kept on black families in rural Mississippi might have been the most challenging thing about the experience. Haywood scored 145 points in the U.S. team's nine games and shot 71.9 percent, a record. He said he felt no pressure to take a political stand like track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their "black power" salutes. Or, for that matter, like George Foreman, who waved a small American flag after his gold medal victory.

"I never got involved because I knew that I was an American," Haywood said. "My mom was always a flag-bearing American. My brother did three tours in Vietnam during that era. Coming from Mississippi three years before, I had nothing. This was the first recognition that I was getting."

Haywood played the 1968-69 season at the University of Detroit Mercy, averaging 32.1 points and leading the nation with 21.5 rebounds. Obviously ready for stiffer competition, he was targeted by the ambitious, desperate ABA as a talented performer the upstart league could grab before he reached NBA eligibility. The Denver Rockets signed him to a headline-grabbing six-year, $1.9 million contract.

Developing what became a devastating baseline game, coupled with a smooth turnaround jumper, Haywood put up numbers "like Wilt" as a 20-year-old rookie: 30.0 ppg, 19.5 rpg, 45.3 mpg. Denver finished 51-33 and reached the conference finals. But Haywood learned that his deal included only $400,000 over six years, with the balance locked in as deferred payments after his playing days ended. Because he had been under-age when he signed the contract, without representation, new agents -- and Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman -- enticed Haywood to bolt from the Rockets to sign with Seattle.

His deal this time: six years, $1.5 million, all cash. There was just one hitch: The NBA required players to enter via its annual college draft, and only accepted players whose class had graduated.

Schulman was willing to fight, and fight they did. He and Haywood took on the NBA, while the ABA and the NCAA came after them. His 1970-71 season was littered with nuisance injunctions, resentment from rival owners and nights when he was forced to exit the arena and wait on the team bus while the rest of the Sonics played. Haywood appeared in only 33 games that season while his case went all the way to the Supreme Court, a 7-2 vote going in his favor.

Truly seen as a "hardship" case given his family situation, SCOTUS backed his right to make a living same as any other college student who hit the job market before graduating. To preserve their draft, the NBA owners worked out an agreement that, beginning in 1971, deemed underclassmen showing evidence of hardship to be eligible. Five years later, though, that vague requirement was dropped in favor of straight "early entry."

"Do you know how many guys like myself capitalized on millions of dollars by him breaking that rule?" former Sonics forward Shawn Kemp said a few years back. "I didn't really know it at the time. I see him and say thank you and give him a big hug. He created an opportunity for all of us in a lot of sports."

An All-Star in his single ABA season, Haywood reached that status four times in the NBA from 1972 to 1975. He averaged 24.9 points with 12.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 40.4 minutes with the Sonics, became the city's first pro sports icon and -- with Bill Russell as coach -- helped that team make the playoffs in 1975 for the first time in the franchise's eight seasons.

The second half of Haywood's playing career, while eventful, wasn't as productive. He injured a knee when he slipped on a wet arena floor, the result of a leaking roof and the subject of another lawsuit. He leveraged a trade to New York, where his lifestyle and recreational pursuits took precedence over the Knicks' fortunes. In 210 games with New York, Haywood averaged 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds before being traded to New Orleans. Eight months later, in September 1979, the Jazz traded him to the Lakers for Adrian Dantley.

Despite Magic Johnson's remarkable rookie impact, leading to the first of the Lakers' five championships in the decade, Haywood had a meltdown season in L.A. Iman suffered a miscarriage of their second child, his mother would pass away later in the year and his cocaine addiction in the pre-drug policy NBA took him from starting power forward to paranoid, self-absorbed benchwarmer. He clashed with coach Paul Westhead, who had taken over for Haywood fave Jack McKinney after McKinney's serious bicycle accident.

It was Westhead who threw Haywood off the team -- during the 1980 Finals -- after he squabbled with teammates and fell asleep while stretching on the gym floor before a Game 3 practice. The other Lakers voted him only a quarter share of the playoff winnings, and Haywood had to wait years before getting his championship ring. And get a load of this: Haywood claimed in his autobiography years later that -- with his judgment whacked out by drugs -- he talked with a dubious Detroit friend about the prospect of bumping off Westhead.

Only some hard questions in a phone call from his mother, Haywood said, and the scary realization of what he was considering snapped him out of that one. He spent the 1980-81 season playing in Venice, Italy, in a self-imposed exile. Then he returned to the NBA for two season with Washington, averaging 11.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 25.1 minutes for the then-Bullets.

Life since then has perked up. Haywood kicked his drug habit about 30 years ago and stayed active helping others deal with alcohol and substance addictions. He remarried in 1990 and, with wife Linda, has three more daughters who have become successful in their various pursuits.

Hall of Fame Press Conference: Haywood

Haywood is a four-time NBA All-Star (1972-1975) and two-time All-NBA First Team member (1973, 1974).

Active with the National Retired Players Association and serving as an "ambassador" for the NBA, Haywood was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013 -- the same year he got a false alarm from a reporter regarding Hall enshrinement and showed up at the announcement in Atlanta to great embarrassment all around.

This time, though, it's the real deal. Haywood said last week he already knew what he'd be saying in his speech, though he declined to offer specifics. His presenters will be Lenny Wilkens, his former coach, point guard and confidant in Seattle; Charles Barkley, who had supported him for Hall consideration, and longtime pal Bill Walton.

Because of his role as a pioneer or crusader for player rights, Haywood long has felt a kinship with Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood (who fought baseball's reserve clause, leading to free agency) and Oscar Robertson (who did basically the same in the NBA). It has been important to him, too, to be acknowledged by today's NBA stars, both for what he did in the courts and on the court.

Last month, when USA Basketball held its mini-camp in Las Vegas, several former Olympians -- Haywood included -- mingled with the current Team USA players. Haywood's profile already had been raised by his selection into the Naismith Hall, and it reached a new level in August with James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and the rest.

"Since the announcement, it's been tremendous," Haywood said. "It gives the players a chance to look and say, 'What kind of player was he?' They look at the numbers and say, 'Wait a minute here, this is real balling.' This is not just 'the guy who went to the Supreme Court.' "

Haywood said Kevin Love and Blake Griffin made it clear -- like Kevin Garnett did in his MVP acceptance speech in 2004 -- that they appreciated the trail Haywood blazed and the cash he enabled them to earn when they otherwise might have been in college. Waiting for the Hall to call has been agonizing at times, he said, but if he already was in and tucked away for a few years, he might be on the back side of being forgotten all over again.

"It's not on my time, not on the Hall's time but on God's time," Haywood said. "That's why everything is so clear to me and so easy, because I am not looking at it as some kind of injustice. It's the way it's supposed to be. If it had happened early, these young players wouldn't be getting it like they are now.

"Everything has been amplified a thousand-fold for me."

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

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