On the court, Spencer Haywood was such a devastating force in his prime that no opponent could defend him or keep him off the boards. Off the court, he had a lasting effect on the game of basketball, largely because he provided the 1970 legal test case that opened the NBA to undergraduate college players.
At his best Haywood was as dominating as they come. As a 20-year-old rookie in 1969-70 he led the American Basketball Association in both scoring and rebounding and was named the ABA’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year.
After moving to the NBA he averaged better than 20 points for five consecutive seasons, including 29.2 ppg in 1972-73, and he was twice selected to the All-NBA First Team.
Haywood was born into a family of 10 children on April 22, 1949, in tiny Silver City, Miss. Taking the opportunity to escape the stifling conditions at the time in the rural South, Haywood at age 15 went to Chicago and then to Detroit to live with his brother. In the Motor City, he led his Pershing High School to the 1967 Michigan Class A championship.
He spent a year at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, where he tallied 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds per game. In the summer of 1968, Haywood helped the United States to a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. He moved on to the University of Detroit for 1968-69, where as a sophomore he scored 32.1 ppg and led the nation in rebounding with an average of 21.5 rpg. Feeling that he had accomplished all that he needed to at the college level, Haywood passed up his final two years of eligibility to sign with the ABA’s Denver Rockets.
Haywood joined the ABA in 1969-70 and had a phenomenal first season. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. He also won the ABA scoring title with an average of 30.0 ppg, and he led the league in rebounding with a remarkable 19.5 rpg to set the ABA’s all-time record. The next season the 21-year-old Haywood shook up both the ABA and the NBA when he left the Rockets to sign with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics.
At the time, the NBA prohibited the drafting or signing of a player before his college class had graduated. Haywood’s class wouldn’t graduate until the end of the 1970-71 campaign, but the Sonics signed him anyway. The NBA league office and other NBA teams opposed the move, protesting that it violated existing rules and that, since Haywood hadn’t gone through a draft, the Sonics had no right to him.
The NBA took Haywood and the Sonics to court. The argument in Haywood’s favor was that, as the sole wage earner in his struggling family, he was a “hardship case” and therefore had a right to begin earning his living. The Supreme Court ruled in Haywood’s favor, forever altering professional basketball.
Beginning in 1971, underclassmen were allowed to enter the NBA Draft provided they could give evidence of “hardship” to the NBA office. In 1976 the hardship requirement was eliminated in favor of the current Early Entry procedure, whereby any athlete with remaining college eligibility can enter the NBA Draft on the condition that he notifies the league office at least 45 days before the draft.
But before the final legal decision, Haywood encountered hostility from the general public about his attempts to play in the NBA. However, after finally being cleared to play late in the 1970-71 season, Haywood joined the Sonics and averaged 20.6 ppg over the final 33 games. The five years he spent with Seattle represented the most stable and productive period of his career — he made four NBA All-Star Teams, two All-NBA First Teams and two All-NBA Second Teams.
In 1971-72, his first full NBA season, Haywood scored 26.2 ppg and grabbed 12.7 rpg. The next year he was unstoppable, pouring in 29.2 ppg (third in the league behind Nate Archibald and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and pulling down 12.9 rpg. His most effective shot was a turnaround jumper in which Haywood took advantage of his height and reach to extend above the defender before lofting a soft arc toward the hoop. He scored 51 points against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings that year. The Sonics, however, finished with a 26-56 record, 34 games out of first place in the division.
Haywood continued to provide stellar play. In 1973-74, his scoring average dropped to 23.5 ppg, but he increased his rebounding to 13.4 rpg, sixth in the NBA. The Sonics finished 36-46 under new coach Bill Russell and missed the playoffs again.
Haywood and Russell made history in 1974-75 when they led Seattle to its first playoff berth in the team’s eight-year existence. Haywood was dominating as usual, averaging 22.4 ppg and 9.3 rpg and earning his fourth straight trip to the NBA All-Star Game. The Sonics finished 43-39 and actually made some noise in the postseason, bumping off the Detroit Pistons in the first round before losing to the eventual NBA-champion Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals.
After that season, Haywood was traded to the New York Knicks for cash and a draft choice. In the Big Apple he led the life of a star. He married glamorous fashion model Iman, and the celebrity couple were regulars on the social scene. But New York acquired Bob McAdoo during the 1976-77 season, and the Knicks found themselves with two high-scoring forwards.
In the middle of the 1978-79 campaign, Haywood was swapped to the New Orleans Jazz for Joe C. Meriweather. When the Jazz moved to Utah the next season, Haywood was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Adrian Dantley, a future Hall of Famer.
He averaged 9.7 ppg in a limited role with the Lakers in 1979-80, but was a key reserve on L.A.’s championship team.
Haywood spent the 1980-81 campaign playing in Italy and working toward returning to the NBA. He played 76 games with the Washington Bullets in 1981-82 and 38 more the following season. He was waived in March 1983, then retired from the NBA with 14,592 career points and 7,038 rebounds.
After retiring from playing in 1983, Haywood became involved in real estate development in Detroit, and wrote his autobiography, Spencer Haywood: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery.
In 2015, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.