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Spencer Haywood: Hubris, Humility and a Whole Lotta Game

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The name Spencer Haywood will continue to trend on social media over the next few weeks courtesy of HBO. While he undeniably became infamous for his unanticipated “slumber” on a fateful day during the 1980 NBA Finals, he cannot be reduced to that sole interlude of time. Spencer has been quite “woke” on a multitude of occasions when the spotlight was illuminated to the “nth” degree. 

“SPENSIE” & THE DOUGHBOYS 

Mama called him “Spencie”, but his teammates dubbed him “Wood”. Fresh from Silver City, Mississippi, Haywood was straight-up country. He was born at home, via a midwife, in the bed in which he had been conceived. His birth certificate, for a time, consisted of his name and his birthdate scrawled inside of a bible (of course with the denotation “Spencie”). The rumors regarding a home circumcision, assisted by his brothers, were true, ordered by the matriarch for

“religious/purity” reasons. Early education–separate and unequal–was on the backburner. Picking cotton, as a means to sustain the family, took precedence. 

The school-to-prison pipeline, unfortunately, was also real, utilized as a means to accumulate strong, young, teenage Black men as permanent farm laborers, via manufactured charges for questionable/faux malfeasance. Dismayed about the prospect of raising another strapping young man in this Jim Crow bastion, Eunice Haywood dispatched him to dwell with an older brother “Up-South” in Michigan (who had played basketball at Bowling Green University). In spite of having melanated folks in legion, Michigan too was fraught with many of the same social issues, to include “sundown towns”, adjacent to the “Motor-City”: Livonia, Dearborn, Wyandotte, etc. Motown however, did eventually put a modicum of polish on him. 

In no time, he became a hoops prodigy both in the schoolyards and on the hardwood at Detroit Pershing High School. There, under the tutelage of legendary coach Will Robinson, he became a star on the brink of superstardom. Spencer’s teammates weren’t too shabby either. One of them was a 6’5” phenom named Ralph Simpson (not Ralph Sampson). Simpson, who starred at Michigan State University before leaving college early via “hardship” (more on that later), became a five-time ABA All-Star with the Denver Rockets/Nuggets. By the way, he is also the father of singing sensation India.Arie. With the milieu of the Detroit riots, and competing against biased referees on a quotidian basis, the Pershing Doughboys won the 1967 Michigan Class A State Championship. Every now and then, NBA All-Star Dave Bing and the Detroit Pistons would show up to scrimmage this high school squad. 

Feeling on top of the world, it was time for Spencer to choose a college to display his hoops talents. He had been named a Parade All-American his senior year. After improving upon his poor grades from his time in Mississippi (it’s quite the quagmire to excel academically in the cottonfields), Haywood had aspirations to head back to “Dixieland”, but he was met with an unexpected setback. 

“I finally got myself together. I wanted my family to see me play because my mom had never seen me play. And so I signed with the University of Tennessee, not knowing the politics.” Spencer continued, “When I signed the University of Tennessee, I didn’t realize I was the first Black [athlete] down there and all this stuff was going on. I just thought it was a good chance for

when I go to play against Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi that my mother could see me play.” [1] 

Unbeknownst to him, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) had an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” to bar African-American players. However, a few SEC teams were considering doing so. Taking an “L” tends to alter one’s mindset. The “Baron” of collegiate basketball, Kentucky Head Coach Adolph Rupp, got involved when the Tennessee Vols’ got cold feet. Just weeks prior to considering Haywood, his all-white Kentucky Wildcats had been outplayed, outhustled, and flat-out intimidated by a team with five Black starters, Texas Western College (now UTEP). Rupp’s “demands”, should Haywood decide to matriculate in Lexington, however, were a bit over the top. (“If I recruit you, you can’t look at the white girls, you can’t talk.” [When the idea of making Spencer Haywood his first Black recruit at Kentucky was being considered.]

NOTE: he referred to Spencer more often as “Negrus” or “Boy n****r” than his given name. [2] 

From there Spencer put up prolific scoring and rebounding numbers at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado (28 points/20 rebounds) which led him to being selected to represent the United States in the ‘68 Summer Olympics (Mexico City). This was a huge deal, as roster spots were usually given to upperclassmen from big universities. In 1968, the choice of any Black athlete to represent this country was a hotly-disputed and polarizing topic. In college basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) of U.C.L.A, Houston’s Elvin Hayes, and Louisville’s Wes Unseld (a trio of future Hall of Famers) were among the most renowned invitees to boycott the Olympics that year. At one event prior to the games, a beautiful Sista held up a sign which read, “Why Run In Mexico City & Crawl At Home?” That illustration, as much as the ‘68 demonstration by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, has remained in my psyche since childhood. 

Dr. Harry Edwards, a highly intelligent and forceful professor from San Jose State University, was spearheading the O.P.H.R. (Olympic Project For Human Rights). He directly challenged many Black athletes who opposed a total boycott of Mexico City. Edwards was a towering 6’8″, and spoke in terms that were anything but accommodating toward the establishment. To the average person, he could be intimidating. Wood was not average. 

“We were considered ‘Uncle Tom’s because we played. Well, I knew what an ‘Uncle Tom” was, and I knew it wasn’t that. I knew what it was to be an American…All the people who were

complaining, all of the problems, I lived with these problems. But in 1968 it was a very bold thing to go to the [Olympic] games, and it was also a bold thing not to go. Whether you went to the Olympics or not, you were making a statement” recalled Haywood. [2] He also remembered a tense exchange with Dr. Edwards. 

DR. EDWARDS: “[By playing] You’re not doing anything but picking cotton for the man.” 

HAYWOOD: “Did you ever pick cotton? Were you in the field or anything? Because you keep talking about this cottonfield.” [2] 

Spencer played. Teamed up with future Hall of Famers Charlie Scott and JoJo White, Wood led the team in scoring en route to capturing Olympic Gold. Wood was all of 19 years young at the time. He then stepped up to the next collegiate level, lording over his foes at the University of Detroit. The 6’9″ 235 pound specimen averaged 32 points and 21.5 rebounds per game. 

At that juncture, he had been authenticated as head-and-shoulders above most of his opposition at every echelon thus far. Considered to be the second-best collegiate player in the nation, to only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he was ready to turn pro. 

DOLGOFF PLANS 

Haywood had the talent, and most certainly he and his family needed the funds. Mom was still working, picking cotton (for $2/day) and scrubbing floors (exacerbating her chronic back problems) in the torrid, unrelenting Mississippi heat. The NBA, at that time, strictly prohibited drafting underclassmen. The rival ABA, entering only its third season, and in a bidding war with the older established league for top collegiate talent, followed no such protocol. In order to keep the NBA and the NCAA off their backs, the ABA came up with this propaganda that they were trying to help the sons of former slaves. They were going to give reparations in the form of an opportunity for Spencer Haywood to play. “The University of Detroit claimed I was violating their contract to play even though I was not supposed to be paid. They sued me over lost revenues” recalled Haywood. [2] Thus, the ABA’s Denver Rockets signed him.

In Denver, as a rookie, Spencer flourished, averaging 30 points/19 rebounds per night. As a result, he won the MVP for the regular season, the MVP of the All-Star game, First-Team All-ABA, and the Rookie of the Year for the ABA in 1970. At the time, he was a mere 20 years old. On a summer trip to Panama with some veteran NBA players, a major turning point occurred. His professional brethren informed him that his contract was “phony” and not guaranteed. The players were not being facetious. Haywood‘s contract was not in real dollars. Many ABA contracts were announced as some stratospheric figure but were actually annuities backed by Prudential Insurance. Basically, they were tantamount to a “play now and get paid later” type deal. The players who knew, and negotiated better, referred to those types of contracts as “April Fools”. During the season, Haywood had his contract altered three times. On the final amendment, Spencer, who had exhausted the lion’s share of his capital, was advanced another $50K. Publically, it was announced as a $1.9 million dollar concordat. 

Not even close

The precise contractual terms were, “a salary of $50K for the first two years, and $75K for the last four. That came out to $400K cash. The remaining $1.5 million was to be paid out in a Dolgoff Plan at $75K annually over 20 years, starting when Haywood reached age 40.” [3] Spencer was not amused, and he wanted his 1.9 million to be paid over five years. Roused and understandably angry, Spencer would immediately acquire the services of famed sports agent Al Ross. Ross was so adept at “stealing” clients, and getting them new contracts, that he was known in league circles as “The Pirate”. When the duo alerted Rockets owner Bill Ringsby of their concerns, they were denounced loudly and in no uncertain terms. 

HAYWOOD (to Ringsby): “You guys need to renegotiate this thing and give me the [real] dollar amount.” 

RINGSBY: “We got you to a contract. You can’t go to the NBA, you can’t go back to college. Where are you going to go?“ 

ROSS: “You guys need to create a contract that is ‘legal and binding.'” 

RINGSBY (to Ross): “You get your Jew ass out of here and take this n****r with you! We ain’t doing nothing!!!” [2]

Shots fired. So long Denver. 

At that point, Spencer weighed his confluence of options: 

(a) Go back to Denver and play (Sheeeee*******t!!!

(b) Sign with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns immediately, sit out a year, while getting paid for nothing (An offer was on the table from Suns G.M. Jerry Colangelo, but Spencer made it crystal clear that he wanted to play right away

(c) Team up with Ross, and battle the NBA (Seattle Supersonics owner Sam Schulman put an offer on the table in genuine currency–nothing deferred–for Wood to play instantly

Haywood signed with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, for $1.5 million over six years–real dollars, no Dolgoff. However, in order to perform, first, he had to file a lawsuit. It was on the basis that the NBA had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Today, players are allowed to enter the league prior to the graduation of their collegiate class via “hardship”, “one-and done”, and (periodically since the verdict) directly from high school. Unofficially, it’s called the “Spencer Haywood Rule”. After a protracted legal battle which reached the United States Supreme Court, a victorious Haywood wound up in the NBA. All was not eden. While the court proceedings (Haywood v. National Basketball Association) were in progress, he was only available for 33 games. In addition, occasionally he would suit up for some contests on the road (home games were never a problem), and league officials, court injunctions in hand, actually kicked him off the floor, or outside of the arena. He would’ve set the world on fire professionally. Instead, he set the establishment of the NBA ablaze with his defiant move. 

“In Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee—wherever the Sonics traveled in 1970-71—drama ensued. Crowds would burst into cheers after the P.A. announcer would say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor and the game cannot proceed with this illegal player on the floor!’ Sometimes he would be booed off the floor. Sometimes opposing players would refuse to shake his hand. Sometimes fans would throw things, forcing Haywood’s team to leave the court. And yet, in the 33 games he played [that first NBA season], Haywood averaged 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds.” [5] 

According to Spencer, some circumstances were even worse.

“I would play [some nights] and I would be an illegal player,” Haywood said. “And when they got an injunction for me not to play, they would say ‘Ladies and gentlemen we have an illegal player on the floor, number 24, and we have an injunction and he must be run off the floor, out of the arena, off the grounds‘…and I would just sit out in the dirt.” [6] 

On a few occasions, Wood was showered with garbage, ice, and glass bottles during his exit. In the dead of winter, one night, he sat outside in the snow! 

Of course, as a result of his legal victory (in May ’71), the brass of the league never forgave him. There was also an out-of-court settlement with Denver’s ownership. However, there in Seattle, he was embraced, and he became an NBA All-Star as well for four consecutive seasons, before moving on to the New York Knicks, New Orleans Jazz, and finally in 1979, the Los Angeles Lakers. 

HOLLY-“WOOD” 

Spencer Haywood arrived in Los Angeles as “just what the doctor ordered”. He still had game. His presence as a power forward would provide both scoring and rebounding to the front line of the Lakers, alleviating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of some of the pressure. However, due to run-ins and personality conflicts with new/interim coach Paul Westhead, that never came to fruition. 

Spencer at one time was the epitome of a “health nut“. He hung out, partied and enjoyed the jazz clubs at previous stops, especially Denver, when he befriended a budding star named Philip Bailey. Beautiful women flocked to him. Cool yet engaging, he preferred the “Detroit Motown” style of dress: log coats, furs, big hats. He drove the big luxury “rides” and resided within the finest gated communities. New York, conversely, was a totally different scene and much faster. Subsequent to his marriage to the supermodel, Iman, he was exposed to (and vulnerable) a different side of nightlife. An indigenous element of the equation, especially during the disco-era in NYC, was cocaine. Some snorted it recreationally through $100 bills, and off of mirrors. Haywood, at that time, seemingly had things under control regarding recreational drug use.

Haywood grew up in the cotton-picking Mississippi Delta, as one of ten children born into addiction. His grandfather was an alcoholic, as were multiple siblings. He started smoking marijuana during his year at Trinidad J.C. and discovered cocaine in 1978 while playing with the Knicks. “I liked pot because it was all organic, but [cocaine] wasn’t organic at all,” he said. “It was manufactured, and instead of making me mellow and relaxed, it did the opposite, I would use coke and see spiders, and the most demonic things that ever existed.” [4] 

BASE 

In L.A., a newer form of cocaine was introduced to Heywood: freebase cocaine. Translated, it was coke in a smokable form, the base/solid, and nearly 100% pure. It entered the bloodstream and brain within seconds, resulting in an extremely intense, yet relatively short-lived feeling of euphoria. Wood was hooked. 

Seemingly light-years from Mississippi, enraptured by this new vice, his skills on the court had understandably begun to slip. Interventions by concerned Laker teammates, some of whom had even gotten high with Spencer themselves, were strongly rebuffed. Spencer was too caught up. His logic at the time for switching to cooked cocaine: “A man can’t know the world unless he’s willing to be adventurous, my main gripe with cocaine [was the] crap they cut it with, and the damage to the nose. [The coke cooking] process eliminated both those problems.” [4] 

Haywood recalls that fateful night he took his first “base” hit with a friend. “Harder!” His friend screamed. Haywood inhaled deeply. 

No, harder!” he yelled. 

Spencer took another powerful inhale. 

“Good,” said the friend, “now hold it in!” 

According to Spencer, the first hit was tantamount to “having sex and winning the lottery, and scoring 50 points all at once. ‘I couldn’t stop grinning.'” [4]

As his team steamrolled through the Western Conference playoffs and into the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76’ers, Spencer, now in his 11th season, should have been laser-focused on obtaining his first championship ring, rather than his next “hit”. Haywood’s “regimen”, so to speak, consisted of getting “lifted“ off cocaine in the late evening hours, around midnight, then consuming two quaaludes and a pint of Bacardi 151 rum to bring him down, prior to heading to practice. During the championship buildup, however, he “mistimed” things prior to a practice session, falling asleep three times at different stoplights in traffic, then during a team meeting, and again during a round of stretching prior to an intrasquad scrimmage. His teammates stood over him, fearful that he was dead. Guard Michael Cooper, often a voice of reason on the roster, was finally able to rouse him, barely. Subsequently, Coach Westhead ordered him to go home. 

“F**k you,“ said Haywood, “and f**k this team.” [4] 

After splitting the first two games against Philadelphia, with Spencer fuming after playing minimal minutes, the Lakers entered the locker room after their home loss in game two at the LA Forum. Wood decided to convey his ire at a genteel, well-liked, seldom-used rookie named Brad Holland. Holland was nicknamed “Potsie Weber”. Pleasant countenance notwithstanding, Holland was no punk. 

HAYWOOD: “Give me your tape cutters!” 

HOLLAND: “If you say please.” 

HAYWOOD: “If I have to say please, I don’t wanna use ’em!“ 

HOLLAND: “Fine, then don’t use them.” 

Both men stood, now chest-to-chest, and a screaming match ensued. 

HOLLAND: “You know what Spencer, we’re trying to win games here! What is your problem?” HAYWOOD: “What the fuck are you gonna do about it, Potsie?”

Spencer expected his veteran teammates to come to his aid, and to put the relative newcomer in his place. The antithesis occurred. 

JIM CHONES: “You crazy Wood? Man you’re letting us down.” 

NORM NIXON: “Cut the crap [Wood]! You’re being stupid.” [4] 

After things had quieted down, the owner Jerry Buss, and Paul Westhead, conglomerated with Haywood in private. The man who was courted in to play power forward, and help save the day, was suspended for the remainder of the season. Spencer Haywood’s tenure as a Laker was over. In a fury, along with alternating periods of self-pity, and drug binging, he contacted two “certified gangsters” from Detroit, and arranged to have his coach dealt with definitively. They had planned to show up one night at the residence of Westhead, and cut the brake lines of his car. Those sinister plans never materialized thanks to Spencer’s mother, Eunice. During a telephone conversation with her youngest son, she detected a “sinister tone” in Spencie, and threatened to “turn [Haywood] in myself.” 

The “Westhead hit” was called off. 

NOTE: There was no plan–contrary to the dramatization in Winning Time–to “cap” any of the Lakers via a .357 Magnum! Also, Spencer was suspended during the Finals, not prior. 

REDEMPTION 

By challenging and soundly defeating the NBA in litigation, he opened the door for a myriad of basketball standouts to enter the pro ranks early via the “hardship clause”: Julius “Dr J.” Erving (Massachusetts), George McGinnis (Indiana), George “The Iceman” Gervin (Eastern Michigan), Moses Malone (High School), Darryll “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins (High School), Michael Jordan (North Carolina), Magic Johnson (Michigan State), Shaquille O’Neal (Louisiana State), Kobe Bryant (High School), Kevin Garnett (High School).

Spencer Haywood was a stellar player worthy of his—long-overdue—Pro Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2015. To this day, he will still let anyone with an earshot know this fact. I witnessed Haywood at his peak during the mid-70s with the Seattle Supersonics. Wood attempting to tear the rim off the glass, after taking passes from either guard “Slick” Watts or “Downtown” Freddie Brown, was commonplace. He is one of eight players in NBA history to average 25 points/12 rebounds between the ages of 22 to 25. Capable of playing power forward or center, he was one most highly skilled and graceful big men the game has ever known. He was First-Team All-NBA in ‘72, ‘73, and Second Team All-NBA in ‘74, and ‘75. He’d score on you, consistently, and with plenty of flair, and tell you about it. 

At the age of 26, coinciding with his arrival in New York City with the Knicks, his gaudy statistics dropped off slightly, yet, he was still a force. When he arrived in L.A., I was in my early teens. On paper his acquisition looked exciting; nevertheless, by playoff time, anyone with 20/200 vision could notice that something was amiss. Spencer was off. Was he injured? Was he tired? Why wasn’t he playing more? The crowd at the L.A. Forum often chanted his name, clamoring for Westhead to put him into the game. Sometimes Wood stood up and urged the crowd on, waving his towel enthusiastically. Other times he sat, with a fixed grin. A sardonic grin. Following his untimely exit from the Lakers, he played in Italy for one season, then finished out his career with the Washington Bullets. Afterward, finally, he humbled himself to enter a rehabilitation clinic for his cocaine addiction. 

At times, we must desist from our locksteps not only to muse upon ourselves but within ourselves. Quite often, as the saying goes, it’s hard to see the picture when you’re in the frame. It took Wood more than an abbreviated spell before he acknowledged his addiction and took appropriate action. For well over thirty years, he has battled and triumphed against his most arduous foe, in a manner as lucent as imaginable. 

The Spencer Haywood chronicles have been recited many times, via many lenses. It is indeed one of redemption and validation. His National Retired NBA Players Association participation and induction to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame are proof positive of all he has done for the game. His story needs to be told—but told correctly—sans embellishments. Stuff happens. LIFE happens! This gentleman has been clean and sober for quite some time, surrounded by a loving wife, and four beautiful daughters. In the grand scheme of things, Haywood has come full circle, back to the relative serenity he felt in Denver and Detroit. He is very close to many of his former

Lakers brethren: Kareem, Magic, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon. In addition, he has stated publicly that he has the utmost respect for the actor portraying him in HBO’s Winning Time, Wood Harris. Spencer will tell you that he is not preoccupied with what the producers are doing. Why? Haywood stated in a recent interview, “I’m fine with it, because I’m fine with Wood Harris playing me in this role. He’s a good person, a great actor and [regarding me]…I did some BAAAD S**t!” 

More importantly, with his willingness to step outside the box, we now have the “One and Done”, “Early Entry”, and “The Hardship Rule” codified within the annals of professional basketball history. He would like to see it officially named “The Spencer Haywood Rule”. Spencer craves recognition because in that regard, he feels forgotten by the current players. As one former NBA coach put it, “For many players who could use a few more seasons in college to hone their games, coming out early ends up a terrible career move. Haywood’s legal victory, though, means the choice is up to the [student-athlete].” Haywood is not bitter. He will gladly tell you that he has been blessed. 

So when you encounter him, because he’s everywhere (from podiums to podcasts), before inquiring about circumcisions, cocaine, the Olympics, the league, Iman, winning a championship ring, or even being enshrined as a Hall of Famer, pause for a millisecond. Then, take a moment to say “Thank you”, particularly if you are a player who benefited (profited) from his initiatives and sacrifices in 1970. Haywood’s adjudication contested and queried the “NBA Farm System” that is NCAA college basketball! 

Masses of players are literally indebted to this icon, in perpetuity! 

By Dr. Eric Hawkins (“Dr. Hawk”)

The Hub.News/Knubia Sports 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

(1) McGregor, Gilbert. “Spencer Haywood: The Groundbreaking Story of an NBA Legend, Through His Own Words.” The Sporting News (website). April 22, 2021 

(2) MacMullan, Jackie, Bartholomew, R., Klores, D. “Basketball: A Love Story”. Crown Archetype. New York (2018) pp. 112-115, 159-160

(3) Pluto, Terry. “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild, Life of the American Basketball Association”. Simon & Schuster. New York (1990) p. 185 

(4) Pearman, Jeff. “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, & The Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s”. Gotham, The Penguin Group. New York. (2014). pp. 82, 87-90 

(5) Jhabvala, Nicki. “Spencer Haywood: The Forgotten Denver Star”. The Denver Post (website). Part III. (2015) 

(6) Oxley, Dyer. “Supersonics’ Spencer Haywood Still Considers Seattle Home”. My Northwest (website). June 3, 2015.

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