NBA

Spencer Haywood: The story of a groundbreaking NBA legend, through his words

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If you consider yourself to be a historian of the NBA game, then you know something about the legendary career of Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood, a 6-foot-8 big man that was ahead of his time in more ways than one.

Over the course of 12 NBA seasons, Haywood averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, appeared in four All-Star Games and won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980.

Even with a stacked Hall of Fame resume, Haywood's legacy extends much further beyond anything he ever achieved between the lines.

While it's now common to see players forgo their amateur eligibility to turn pro, in Haywood's time, doing so was forbidden. After his sophomore year of college, Haywood first joined the American Basketball Association (ABA) for a season before challenging - and ultimately changing - the NBA system at just 21 years old.

In winning, Haywood would pave the way for some of the biggest names the game has ever seen to fast-track their way to the NBA. Whether it's early examples that range from Magic Johnson to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan or preps-to-pros sensations that include Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James or the stars of the current one-and-done era like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson, it was all made possible by Haywood's challenge of a system that needed to see change.

But, as you might expect, a change of this magnitude didn't come without sacrifice.

While it's difficult to adequately tell the story of such an influential figure, NBA.com recently had the opportunity to speak with Haywood, who helped us tell his story through his own words. What was slated to be a traditional Q-and-A based on a list of questions about his experiences became an all-encompassing conversation that took me through the journey of his life that began in Silver City, Mississippi...

Beginnings

Born in rural Mississippi in 1949, Haywood faced the inhumane realities of the Jim Crow South from an early age. Like many other Black families in the South at that time, Haywood's family made as much of a living as they could by sharecropping.

Often referred to as slavery by another name, sharecropping is defined as "a system where the landlord/planter allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. This encouraged tenants to work to produce the biggest harvest that they could, and ensured they would remain tied to the land and unlikely to leave for other opportunities."

Haywood described the agonizing details of his experience in the fields, stating that "we were picking cotton from sunup to sundown. We had no rights. You couldn't go into the bathroom. You couldn't do anything. It was white and black. Most time we didn't have bathrooms. So you feel you go through some other places and then doing that sharecropping. I learned that my family was doing all the work.

"We picked all of the cotton, we harvest all of the corn, we did everything for this farm. And my mom was only making $2 a day, and I eventually did $2 a day by the time I was 14."

The system of sharecropping typically meant that Black tenants were almost always in debt to the landlord and finding a way to break even was considered a win, ultimately signifying no upward mobility for those that actually did the work. With segregation and racism permeating throughout the United States, this was just one of many ways in which Black people were disenfranchised. As Haywood told NBA.com, "I lived through that process of real slavery work."

At the age of 15, Haywood moved north to Detroit, Michigan, where he was taken in and fostered by James and Ida Bell.

When I asked about the biggest differences between the south and north, Haywood's voice radiated as he recalled his first exposure to the music of Motown, recalling a story in which he went to the Fox Theatre to watch a range of artists that included Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes and Stevie Wonder, who was known as "Little Stevie" at the time.

While the culture shock of the time's music set in, Haywood began playing basketball at Detroit's Pershing High School, and while things in the north were different than the south, Haywood explained that he dealt with racism which came in the form of officiating as his team was in pursuit of an elusive state championship.

"I started playing basketball in Detroit with the idea that I could win the Class A State Championship for the city of Detroit, which had a drought for 35 years," Haywood began.

"We hadn't won the state championship in 35 years because once you get out of Detroit, the referees get a whack at you and they would never let a team from Detroit get to the Class A state championship," he continued. "That's just the way it was. Certain racism, same racism I was looking at down south, I'm looking at up north but it's just with a whistle."

Despite that adversity, the Pershing Doughboys took home the Class A State Title in 1967, Haywood's senior year. Sometimes considered one of the best high school basketball teams in Michigan history, Pershing High's 1967 team was led by two future pros in Haywood and junior Ralph Simpson, who would also go on to play in both the ABA and NBA.

Haywood did his part in delivering a state title to the city of Detroit as he followed a 35-point outburst in the Semifinals with a 24-point performance in the championship game. Thanks to his play throughout the course of his senior year, Haywood was named a third-team Parade All-American, with one college coach from the Big Ten conference referring to him as "one of the best in the country."

As Haywood established himself as one of the nation's best prep players, all eyes shifted to his impending college decision. He had plenty of options…

College Years

After improving upon his poor grades from his time in Mississippi (a product of his nonstop work in the fields) Haywood had an idea to head back down south, only he was met with an unexpected setback.

"I finally got all 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.

"When I signed the University of Tennessee, I didn't realize I was the first Black 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."

But that chance never came as certain coaches in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) had reservations with Tennessee signing a Black player after a starting lineup of Black players at Texas Western defeated the University of Kentucky in the National Championship just a few months prior.

This twist led Haywood to Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, Colorado, where he averaged 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds per game, earning the distinction of Junior College Player of the Year.

Haywood's exceptional year at the junior college level resulted in his receiving consideration to represent the United States at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, during a time where tensions were high due to the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and an overall lack of racial justice in America. It led to a number of athletes boycotting the games, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

At the time, freshmen were not permitted to play at the varsity level, meaning an exception had to be made for Haywood to put his name in Olympic consideration following his freshman season. Just over a year after winning a Class A state title in Michigan, Haywood was selected to represent the United States at 19, earning a selection over players such as Pete Maravich, Rick Mount and Calvin Murphy, a fact he made sure not to gloss over.

"Pete was averaging 44 points a game. Rick Mount was averaging 39 from Purdue and Calvin was averaging 33 from Niagara. And they all got cut. And they picked me?" Haywood said as he recalled his shock at his selection to the National Team.

It proved to be a solid choice as Haywood and Hall of Famer Jo Jo White led the U.S. to gold at an Olympic Games that will always be remembered for the protest made by Black American 200M medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists while wearing black gloves. It's yet another moment that Haywood will never forget as it led to plenty of backlash and the removal of Carlos and Smith from the Olympic village.

When his time came to receive his Gold medal, Haywood didn't protest but instead, was overcome with emotion because of just how far he had come.

"You're talking four years before (winning in the Olympics) I was in Mississippi picking cotton, man. So here I am, being saluted as a great American champion, and hero and Gold medalist. It hit me on that stage.

"When I was getting a medal on my neck on the floor, man, I just broke. I broke and my guys held me up on my legs."

Upon returning home to Detroit, Haywood was given a proper hero's welcome, as he set the scene: "I get off the plane and there's the whole city of Black people out there cheering. 'You brought home the first trophy for us in 35 years with the high school. Now you're bringing the gold medal home to the city.' The mayor gave me a big plaque…

"So they were begging me. Please. Come on, come on. Don't go to a big school like Michigan or all these other places - please come home to the University of Detroit…"

He ultimately decided to attend Detroit, where he averaged 32.1 points and 21.5 rebounds in the 1968-69 season for the Titans as a sophomore, in what would ultimately end up being his final season as an amateur.

Then, he made even more history.

Going Pro: Haywood v. National Basketball Association

The ABA, which was established in 1967, was having a hard time attracting top collegiate talent as the NBA proved to be a much more viable option. That is, for four-year college players, anyway.

After his standout sophomore season at Detroit, Haywood was clearly the second-best college player behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the No. 1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft. While the NBA was the premier basketball league, its rules required that a player be four years removed from high school to enter the draft.

As the ABA needed to find a way to avoid closing down before even getting off the ground, the league had an idea…

"(Current ESPN anchor) Hannah Storm's father, Mike Storen (GM of the ABA's Indiana Pacers at the time), said 'hey, we gotta come up with a gimmick, we gotta get Haywood to leave school and come with us … so why don't we go after him?'" Haywood recalled.

"So they went after me and I was like, 'I'm gonna get paid? And I'm gonna play?'" Haywood said explaining his thought process. "'You're gonna break the rule for me? And my mother and my brothers and siblings are still in Mississippi making $2 a day? And I can get them all out of the cotton field? Take me with you!'"

Thus introduced the Spencer Haywood Hardship Rule, an exemption that allowed players to leave school early for the ABA due to an extenuating financial circumstance or familial needs. And, as Haywood explained, an opportunity to get his family out of the cotton fields of Mississippi was all the motivation he needed.

Haywood outlined that the goal was for him to average around seven points and three or four rebounds per game and the 'gimmick' would be deemed successful. It's safe to say it was successful several times over, as Haywood led the Denver Rockets (now Nuggets) to a 51-33 record by averaging 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds per game, earning ABA Rookie of the Year, league MVP and MVP of the ABA All-Star game in the process.

Haywood's immediate success set a precedent and opened doors as Julius Erving and George McGinnis would leave college early to join the ABA. Hall of Famer Moses Malone would also enter the ABA, coming after the conclusion of his high-school career.

While those players were looking to make their way into the ABA, Haywood had his sights set on the NBA after dealing with what he described as shady practices in the ABA, including fraudulent and misleading contracts. Despite not being eligible to do so, Haywood signed with the Seattle SuperSonics, setting off a legal battle with the league itself.

"I'm in the NBA and the NBA filed an injunction against me not to play because I hadn't finished my four years," Haywood said. "'Cause there was a rule that stipulated you must be four years after your high school class that graduated before you could go into the NBA. Absurd, but I know that's the rule.

"So, I filed suits for the rights to play and they filed suits for me not to play."

While the back-and-forth battle took place in the legal courts, it often reared its ugly head on the courts of arenas. Haywood recalled stories of being called out by PA announcers and escorted out of arenas right before getting ready to play games.

"They waited until I got on the floor and get ready to be announced in the starting lineup and (the announcer) said 'ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor, No. 24'" Haywood said. "'And we have an injunction tonight and he must be escorted out of this arena.'"

During the continuous legal battles, there were times in which Haywood was actually able to play as he appeared in 33 games with Seattle during the 1969-70 season, averaging 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds despite enduring gratuitously physical play from veterans that perceived players like Haywood as a threat.

As the Hall of Famer explained to me: "They had told all the vets that if he changed this rule, you veterans are gonna be out of it. You're gonna be pushed out of the league, and they're gonna have nothing but young guys coming in and taking your job… you're gonna feel the pressure, buddy. So, the Players' Association didn't endorse me at all."

A lack of endorsement from the players' association meant more injunctions that included Haywood being sued by the Chicago Bulls franchise for $600,000 and an injunction from the Cincinnati Royals that required him to exit the arena grounds and wait for the game to be played while he sat outside on the team bus in freezing cold temperatures.

Haywood credits the support of player-coaches Lenny Wilkens, Rod Thorn and Tom Meschery for getting him through the low moments in which he was "disgruntled and hurt" due to what he was going through, as the case moved up to the Supreme Court.

It was there that Haywood explained how Supreme Court justices peeled back the ways in which these rules and practices were rooted in racism:

"At the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, (Warren E. Burger) - they were speaking about the case in terms of (other sports), you know, you got hockey. There is no (four-year) rule for hockey. Tennis, there is no four-year rule. (And) baseball.

"So they were saying, predominantly these sports are white," Haywood recalled. "So, why would you ask the poor Black boy from the cotton fields that he's gotta build up the university corpus? Like, all the money for the university, and he can't get paid. So and they pull out the Sherman Antitrust Act… Under that ruling, they ruled in favour of me playing.

"I didn't hear the case. But I got all of the briefs and it was talking about, you know, we're asking these young men to go to Vietnam at age 18, to put their life on the line. But yet you can't go make any money for yourself if your family is in the cotton field."

A ruling in Haywood's favour in the case of Haywood v. the NBA birthed the concept of what has outlined the league's early-entry rules, which have changed over time but remain in place today. The story of his historical importance is told by Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn, in their book "The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast."

Legacy

In the time following his tumultuous first year in the NBA, Haywood recalled a story in which Wilt Chamberlain commended him as the player best suited to go through the troubles of that season. It's worth noting that Chamberlain, too, left college early but played with the Harlem Globetrotters until he was NBA-eligible, avoiding the trouble that could arise with the league altogether.

To Haywood, it was all about perspective.

For a young man that was picking cotton for $2 a day in the sweltering heat of Mississippi just a few years prior, legal injunctions and being kicked out of arenas into freezing temperatures paled in comparison. Despite being hurt and disgruntled at times, that perspective allowed Haywood to find a way to continue to perform on the court and ultimately win in court.

Haywood's battles quite literally paved the way for each and every early-entry candidate that has entered the NBA since then, an extremely long list that includes some of the most influential figures that have ever graced the league.

For perspective, each of the last 11 No. 1 overall draft picks came to the NBA after spending just one year in college and over half of this year's All-Stars entered the NBA as an underclassman, including NBA Players' Association President Chris Paul.

Haywood shared that he is continuing to work with the league and its players' association for more recognition for his efforts, including the potential of the early-entry rule to appropriately bear his name.

In 2015, Haywood was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, closing his speech with a reminder, saying "Remember guys, I had game - It was not like I just did this Supreme Court thing, I had some serious game!"

Had it not been for Haywood's challenging of the system, we might not have gotten a chance to see a number of other Hall of Fame careers unfold.

That alone is reason enough for the rule to bear his name.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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