National Treasure: The Spencer Haywood Story

03.20.12 5 years ago
Spencer Haywood

Spencer Haywood (photo. Spencer Haywood)

*Spencer Haywood is a revolutionary for social change, a forefather of the sports entertainment business, and during his 13-year career in the NBA and ABA, was arguably the most talented basketball player of all time. Don’t believe it? Go straight to the source and ask.

We did, and this story can be found in the newest issue of Dime, Dime #68, on newsstands now…*

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In Spencer Haywood’s line of work, victories come beautifully, yet quietly.

They come in the reflection of his 62-year-old face on a spotless marble floor; in the soft embrace of plush carpet under the gun boats he calls feet; in the simplistic symmetry of perfectly-placed tiles from wall to wall; in the rhythmic clicking and clacking of stiletto heels and Stacy Adams soles across a Las Vegas hotel lobby.

The thing is, Spencer Haywood is not wired to win quietly.

The man who averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during a 12-year career in the NBA – not to mention 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds in his one-year reign in the ABA – will gladly relay those stats to you. He’ll remind you that he made four NBA All-Star teams and four All-NBA teams, that he won a championship with the 1980 L.A. Lakers, that he won an Olympic gold medal in 1968, and that he collected regular-season MVP, All-Star Game MVP and Rookie of the Year in his lone ABA season.

He can tell you so much that he’ll forget to mention that he also used to be married to supermodel and fashion icon Iman.

More importantly, Haywood will remind you that his road to professional basketball meant more to the sport than any of his accomplishments on the court.

He will remind you that he was the plaintiff in Haywood v. National Basketball Association, the antitrust action he filed that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 and forced the NBA to eliminate its rule barring any player from entering the league before their college class graduated. Haywood – the 6-8 power forward who first attempted to go pro following his sophomore year at the University of Detroit – will remind you that he is one of the most important historical figures in sports.

“I want my legacy to be two things,” says Haywood from his office at Haywood Group LLC, his Vegas-based company specializing in floor installations.

“In 1968, when America was struggling and she didn’t know what to do, I stepped up,” he goes on. “Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] decided he wasn’t going to play in the Olympics. Elvin Hayes wasn’t going. Wes Unseld wasn’t going. We were gonna lose to the world for the first time in the history of basketball. But I stepped up and said, ‘No you won’t. I’ll lead you.’ They were like, ‘What are you, crazy? You’re 18 years old!’ But I saved America in 1968.”

And the second thing?

“I created wealth and opportunity in the NBA by breaking the four-year rule,” says Haywood. “There were only 16 teams back then, and now we have 30. It’s a larger pool of talent because of me. They also used my ruling to change the NFL. I’ve been implanted in history, man. I want people to remember that … that somebody made a sacrifice.”

But before you write off these declarations of grandeur as the typical war-story exaggerations or harmless embellishments of an old-timer, do your research. Look it up. Then believe.

Because everything Spencer Haywood is saying is true.

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Spencer Haywood

Spencer Haywood (photo. Spencer Haywood)

Dime: As a former player…
Spencer Haywood: Well, let me stop you there. I’m not just a former player. I am the case that paved the way for all the young players who came to the NBA as early entries, from Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to Magic Johnson to Kevin Garnett. Haywood v. NBA. All of those guys came in under my rule. I am that guy.

Dime: I think there’s this romantic perception that old-school players didn’t care about money. How accurate is that?
SH: We cared about money, but it was never the judge of your talent. There were some guys that got paid a lot back then that couldn’t play worth a shit.

I remember when I was playing with Seattle (1970-75), I was sitting around after a game with Kareem and Lucius Allen in Milwaukee, just kicking it. And Kareem says, “Damn, isn’t it nice that they’re paying us all this money, and we would do this for the per diem?” They were paying us for something we did because we loved the sport. We loved playing. It’s no disrespect to current players – they’re dealing with what it takes to survive in the world today, and that’s a lot of money – but everybody wants to be paid. The owners, the players, the agents, the public relations people, everybody.

Dime: What are you doing these days?
SH: I’m the owner, president and chairman of the Haywood Group and American Community Builders. We’re restoring the old theater at the Bellagio hotel, doing the Army Recruitment Center in Sloan, Nev., doing the Children’s Museum in Las Vegas. We’ve been busy doing flooring for the hotel industry – the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, the Mirage – schools, the practice facility at UNLV. We do tiles, marble, carpeting. I came out here to Las Vegas after taking a beating from the auto industry in Detroit. (laughs) All of the NBA players, the young guys coming in, they have flooring that needs to be done in their personal homes, so I want to get into that.

Dime: You managed your money well enough for a successful post-playing career, but we still see too many stories of pro athletes who end up broke. What do you tell young players about managing their money?
SH: What I tell them is that every dollar you spend, think of it like you’re really spending two dollars. If you buy a house for $5 million, that house is gonna cost you $10 million after taxes and maintenance. If you wanna drop $150,000 on this Rolls-Royce, you’re really gonna drop $300,000 on it. Most people don’t understand that. So if you can put some money away, put it in the bank. Live on a budget, at least for the first six or seven years. You can splurge a little bit – buy a steak instead of eating McDonald’s – but it’s hard for young guys to understand coming into the league that every dollar they spend, they really spend two.

Dime: Mismanaging money is one of the issues that some attribute to the influx of younger players going pro without a college education. That said, how then do you feel about the NBA’s age limit?
SH: I’m actually for the age limit. That might come as a surprise considering I’m the guy who fought to end the four-year rule, but here’s the aspect of it that I’m in favor of: It helps veterans stick around for one more year, and every team needs veteran players. You see guys who come right out of high school, or they were in college for one year, and you see them sitting on the bench in the NBA. What good is that doing anybody? Everybody says, “Oh, they’re gonna develop in two or three years.” Why not have a veteran that can play right now? Why does he have to leave for this young person who’s going to sit on the bench? Couldn’t he develop in college?

Now, people will say, “You fought all the way to the Supreme Court for this.” But times change, and I can see where things are different. I just don’t like seeing players sit on the bench when they could be developing in college. Let the veterans stay in the league one more year. That’s why you have some teams that are top-heavy in young players but they can’t seem to get out of the blocks.

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