National Treasure: The Spencer Haywood Story

*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.

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.

Dime: So looking back, were you really ready when you went pro?
SH: Oh, I was ready. I was the No. 1 high school player in America (Pershing H.S. in Detroit). From there I was the Junior College Player of the Year (Trinidad State in Colorado), then I went to the 1968 Olympics and was MVP of the Olympics. From there I went to the University of Detroit as a sophomore and was the Outstanding College Player of the Year. I was getting about 33 points and 23 boards a game, so I’m not a good example. (laughs) Mentally, I was ready for sure.

Remember, before I was allowed to play in the NBA, I was still traveling with the team. I was being booed and being thrown off the court. They would announce me in the arena and say, “There is an illegal player on the floor. Number 24 is ineligible.” They wouldn’t even say my name. And then I’d get marched off by security. I went through that for a year. So it wasn’t like I just walked into the league and started playing.

Dime: Why do you think the negative response was so strong, especially from the fans?
SH: You see, it wasn’t just the NBA. The NCAA would be losing revenue if I won my case, in basketball and football. So they saw me as a common enemy trying to break the four-year rule. The NCAA had years of slavery, basically, with players. The universities could sell products and do whatever they wanted to do with players, and then you’d get into your senior year and they’d toss you aside when another young stud came in. You’re outta there.

My own school, the University of Detroit, sued me for millions of dollars, and I’m not even receiving any money at the time. I’m supposed to be there for an education, right? But my mama was still down in Mississippi picking cotton for $2 a day. That was the life she had. I went to Detroit and was able to live a little bit, but my family couldn’t move up there. That’s why they called it the hardship rule.

So now all of a sudden I’m the almighty Satan, destroying college basketball and college football as we know it. I’m destroying the ABA as we know it. Destroying the NBA. What the heck? So that’s how I was portrayed by the media. When you paint that kind of picture, that’s how the fans are going to see it. They called me “nigger-head,” they called me all kinds of things. But that wasn’t uncommon, me being raised in Mississippi.

Dime: How would you describe your style on the court?
SH: It would be like LeBron James in terms of the body type. It would be like Kobe Bryant in terms of offensive deadliness. It would be like Dwight Howard in terms of rebounding and blocking shots. I averaged 26 and 13 my first full year in the NBA with Seattle, and in Denver I was doing 30 and 20 in the ABA. Go back and look at the ’68 Olympics: I have the all-time field-goal percentage record (71.9 percent); I was the youngest player in America to make the Olympic team and the youngest to win the gold. I scored more points and grabbed more rebounds than anybody in the history of the Olympics. So yeah, I was all of those guys in one. And I would be like Kevin Garnett in terms of a tough mental stance. I’m not saying I’m better than any one of them now, but I was first. And being the first is a motherfucker.

Dime: Even guys like Dwight Howard don’t average anywhere near 20 rebounds a game anymore. But you, Moses Malone, those types, you pulled down 15-20 boards a night routinely. What’s changed?
SH: These guys today, they’re city guys. They didn’t pick no cotton. It was harder times back then, brother. I used to pick cotton from sun-up to sun-down. Brutal work. That sack weighs 100 pounds when it’s full of cotton, and you had to fill it at least three times a day. Then you had to walk a mile back and forth with the sack. So I’m doing that at the age of 10 or 12 – my legs and my body were so much tougher. That was life in Mississippi. It was like being on the chain gang, we just didn’t have the stripes. These guys, if they got stripes now, it’s Polo stripes.

Dime: At what point in your career did you feel like you were at your peak?
SH: In Seattle, New York (1975-79) and in Washington (1981-83). My last year of basketball I was still untouchable. But my wife, Iman, she was in a very serious auto accident that year and all of her family was living in our home in New York. They’re all from Somalia and didn’t speak English, so I had to leave and come back home to take care of my family. It’s not like I left because I couldn’t play anymore.

Now if you want to look at a time when I was playing below my standards, I had a down time with the Lakers in 1980. Even though we won the championship, there was a lot of crazy shit going on. And I was the king of crazy shit.

Dime: How did the drug addiction impact you?
SH: It was on the court and off the court. Man, addiction is a mother. And I was dealing with the most insidious drug – cocaine – so that was a tough journey. But I never regret anything I went through. Whatever I had to go through at the time, it’s allowed me to help so many people by telling my story. Whatever was put on me, was by me. I made the choices. No one else did.

Those were some pretty scary times. They affected me, my marriage, my kids. I hurt a lot of people. I hurt my teammates. We might laugh and joke about it now, but it was real. I saw Magic Johnson not too long ago and he said, “Man, I hated you and that shit.”

But shit happens, man. And that’s what I try to warn these young guys about. It doesn’t have to be drugs or alcohol. It can be a sex addiction. It can be anything. Today, you can get hooked on your computer.

Dime: Put together the starting five of players you played with.
SH: Well, the center would be Kareem. Point guard would be Magic. Off-guard would be Walt Frazier. One forward would be me, of course. And the small forward, I’m gonna tell you, is a guy not enough people talk about – Jamaal Wilkes. Man, he was a sweet player.

Dime: What was the best team you ever played on?
SH: The 1980 Lakers. There was none better. You see four of the guys I just named were on that team. That was the best level of basketball, man. The NBA had been in a drought with drug addiction – it just wasn’t right. Then we get this guy coming in, and like Jay-Z said, hitting licks at a fast pace. When Magic came in, it was like, “Oh shit, we gotta go out there and polish our shoes again.” His enthusiasm, his cheerfulness for the game, whooo…

Dime: I feel like Kareem is underrated. He doesn’t get talked about as much as Jordan or Chamberlain or Russell when people talk about the greatest player of all time. What do you think?
SH: Kareem brought it all. Rebounding, shot-blocking … the sky hook was unstoppable, but he had a jump shot, he had left-handed hooks, he had the size. Think about it: Three years of high school he was a champion, three years of college he was a champion, then he won six championships in the NBA. Leading scorer of all time. You can’t say he had just that one hook.

And if a player in today’s game had just one move that no one could stop, they should use it all the time. If LeBron would go to Kareem and say, “Teach me that sky hook,” he could be that guy. Or one of these big guys, like Dwight Howard. Kobe has his patented stuff that he can go to and he’ll hurt you for years. So that’s a word of advice to any young player. I tell my youngest daughters, too: Get yourself two or three moves that you can master, and work hard on them.

Dime: You came into the league with Seattle and had your highest production with the Sonics. What are your thoughts on Seattle losing the team?
SH: Horrible. It’s horrible. They had my jersey retirement – they waited all that time and finally put my jersey in the rafters – and then they moved. Weirdest shit I’ve ever seen. The Sonics are the team that went to the Supreme Court and helped make it possible for everybody to enter the league early. They should be stamped as a national treasure. They should never be able to move that team. But the coffee man sold out to the oil man, and he took ’em to Oklahoma. There are two places that need to have an NBA team as soon as possible: Seattle and Las Vegas.

Dime: I know you’ve got a vested interest in Vegas, but you know why people are anti-Vegas when it comes to pro sports.
SH: And that’s the hypocrisy. People can gamble online from anywhere. Look at the gambling they do in Atlantic City; that hasn’t hurt the New Jersey Nets. They have casinos in New Orleans; that hasn’t hurt the Hornets. Look at the Sacramento Kings; they’re owned by people who own The Palms casino. Everywhere you go, they have casinos. Everybody bets. When you watch games on television, what do you think people are doing? Gambling. Shit, we used to bet on who would be the eighth man walking off the bus. (laughs) At least in Vegas it’s a controlled environment. Vegas has The Strip, but it also has a million and a half people who don’t live on The Strip, who live in communities. It’s a real cultural place. It’s not all it’s painted as.

We have the NBA Summer League here. We have USA Basketball here. Everything is happening here. They’ve developed a fan base here that cares about basketball because they don’t have any pro sports here. And for NBA players, they wouldn’t have to pay state taxes, so you know they would love having a team here. Vegas would build an arena quickly. Are you crazy? The two places that would build an arena at the snap of a finger are Seattle and Las Vegas.

Dime: Have you ever wanted to coach?
SH: I’ve always enjoyed the idea of coaching and broadcasting, but hell … I’m the guy who broke all the rules. I’m not gonna get that job. When you take a stand as a revolutionary, there’s a price you gotta pay for the rest of your life, unfortunately. But it’s like the President: It’s an honor I wear proudly. Someone had to sacrifice. I’m it.

Does Haywood get the credit he deserves?

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