NBA's first early entry wants his rightful place in history
Contrary to reports, Haywood still has his Olympic gold medal.
25 YEARS LATER: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
By S.L. Price
Spencer Haywood doesn't want to die. Not yet, not before the world he made gives him his due. So he's playing it safe. He takes his vitamins, drinks awful-tasting shakes, eats the kind of meatless meals -- "Sad-ass food: sorry proteins, sorry beans" -- he ate while growing up the son of a Mississippi sharecropper. He made himself a vegetarian long ago but keeps at it mostly because he doesn't want to end up like baseball's free agent pioneer, Curt Flood -- shunned by the game's establishment while he lived, eulogized on the floor of Congress after his death, at the age of 59, in 1997. People appreciating his talent, his life, his legacy? Haywood doesn't want to wait to hear that when he can't hear anymore. "I want it while I'm living," he says.
This will not come easily. Twenty-five years ago the world beyond urban America began turning its attention to the NBA, and its glimpse of Spencer Haywood couldn't have been more wretched. As the Los Angeles Lakers and rookie Magic Johnson prepared for Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers in what proved to be a historic 1980 Finals, Haywood, by then a 30-year-old Lakers role player, celebrated with an epic binge of freebasing. He smoked so much cocaine that he passed out during one practice, reducing himself to a trivia question by getting kicked off the team midway through the title series. His lone run at a pro championship ended with teammates refusing to give him a playoff share until he proved himself clean. He didn't get his ring for six years. Haywood played the 1980-81 season in Italy, then spent two years with the Washington Bullets, but that was all anticlimactic; his last act was a disgrace, and the Age of Magic and eventually Michael was at hand. No one talked much about how the new prosperity couldn't have happened without him.
You want the history? Haywood keeps it in his wallet, so he can show anyone who asks: seven fading trading cards, a copy of the Supreme Court decision. At 19 he led a decimated 1968 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Mexico City. At 19 he averaged 32 points and 21.5 rebounds as a sophomore at the University of Detroit, then bolted to the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association, where he became the ABA's Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. He'd enraged purists at the NCAA by leaving school early; the ABA and NBA were next. At 21, Haywood fled the struggling league and took on the NBA's rule against signing a player whose college class hadn't graduated, suing for the right to join the Seattle SuperSonics.
In March 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, breaking down the door for the likes of Magic, Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. From 1969 to '75, the 6-foot-9 Haywood averaged more than 25 points and 10 rebounds a game, but his true mark is carved between the lines of every early entrant's contract. It's a strange role, agent of change. How do you recognize what many regard as a negative? Haywood's legal victory will always be seen in league circles as a mixed blessing, and his spectacular burnout diminishes his role as a pioneer. He's a reminder of the NBA's dark ages, after all -- the era when championship games were tape-delayed because the league was regarded as too black and too high. When he says, "I did drugs, like 80 percent of the NBA in 1979 and '80," it's a blast from the past everyone would rather forget, grapeshot from the ultimate loose cannon.
"I'm not in the Hall of Fame, and I'm not going to be in the Hall of Fame," Haywood says. "The word from the NBA is that I'm too controversial. Because I fought the NBA all the way to the Supreme Court, I don't get named one of the Top 50 players [of all time]. I'm supposed to be erased out of all history -- and I have been erased."
Not quite. Though unstoppable in his prime, Haywood overstates his greatness, and his complaints about the league's efforts to "blackball" him can seem like paranoia. Lately, in fact, the NBA has been quite generous. Real estate investments keep him -- and his wife Linda and two of his four daughters (the other two are in their 20s and have moved out) -- in fine clothes and homes in Canton, Mich., and Las Vegas, but when the IRS hit up Haywood for back taxes a couple years ago, the National Basketball Retired Players' Association gave him $20,000, and the NBA began giving him work in its speaker's bureau. Haywood regularly lectures young players for the Rookie Transition Program, and during All-Star weekend in February he was one of eight ex-pros feted at the NBA's Legends Brunch. "Nobody's talking him down: In fact every department from NBA Entertainment to our licensing department to our player-programs department to the commissioner's office have accorded Spencer A-1 treatment," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "He has probably traveled more on our behalf than any other ballplayer."
Haywood has been sober for 19 years, and he tours the country speaking to high school kids about the evils of drug and alcohol abuse. But he still has the user's tendency to see life as endless drama, all highs and lows. Then again, maybe turmoil is Haywood's fate. In mid-June he went on an NBA-sponsored trip to visit U.S. troops stationed in Kuwait. Upon meeting Haywood, one four-star general said how sorry he was to hear that Haywood had been forced by hard times to sell his Olympic gold medal. He showed a puzzled Haywood a printout of an online auction notice: "Lot 45: Spencer Haywood's 1968 Olympic Gold Medal," offered up by one of Haywood's Olympic teammates, Charlie Scott, and sold on April 7, 2005, for $31,697. "Spencer does not want the sale of the gold medal publicized and that is the reason he has asked me to sell it for him," reads the letter signed by "Charles Scott."
Haywood insists that he still has his gold medal in a bank vault in Ann Arbor, that he never tried to sell it, that Scott sold his own medal and used Haywood's notoriety to jack up the price. Contacted at home, Scott didn't deny that he signed the letter of authenticity, but confirmed that the medal wasn't Haywood's. "It's my medal," Scott said. "They got it wrong."
The strange episode only fed Haywood's feelings of persecution: Scott's out to hurt him, he says, trying to savage his name. Who knows what's next?
"What is God trying to tell me?" Haywood says. "I'm just so tired. Why are people sabotaging me? Why, when I try to do something right, do people get angry?"