Haywood's recognition long overdue (cont.)
But what, exactly?
"If it were my choice," Haywood said, "it would be at the All-Star Game, [players] would walk me out onto the floor in the first quarter or the second quarter, and as the players are getting ready to go back into the game they announce, 'Ladies and gentleman, our first early-entry candidate -- Haywood vs. the NBA, that is what produced early entry into the NBA. Now, all you guys come over here and give him a big hug and go out and play your game.' Now that is real. That would be a beautiful thing."
The problem is, Haywood did not say what he wants until it was too late. If life were fair, Haywood could try to patent his imprint on the league, in the same way that Robert Kearns tried to patent the intermittent windshield wiper. He would get a small percentage of the contract of each player who comes into the league early and he would become a rich man for his efforts four decades ago.
But as he has found out all too painfully, life is not always fair. Hell, it's safe to say that a large percentage of the men in those All-Star locker rooms don't know very much, if at all, about Haywood, his case or the ruling that allowed them to enter the league early.
"It's a time thing," Thorn said. "It is nothing against the players today, but there has not been a lot written about it or talked about it. And guys tend to know who is within 10 or 15 years of them."
Haywood said Kobe Bryant is the most demonstrative, the one current player who always acknowledges him and his impact on the league. "It changed everything," Bryant said of Haywood's lawsuit. "He comes around pretty much every All-Star Game and everybody goes up and says hello to him. I definitely have an appreciation for him."
But in the same way that time dulls wounds -- real or perceived -- it also tends to blunt what are supposed to be the sharp edges of appreciation. Jackie Robinson is known but not tangible to today's baseball player. Haywood's case becomes less palpable to today's NBA player with each passing year.
To his credit, NBA commissioner David Stern reached out to Haywood about a month ago to make amends.
"We go around the arena and recognize different people and he is one we think deserves a pop," Stern said. "After 40 years, it is a unique circumstance for me to be able to recognize somebody who got to be known for Haywood vs. NBA. That is OK."
According to Haywood, Stern also asked, "Spencer, what do you want?" Haywood shot an airball. "Whatever you want to do," Haywood told Stern. And the order was passed on to subordinates to play the video tribute and give Haywood recognition during Saturday's event.
"I should have said what I wanted, but I didn't," Haywood said. "I was being humble. And I didn't speak up. I feel sick inside that I didn't do that and I left it to somebody else. That is my fault."
Even after the tribute, though, Haywood felt slighted. He told his two daughters that the league was finally recognizing him during All-Star weekend. So, they sat at home and watched the proceedings on television. Only, because Haywood was recognized between events at the arena, the television broadcast was in a commercial break and his family did not see the tribute.
Having spoken with his daughters after the procession, Haywood left American Airlines Center upset, but he eventually came to terms with the NBA's honor and accepted it as the first step toward redemption.
"It's just the beginning," Haywood said that evening. "It's just the beginning."
Haywood may have waited too long to express what he wants from the league. But it's not too late for the game to honor him properly -- with an induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Because the Hall is not the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, all of his contributions to basketball would be recognized somewhere inside those hallowed walls. A sort of lifetime achievement award.
If he were judged just on his playing career, it likely would not be enough, though as the youngest player on the team (19) he did lead the underdog United States to a gold medal in 1968 when every other player of significance boycotted the Olympics.
Haywood was a phenomenal player his only year in the ABA -- where he averaged 30 points and 19.7 rebounds with Denver and was named both the MVP and Rookie of the Year -- and then the NBA, averaging a career-high 29.2 points and 12.9 rebounds in 1972-73, once he got his legal issues resolved and his career on track. He was a four-time NBA All-Star and a two-time All-NBA first-team selection.
He even won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980, though it is that memory more than any other that detracts from his reputation: When someone mentions that 1970s drug-crazed NBA, the names that come to mind are David Thompson, Micheal Ray Richardson and Spencer Haywood. Haywood was suspended by the Lakers in the middle of their NBA Finals series with Philadelphia after he admitted he had a cocaine problem.
"That story is true," Haywood said. "But they didn't suspend me because I did anything wrong. Yes, I did the stuff. But with three games left in the Finals, I went to them and told them I need help and the minute after we win the Finals I am going into rehab. But right away they said, 'You are admitting to this? Then we are suspending you.'
"As far as the Hall of Fame, how do you take everything that I accomplished, scrap everything and say, 'He used drugs'? There are a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame who used drugs. Let's be real, man."
Haywood said he has never even been nominated to be on the ballot for the Hall of Fame, which then goes through a screening committee before being put in front of the Honors Committee. Five of seven votes are needed from the screening committee, while at least 18 votes are need from the 24-member Honors Committee.
Thorn has been on several Hall of Fame committees. He said it would not take a great deal for Haywood to be nominated. Somebody needs to advocate for him and introduce his case to the screening committee for consideration. It can be anybody with a basketball background, Thorn said.
"I think for the uniqueness of what he did, for how good he was and what he did in the Olympics, he is definitely deserving of being nominated," Thorn said.
The most natural team to advocate for him would be Seattle, except the Sonics no longer exist and the Oklahoma City Thunder have no real ties to Haywood, whose retired number is getting dusty in a box in the Seattle Museum of History and Industry near the University of Washington. Haywood needs permission from the Thunder just to be able to see it.
That leaves his supporters.
"If I was in charge, things would be different," Walton said. "Spencer changed the way basketball was played. He had the skills of the great small players but he had the magnificent body.
"It is unfortunate he had to be the guy who stood tall and was courageous enough to sue the league. He was so far ahead of his time. When you talk about the guys who stood tall to change the legal and social course of basketball, you're talking about Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and Spencer. Spencer is one of my heroes. He is a beacon of hope and he is a shining star."
Perhaps those 45 seconds a week and a half ago, which took 40 years to produce, are just the beginning of his acceptance back into the circle that he so desperately craves. Spencer Haywood has already survived one recovery. Maybe this will be his second.
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