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Posted: Wednesday February 24, 2010 1:24PM; Updated: Wednesday February 24, 2010 7:15PM
Frank Hughes

Haywood's honor long overdue

Story Highlights

Spencer Haywood was briefly honored at All-Star weekend recently

His lawsuit against the NBA 40 years ago paved the way for today's stars

Haywood deserves a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

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Spencer Haywood cleared the way for players to have early entry to the NBA.
Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty Images

Forty years of frustration and persecution and, in a sense, exile were wrapped up in about 45 seconds. The flash of time was so brief and seemingly innocuous to those without the proper context that they would have let it pass without a second thought -- just another tribute in a long procession of appreciation during All-Star weekend.

But on Feb. 13, there was so much significance and implication in those 45 seconds that it could and did make a grown man -- a man who picked cotton as a child, a man who has known the ravages of drug addiction and divorce and civil disobedience -- cry.

The moment came during a timeout between events on All-Star Saturday night at American Airlines Center in Dallas. A video tribute played on the giant television screen above the court, introducing a young black man who led the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1968. Some people paid attention. Others drank their beers or talked to their neighbors.

The tribute showed a man who started his career with the Denver Rockets of the ABA, went on to play for the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA and made a few more stops along the way.

Then the video cut to the man who was sitting in a plush leather chair in the front row. Spencer Haywood unfolded his long frame, came to his feet, beamed a smile and waved to the crowd. This was his moment.

Steve Smith, the NBA TV analyst and former player who was competing in the Shooting Stars competition, sprang out of his seat and forcefully clapped in his own personal ovation. A few other players stood and cheered, too. Some in the crowd applauded politely.

And then the moment was over. Just like that. The video cut away to something else, Smith returned to his seat and Haywood to his, where he got a slap on the knee from Darryl Dawkins.


Earlier in the day, Haywood had spent a few hours in the lobby restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Dallas, where Haywood's playing contemporaries were staying for the annual celebration of past meets present. Oscar Robertson rumbled through, as did Willie Norwood, who, as Haywood playfully teased, was unable to pick more than 100 pounds of cotton before noon when they were growing up in Mississippi.

"That's cause I couldn't bend over," Norwood said, laughing.

Picking cotton. Seems like the stories of men and women in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novels, not of men who have donned an NBA uniform.

Bill Walton limped in to get breakfast at the buffet with his wife, Lori, who quickly sought out Haywood for a hug. As his long arms and giant hands engulfed her petite frame, Haywood looked down and told her, "You know, they are honoring me tonight."

"Good for you," Lori said. "It's about time."

Haywood could not have mouthed the words more perfectly or more precisely himself. More than anything, the 60-year-old feels both scorned and unappreciated. He is a vital part of the league's history, having led an unprecedented cultural revolution by countering the NBA's requirement that a player must complete four years of college eligibility before turning pro. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in his favor -- a decision that forever changed the landscape of the league and its stars -- Haywood can only look back on decades of obscurity while fellow NBA icons sit courtside at prominent league events and are feted by an endless procession of adulators.

Haywood wants to be remembered in the same light as Jackie Robinson. But he finds himself closer to Mark McGwire.

"I was raised with the idea that you are supposed to make things better for the generation that comes after you," Haywood said.

Haywood's life is well chronicled. He grew up extraordinarily poor -- so poor, he jokes, that when he moved to Detroit and saw somebody giving a $2 tip, he thought the person was rich. Haywood played at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado from 1967-68 before transferring to the University of Detroit a year later, where he averaged an NCAA-high 25.1 rebounds and 32.1 points. He left college early to to go pro, but the NBA forbid him from entering the league because of its rule that players had to be at least four years removed from high school. So he joined the ABA's Rockets.

A year later, in 1970, Haywood signed a six-year, $1.5 million contract with the NBA's SuperSonics. With the backing of team owner Sam Schulman, Haywood sued the league for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act with its four-year rule. As the case made its way to the Supreme Court, Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens tried to play Haywood during the season, but there were injunctions and protests. Haywood said he remembers public address announcers telling the crowd, "We have an illegal player on the court tonight."

Some nights he had to sit on the bus while his team played. Some nights he wasn't even allowed in the building and he had to wait outside, across the street, until the game was over and he could rejoin his teammates.

At the time, Wilkens and teammate Rod Thorn told Haywood that the fight -- as difficult and arduous as it was in the moment, with self-doubt and regret a constant companion -- was a historic development; the hurled insults and the unapologetic spitting were only small weapons in a war that had much larger implications, the results of which would be felt for decades to come.

"Every day there was something else with the courts," Thorn said. "He was a nice young man who was rushed into an unusual position because nobody had ever been in that position before."

Eventually the case was settled and Haywood won, paving the way for generations to come. Of the 27 All-Stars in Dallas earlier this month, 24 had entered the league through early entry, making them direct descendants of Haywood's successful ruling. In a way, it is hypocrisy at its finest. The NBA props up, celebrates and earns billions off the players for whom Haywood took a stand. Yet, until now, the league publicly disregarded the man who allowed the process to move ahead.

Being renounced by the NCAA is understandable. Haywood said he was at an event recently and several well-known coaches, whom he declined to identify, commented that their game had been unnecessarily diminished because of Haywood.

"They were joking," Haywood said, "but they weren't joking, if you know what I mean."

But it's an entirely different thing to be shunned by the very league that ultimately benefited from him, even if his actions were controversial at the time. Though Haywood is asked to speak to young NBA players and kids about the pitfalls of celebrity and how to avoid them, and though he is never excluded from All-Star weekend and is hardly a pariah, Haywood desires more.

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