Those who saw him play remember Bill Spivey as a mold breaker, a big man whose size and mobility might have bridged the gap between George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain. "He was the first great, big basketball player," says current Kentucky athletic director CM. Newton of his former teammate, who as a 7-foot junior scored 22 points and grabbed 21 rebounds to lead the Wildcats to victory over Kansas State in the 1951 NCAA title game. "He was the first big man who could fly up and down the court."
Spivey died in Costa Rica last week at the age of 66, a righteously bitter and egregiously wronged man. Along with 31 others, he was charged in August 1951 with taking cash from gamblers to influence the outcome of games during that championship season. But alone among the accused he maintained his innocence, a stand for which he was indicted for perjury.
His trial ended with the jury hung 9-3 for acquittal. But even after a mistrial was declared and the charges were dropped, Kentucky refused to let Spivey play as a senior, challenging him to prove his innocence. "I thought it was the other way around in this country," Spivey would say, believing that the school refused to defend him in fear that doing so would lead to a wider probe, which might uncover payments to players. NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff banned Spivey too, in a violation of his rights that's unimaginable today but passed unchallenged in the McCarthyist climate of the era.
A simple country boy from Warner-Robbins, Ga., who initially lacked the resources to sue the NBA, Spivey was left to ply his trade on various semipro circuits, where he once did a humiliating turn with the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters' stooge team. Spivey's teammates supported his claims, later buttressed by a lie-detector test, that he never took a cent. The theory goes that Jack (Zip) West, the Brooklyn wiseguy who implicated him, had given money intended for Spivey to several senior Wildcats, but Spivey was so naive that they had simply pocketed it themselves. In 1959 Spivey wound up with a $10,000 settlement from the NBA, but that was a pittance next to what he might have earned if not for the stigma of scandal. "Bill just could not let that go," says his first wife, Audrey. Thus Spivey died with little more than the knowledge that, once upon a time, he was the game's biggest and best.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]