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A would-be dunker with soul
William F. Reed
January 06, 1969
Back from Mexico City, Olympian Spencer Haywood feels inhibited by college rules, but only the least bit. He is making Detroit a power
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January 06, 1969

A Would-be Dunker With Soul

Back from Mexico City, Olympian Spencer Haywood feels inhibited by college rules, but only the least bit. He is making Detroit a power

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The University of Detroit's first basketball game of the season was brought to an absolutely smashing—if somewhat premature—climax when Spencer Haywood dunked the ball and threw the glass backboard in for good measure. "I was looking down through the basket and I saw this guy waiting to submarine me," Haywood said with just a hint of a put-on. "So I said to myself, 'well,' and I grabbed the rim. It was an old backboard, anyway." The dunking episode was illegal, but it did remind some people—if anybody could forget—that the 6'8½" star was back from Mexico City, and guess what team is going straight to the top?

One month into the season, Haywood is proving to be an even more brilliant catalyst for Detroit than he was for the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team last October. Singlehandedly, he is turning a bona fide collection of nobodies into a smooth, winning outfit that now is playing on the edge of college basketball's Top Ten. "With Spencer," says sophomore Guard James Jackson, "we think we can do almost anything."

The case for Detroit looked stronger than ever last weekend. The Titans made a laugh-in of their own Motor City Tournament, rolling past Mississippi State 86-62 Friday night and then beating Temple 87-76 24 hours later for their ninth and 10th straight victories of the season. The story was the same each night: everywhere the befuddled visitors turned, there was Haywood blocking their shots, grabbing rebounds out of their hands, gliding through or muscling over them to fill the baskets with points. Haywood got 32 points and 29 rebounds against State, but Temple found him even more awesomely perfect, or perfectly awesome. He made his first 10 shots from the floor to settle matters early, then ambled out to accept the Outstanding Player Trophy while the stands chanted, "Spencer's got soul, Spencer's got soul."

If Haywood has a weakness it is that he is almost too aggressive. His penchant for goaltending and dunking has cost the Titans more baskets than Coach Bob Calihan considers necessary. "Sometimes Spencer's up there so high," says Calihan, "that he doesn't know what to do and it's hurt his game."

Four years ago Spencer Haywood truly did not know what to do. That is when Will Robinson, the 57-year-old coach at Detroit's Pershing High, took him over. The least of what Robinson has provided for Haywood is a 1962 Austin Healey ("Not an automobile, a raggety mobile," says Haywood), his Christmas present this year. The most is a home. Robinson, now Haywood's legal guardian, is also his adviser, friend and father figure. In 1964 Haywood was shuttling between his mother in Silver City, Miss, and relatives in Chicago and Detroit. "I was headed the wrong way," says Haywood now. "I was, you know, a thug. All I wanted to do was rob, man, or hustle a pool game, whatever it took to make some money."

Robinson talked Ida and James Bell into giving Haywood a legal residence in Detroit. Then he began the work of stimulating the boy's mind and refining his talent. "When I first saw Spencer he could barely write his name," says Robinson. "They only had school six months down there in Mississippi, and Spencer only went three. As a player he was big and he could shoot any shot, but his idea of playing defense was standing flat-footed with his arms out. Can you imagine? But he had raw talent, so I started doing everything that a coach does, a friend does, a father does. Nobody had taken that kind of interest in him before."

Haywood not only went to school regularly, he worked overtime with special tutors. He did ballet routines to develop finesse, he ran mile after mile for stamina and he even swept out the locker room for spending money. Many of the qualities Haywood possesses today—perseverance, grace, strength, humility—can be traced to Robinson's efforts. "It was just problem solving, that's all," says Robinson. "He had the ability; I gave him the direction."

After two years under Robinson, Haywood was one of the choice high school prospects in the country. More than 400 colleges were interested in giving him a scholarship. Here, for the first time, Haywood did not take Robinson's advice. He narrowed the field to Detroit and Tennessee, then signed a letter of intent with Tennessee, wanting, as he said, "to be the first Negro player in the Southeastern Conference."

But Haywood still had not improved enough to pass Tennessee's entrance examinations. So in the fall of 1967 he went off to Trinidad Junior College in Colorado with the hope of bringing up his grades sufficiently to transfer to a major school. He really impressed college scouts by attaining a better than B grade average.

At the Olympics, Haywood found the international rules to his liking, and not only led the U.S. in scoring and rebounding but used dunk power to psych out the world. His fondest memory of Mexico City is getting a standing ovation when he was taken out of the gold-medal game with Yugoslavia. "That's something that just every player doesn't get," he says.

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