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As another NBA season gets ready to kick off, one of its true defining trailblazers is still working to receive the recognition he so rightfully deserves. Spencer Haywood and the antitrust suit he brought against the league in 1971 helped lay the groundwork for professional basketball as we know it today.
Without the Supreme Court ruling against the NBA’s requirement that a player couldn’t be drafted by a team until four years after graduation from high school, the league would look very different today. Many of our favorite moments and storylines over the last half-century might not have ever materialized. Maybe the league doesn’t become the global game it is currently.
Haywood’s journey from being born into modern-day slavery to reaching the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is one that not only fans of the game of basketball should know but also the nearly 90 percent of players occupying NBA rosters that are beneficiaries of the Haywood v. National Basketball Association ruling.
At age 74, the Hall of Famer is still a fixture at league events and sits on the board of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. He’s currently working on a film about his life as well as advocating for a retirement community in Las Vegas for retired NBA and WNBA players.
As with any profession, the current generation can always learn from those who came before them. Haywood spoke with M&F on some of the basketball bullet points players can gain from the story of his life.
Born in Silver City, MS, in 1949, Spencer Haywood was the youngest of 10 children. His father, John, passed away before his birth, leaving his mother, Eunice, to provide for a household of children while making $2 a day picking cotton. There was no gas or electricity and the siblings slept three to a bed. At the age of 4, Haywood would join his mother, working in those same cotton fields. It could be hard for any child to see past being born into such a challenging circumstance, but Haywood would dream about leaving a future that seemed predetermined for him.
“Back then, when a young man starts growing and getting strong, they say this guy would be a great guy on the farm forever,” Haywood said. “It’s that, or a white lady saying you spoke to her the wrong way and you end up in jail. “When you would get out, they just relegate you to the farm because you owe the man who got you out.”
His first basketball was made by his mom using some material she placed in a crocus sack. A barrel was used for the rim that would be attached to a wooden backboard.
As Haywood got older, the introduction of machinery lessened the need for black labor. Families began heading north and west for better opportunities, and at 14, the growing Haywood first went to Chicago, then Detroit, where he lived with his brother, Roy. While this was a new beginning for Haywood, his upbringing through modern-day slavery and segregation helped him develop a thick skin as well as pushed him to take full advantage of opportunities that never seemed possible during his early childhood.
It didn’t take long for Haywood to begin standing out athletically. He led Pershing High School to the Michigan Class A championship in 1967. He spent a year at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado and finished with averages of 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds a game. In the summer of 1968, he helped Team USA to a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico City before tallying 32.1 points and a nation-leading 21.5 rebounds per game. Due to the NBA’s rules that prevented him from declaring for the draft, Haywood was of legal age to fight for his country but not to begin earning a living to help his family.
Luckily, the upstart ABA didn’t have those rules and Haywood signed with the Denver Rockets. He would go on to average a league-leading 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds per game and win the league’s MVP award. After a contract dispute, he signed with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics much to the chagrin of league officials.
Spencer Haywood would only play in 33 of the 82 games that year and launched an antitrust suit with attorney and agent Al Ross. There were times when the arena announcers would introduce him as an “illegal player” and he would be escorted from the arena. There were times when he was served court papers before he took the court that prevented him from even warming up on the court. If that wasn’t enough of a warm welcome, the fans heckling was harsh and some of Haywood’s opponents weren’t selfish with the occasional cheap shot.
“I went through hell,” said Haywood.
In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the NBA’s clause and attempts to prevent Haywood from earning a living were unconstitutional. Even with the ruling, the mistreatment continued as change is oftentimes met with resentment.
About 11 years into his career and at 30 years old, Spencer Haywood began falling deeper into drug addiction. He had stood tall against the NBA and won, but it came with a cost. Not everyone was thrilled that players could begin their pro careers early. On the road and even in the streets, Haywood faced death threats, racial slurs, and a level of animosity that had begun to penetrate the armor that had withstood so much of the struggles of his upbringing.
Haywood estimated that about 80 percent of the league was using cocaine during those times. Here he was, in the midst of what would be a title season with the Los Angeles Lakers and he wouldn’t finish it as the team suspended him after Game 3 of the NBA Finals. He credits the advice from his ex-wife, supermodel Iman, for pressuring him to seek help to help save their marriage. After scoffing at seeking therapy and speaking with therapists, he’s still seeing the benefits decades later.
“I went in and 40 years later, I’m like, Wow, this is some good sh*t,” he said while laughing. “Maybe all the black people I know should speak with a therapist to see how helpful it is.”
As the money continues to climb in the NBA, the importance of providing proper resources to help players navigate the lifestyle and any prior unchecked issues becomes greater. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, the NBA requires all teams to have a licensed psychiatrist on staff as well as have a formal relationship with a mental health practitioner. The culture of the league is in a much better place than when Haywood played and he is happy there are avenues for players to go to for issues they are uncomfortable with sharing with teammates or coaches. With any issue, he feels that merely having a conversation about it goes a long way.
One of the bright spots of Haywood making therapy a part of his life was the inspiration it gave his daughter Shaakira. She would see her father going to his sessions and noticed how better his mood would be when he returned. She told her father she wanted to become a psychologist and today, she has her own private practice in New York and works with the NBA Players Association.
Spencer Haywood had to wait 27 years until he was finally selected for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2015. He was in attendance when this year’s class was inducted. Out of all the conversations that stuck out to him from his time there was one he had with Dwyane Wade. Wade was well aware of Haywood’s story and wanted to pay his respects to the legend for being able to leave Marquette after three years.
It’s interactions like these that Spencer Haywood wishes were more commonplace for him. It’s why he does his part to make sure his story is told whenever he can. It’s the reason why his current project on his life is so near and dear to him. As much as it’s about receiving his rightful recognition, it’s about the players having a better understanding of the groundwork that was laid for them to have the opportunities currently available to them.
“By knowing the history, they will know the importance of someone who put their life on the line and sacrificed so that they could have what they have today,” Haywood says. “Our black history in history is always taken away and I don’t want this history to be taken away. I want players and the world to understand. You look at how many jobs these players create and you think of how much money the teams and the league has made since the ruling — I just don’t want this history swept under the rug.”