What Now for Spencer Haywood? 1971

[After 50 years, Spencer Haywood’s rookie season with the ABA Denver Rockers remains the stuff of basketball legend. He was the ABA’s Most Valuable Player, Most Valuable Player in the league’s all-star game, rookie of the year, and a unanimous choice on the all-league team. He also snatched the league scoring and rebounding titles, set records in both categories during the ABA playoffs, and smashed the league’s single-game scoring record with 59 points. All at the tender age of 20. 

This article from Denver Post reporter Frank Haraway offers a nice overview of Haywood’s record-breaking season and captures the young superstar’s frenetic travels heading into his sophomore ABA season. Pay attention to Haraway’s mention of Haywood’s summer trip to Panama. Unbeknownst to Haraway, it was the turning point. After Panama, Haywood’s days in Denver were numbered.

Haywood was in Panama with a traveling American all-star basketball team. Between games, the American players gathered to shoot the breeze, and Haywood kept turning the conversation to his brand-new $1.9 million mega contract with Denver, which he swore set him up for life. Finally, NBA veteran Archie Clark spoke up, pointing out several flaws in Haywood’s new deal. As Haywood told me, Archie’s honest critique was the start of his profound, festering dissatisfaction with Denver and the ABA. 

By the time Haraway’s hopeful article hit the newsstands, Haywood had been suspended from the Rockets for demanding to renegotiate his contract, and his hard-charging new agent Al Ross was offering up his client to several NBA teams. The rest is pro basketball history and the end of the NBA’s four-year rule, which required that players could only enter the league if their college class had graduated. Haywood’s class still had another season to go before graduation.

But for now, let’s forget the Panama trip. Let’s revel in Haywood’s super-charged rookie season in the ABA. It was a thing of beauty.]

When you’re talking about a fellow who was a pauper all of his childhood and adolescent life, a hardship case at the age of 19, and one who signed a $1.9  million contract at the age of 20, it’s hard not to start out by talking about money. 

Now Haywood is 21 years old. The fabulous contract that a Denver bank executive had to sign for him last March because the 6-foot-9 sensation of the American Basketball Association was not yet of legal age, now bears Spencer’s own signature. He became 21 last April 22. 

In his first year as a pro, he won the ABA scoring title with an average that would have been an even 30 points had he tallied just one more free throw. He also won the rebounding championship with an average of 19.49, and set the league’s playoff scoring record with an average of 36.7, plus the playoff rebound record of 19.8. He broke the ABA one-game scoring record with 59 points. 

He won such accolades as the ABA’s Most Valuable Player, Most Valuable Player in the All-Star game, Rookie of the Year, and was a unanimous choice on the all-league team. 

Before the season was over, the Denver Rockets owners were startled by “fantastic offers” from two National Basketball Association teams if he would jump the ABA. They tore up his old multi-year contract that called for what Haywood says was “a lot, a lot more than the $250,000,” generally hinted in the press. 

In its place, they awarded him a pact calling for him to play basketball for the Rockets for the next six years and setting up an investment program that will make him a multi-millionaire in itself. Meanwhile, he will siphon off approximately $36,000 a year to pay his board and upkeep. 

So much for the finance and arithmetic of the Hayward situation. Just weighing the above, it would be tempting to conclude that there’s not much left for the distinguished looking young man who first bolted into nationwide attention as the unheralded wheelhorse of Uncle Sam’s 1968 Olympic basketball champions. 

But life truly is just beginning for this ambitious scourge of the ABA who last winter announced that he wants to (1) become basketball’s next Bill Russell, (2) lead his personally-chosen Denver Rockets to a pro championship, (3) be known as one of the key men who helped a whole pro basketball league succeed, (4) ease the financial burden for his 62-year-old mother, five brothers, and three sisters, (5) donate large sums of money to underprivileged children in Africa, and (6) become a movie actor. 

At this stage of his career, it already is pretty well indicated he will far outstrip his idol Russell at the offensive end of the court. “What I’ve got to do is assume his responsibility on defense,” Haywood says. “It’s something that will take time, but that’s what I’m aiming for.”

Those who have seen him leave his own man and leap halfway across the court to flick away a shot by somebody else, know he has the mobility and intuitive basketball sense to have a chance to realize this ambition. The things he did last year, he accomplished as the equivalent of a junior in college, something that’s hard for even those who watched him all year to fully grasp. 

Before getting ready to proceed further toward his goals, Haywood spent considerable sums during the summer traveling. “I love to travel and I’ve got to keep moving,” he confided as he moved steadily from city to city. One day would find him in Denver, the next day in Detroit, his home for the five years before he moved to Denver. 

Two days later, he’d be in New York, or Philadelphia, or Baltimore, or Chicago, or Louisville, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Another trip took him to Panama. He didn’t stay anywhere more than two or three days at a time. 

“This whole year has been so exciting for me,” he said. “I had to grow up, to learn to know myself. Travel helps me do that. It exposes me to life and helps me meet more people. Now I want to try some business ventures in addition to playing basketball.”

Haywood also invested in expensive musical equipment. One of his proudest possessions is an electric guitar which he says he plays every night. “I’m deep into jazz and collect long-play records and tapes,” he says. “One of the reasons I go to so many towns is to catch shows and festivals which fascinate me. I like to swing.”

Some of his time is spent designing men’s fashions with a leading Denver tailor. “I love to dress, and I’m an individualist,“ he confides. “I dress extremely mod, and I prefer to design my own clothes as much as possible. I want to go into it more extensively in the future. Right now, I give some of my ideas to a tailor in Denver, and I get a commission on those which he transforms into clothes for his customers.”

Haywood, a Silver City, Miss., native who spent his early years there and in Chicago before moving to Detroit at the age of 15, plans to make Denver his permanent home. “Denver’s a groovy town, and it’s been good to me,” he said. “I don’t know of any better place to live.”

His summer schedule included shopping for a $100,000-plus home in one of Denver’s most-exclusive suburbs. “I want my mother to come live with me, if she will,” he said. “And my sister too, the only one of us nine kids who’s still at home. But Mom has all her friends and activities in Detroit and is a little reluctant to move away.”

Brother Roy Haywood, whom Spencer describes as “a great shooter who should make it big in pro ball, got a shot with the Rockets in their fall camp. 

Included in Haywood’s summer activities were appearances at basketball summer camps and work in the University of Colorado and University of Denver extension schools. His legal guardian and high school basketball coach during his days in Detroit, Will Robinson, extracted a promise out of Spencer when he turned pro that he would finish his college degree within three years. 

“I plan to make good on that promise, too,” Haywood insists.

All this may sound like Haywood has forgotten about the thing that made possible all this activity, namely, basketball. Don’t you believe it. 

Few summer days passed without him spending several hours on the basketball court. “The season had been over less than two weeks when I had to get back on the court,” he said. “No matter what town I’m in, I get together with some of the pro players and young players and have a game with them. 

He played in a summer league in Denver whenever he was home and kept up his play in the playgrounds of the towns he visited. “Playground basketball has been a way of life to me,” he said. “I can’t remember when I didn’t play it. 

“Almost all of the pro players and big-time college players I know did it too. That’s where you really learn the game. Even when I was a young boy, I got to try my stuff against some established pro players on the playgrounds.

“I have to play basketball almost every day to stay in the kind of shape I want to be in. Last year, when I was thinking about pro ball, I thought I would need extra weight so I built up to about 233 pounds. But when the league play started, I lost most of it and went down to about 210. I felt better at 233 but couldn’t hold it.“

With all of his first-year accomplishments as a pro, one might think he’d be pretty well satisfied with the style of play he developed. Far from it. 

“Whenever I go to a gym, I try to get there an hour or two before the other fellows so I can try out some of my ideas all alone. I work every day on new tricks in rebounding, or passing or dribbling. Some of it is fancy stuff. Maybe I won’t use all of it very often, but you’d be surprised how some of the stuff you work on like this comes in handy in some spot in a ball game when you least expect it. 

“I want to become a better passer, a better playmaker. I don’t want to be just a shooter and a rebounder, even though these may be the things I do best. I want to become the most complete player my talents will allow me.”

Add this to some statements made by former Boston Celtic Bill Sharman, who coached the Los Angeles Stars in the ABA last season, and it should sound a bit frightening to future foes. “Spencer Haywood could become the greatest player ever at both ends of the floor,” he said the night Haywood got the 59 points against his team. 

“I mean by this that it’s unusual for a superstar like him to play an overall game like he does. Bill Russell was a great player at the defensive end of the floor but didn’t have that same greatness on offense. There have been a number of players who were great on offense, but didn’t play defense with the same attitude. 

“Haywood’s unique because he can do both.”

His own coach, Joe Belmont, expressed his opinion more simply: “He’s like the greatest player in the world.”

Success is not dulled Haywood’s concern for his fellow man. “I think I get more satisfaction out of going to a gym or playground and working out with some of the kids than anything else,” he said. “I remember how much this meant to me during my growing years when we didn’t have anything and I was trying to become a good basketball player. 

“A lot of athletes don’t seem to like to do much of this, but I think kids need some inspiration and, if I can provide it for some of them, I’m going to do it.”

What about the upcoming pro season for Haywood?

“Naturally, I’m looking forward to it,” he began. “I know I grew up a lot last season. I know the other ball players in the league put me to the test, and I admired ‘em for doing it, although I flared up four or five times and got involved in some altercations where some punches were thrown. 

“But I don’t believe in taking anything from anybody, and I’m sure all of us understand each other now. There were no serious problems.”

Haywood is looking forward to the day when the two major pro basketball leagues will merge. “I knew when I signed with Denver that a merger would come, and I’m anxious for it to become formalized. I want to pit myself against the stars of the NBA, too.” 

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