Spencer Haywood: Sonic Superstar, 1971

[By March 1970, everyone who followed basketball had heard of Spencer Haywood. He was the 6-foot-9 rookie sensation with the ABA’s Denver Rockets. But with the ABA rarely on national television, most fans had never seen Haywood play live. They sufficed with print news accounts, sometimes written in rumbling prose worthy of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” detailing the rookie’s freakish antics way, way above the rim.

As an emerging national sports figure, Haywood opened up to several reporters about his past and his future aspirations. He wanted then to be an actor, an extra-tall version of Sidney Poitier. “I always pictured myself on the screen,” he said. “playing an important banker or a Western hero or a warrior in one of the Bible movies.” 

Haywood should have added playing litigant in a Supreme Court case. For less than a year later, Haywood emerged on a real-life public stage as an aggrieved young athlete hellbent on reforming the NBA’s openly exploitative labor system. He lived out this public drama following his sudden jump from the ABA to the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. 

Haywood played his role well, though he was a bit of a legal pawn caught up in a nasty feud among millionaire NBA owners eager to claim his services. Without this pitched boardroom battle and its fog of NBA war, Haywood could have never challenged the league’s labor system on his own. The fight was too expensive and too risky for his future employment. Nevertheless, Haywood deserves credit for riding out the chaos and enduring its storm-like wrath for the greater good. At some point, the blog will chronicle the nastiness that greeted Haywood—the pawn—during his transition to the NBA. 

In this article from Complete Sports’ 1971 Pro Basketball edition, Haywood had just wrapped up his controversial role as the aggrieved young athlete/litigant to accept a new part as the promising, young NBA superstar. In this new role, Haywood’s reviews ultimately would be mixed. As predicted, he would put up All-Pro numbers in Seattle. But injuries would dog Haywood. So would a new form of chaos called the million-dollar contract. For Haywood and others in the Sonics locker room who’d grown up with nothing, they suddenly were a whole lot of something and the allure of the high life would cost them dearly in the win column and eventually land Haywood in New York, his NBA star on the wane. 

But the sky was still the limit for superstar Haywood entering his second season in Seattle. Don Fair, a veteran reporter with the Seattle  Post-Intelligencer, gets everyone talking candidly, and that makes this article still a good read a half century later.] 

In SuperSonic basketball circles, he’s known as “The Wood” . . . easy to rap with . . . tough to knock.

To others, including National Basketball Association fans who hope he can lead Seattle to its first postseason playoff berth, he is much more easily recognized by the name Spencer Haywood. 

It’s the same Spencer Haywood who left the American Basketball Association in a state of disbelief when he jumped their organization. And it’s the same Spencer Haywood who, when all legal battles had been decided, brought about a change in the NBA’s draft rule, clearing the way for the bonafide hardship case—the player who could be signed before his college class has been graduated. 

Or is he the same Haywood?

Not from a mental standpoint, certainly. He went into this season with all his many talents geared to the basketball challenges ahead. They are considerable talents. 

Rod Thorn, a seven-year NBA veteran and the Sonics’ assistant coach, best described Haywood’s capabilities:” He is the second greatest talent to come into the league while I’ve been around. Only Lew Alcindor would rate ahead of Spencer in my judgment. 

“Then look at it from an age standpoint. Haywood is only 22  but has had nearly two years of pro experience. Thus, he’s close to a finished product. While most pro basketball players ‘peak’ at about age 28, Haywood should peak at age 25 and will be a top-flight performer for at least 10 years, barring injuries. From ages 24 through 30, he will be super. We mean THE forward in pro basketball, the equal of a Billy Cunningham or a Rick Barry at their apex. 

“Haywood didn’t perform that well for Seattle last season, but he was at only about 60 percent of his ability. He was thrust into a new league, with a new team, a new system. Plus, there were all the court appearances, the injunctions, everything to keep him off balance. That’s all behind.”

Seattle head coach Lenny Wilkens, himself a superstar, said, “Haywood will be one of the most-exciting players in the NBA. Here’s a big, mobile forward who can move with the ball, is real tough close to the basket, can rebound, run, has tremendous jumping ability, has a great pair of hands, can play defense. 

“And he has the great attitude, a thirst for knowledge of the game. He still wants to learn. Any coach would love to have him on his team. He can do most everything, so everybody expects everything from him. 

“I have tried to make Spencer realize that it’s not necessary for him to score 30-40 points night in and night out for us to win. We stress a team balance, and he contributes to this balance in all phases. Some nights he leads our scoring, some nights he leads our rebounding. He plays a part in everything we accomplish positively.”

Wilkins stressed, “Really, he doesn’t remind me of anybody who has been in our league. Spencer Haywood is going to be Spencer Haywood. That’s his identification. But if you want to compare his talents, I think he has a talent like Elgin Baylor. He can do things Baylor did at the peak of his career. Spencer will do them differently, perhaps, but he can do them.”

The seventh of 10 children and today a refugee from his birthplace, Silver City, Miss., where his mother still lives, Haywood admitted, “This is the most-happy basketball season I’ve ever encountered, without a doubt. When you’re happy, you perform. You push harder. I want to be the best forward in the league, to be the most valuable player, and the only way to achieve these is to play well against the best. This I must prove.”

Haywood’s campaign to be the “best” individually does not take top billing over the Seattle team goal.  “First, I want to take my team to the championship,” he volunteered with strong conviction. “I’ve always been on a champion—in high school (Pershing of Detroit), in junior college (Trinidad, Colo.), in the Olympic Games (1968 hero). Only my varsity season at the University of Detroit did we fail as a champion. 

“With Seattle, a championship means working harder. When we lose, I really feel it is my fault. I have assumed the role to foster team unity, togetherness. Other players look up to me with the proper respect. If we work together, we have great potential. 

“In assuming this responsibility, I must discipline myself, do different things other than scoring. I can’t be a selfish guy. If I score 30 points and get 16-17 rebounds and we still lose . . . well, that’s no good. But if I can draw the defense to me, pitch the ball out to Dick Snyder for some big baskets and we win, that’s good.”

Haywood mused and added, “To be the best at your position, to be the most valuable player, you must do everything. Take the year New York’s Willis Reed was MVP. He averaged only 19 points per game, if you want statistics. It’s not what you do or how you do it so much as THAT you do it, and that it brings the championship.”

Recalling his role with the ABA Denver Rockets in 1969-70, he said, “I was just a ‘shotgun.’ We’d clear one side of the court on offense while I took the ball and went one-on-one against my man. I was told to average 30 points, and we’d win a championship. 

“I did average 30 points (29.9) and shot about 50 percent (.496), but we didn’t get the championship. We won our division and got knocked out in the playoff. Sure, I like scoring all those points, but there are 11 other players on a team and the fans. It’s great for a city when it can boast of a championship team. A championship is the only thing.”

Haywood has also discovered a new maturity on the floor. 

“At Denver,” he reminded, “I led the league in technical fouls—and fights. My temper has always been a problem. When I went to Seattle, I couldn’t afford anymore troubles with the problems that move stirred up. The league was so down on me that I had to take whatever was dished out. Mentally, it made me a better man.”

Haywood did get in one brief fist flurry with Jerry Lucas, then of San Francisco, in a loss which proved fatal to Seattle’s 1971 playoff hopes. Yet he maintained amazing composure in the face of tremendous physical challenges, particularly those involved by Baltimore’s Gus Johnson, probably the NBA’s best defensive forward before his other knee gave way. Johnson dealt Haywood some fearful batterings—and lessons—late last season. 

After one such pounding, Haywood had a cut over his eye, some cuts in his mouth as mementos. Reminded of that, the Sonic box-office draw smiled and said, “It was all part of my initiation under the circumstances. There was nothing personal in it. Gus told me after our last Baltimore game in March, ‘I sure hate to let you loose, but you’re out of the woods. You’re ready.’”

Several NBA players encouraged Haywood when he was battling on the courts and in the courts last winter. With one exception, Detroit center Bob Lanier who said, “Haywood is an average shooter. He can jump, but he can’t do anything else. He’s not a good player. If he’s going to play forward in this league, he’s got to learn to handle the ball.”

Haywood can laugh about that, also: “This all goes back to college, I think. We played St. Bonaventure when I was at Detroit. We were rated seventh and they were ranked eighth, and we won. I’m sorry when such statements as these happen, but maybe someone just caught him (Lanier) at the wrong time when he said it.”

Wilkins told of another interesting incident last season: “An official—I won’t mention a name because I respect him as an official—came up to me before a game and asked, with reference to Haywood, ‘Well, how are you going to handle this one?’ I’m sure that attitude resulted from the many anti- Haywood stories going around when he signed with the Sonics.”

Haywood reviewed his worst NBA night in an interesting light. It was a February game against Portland in which unheralded Trail Blazer forward Gary Gregor outscored him, 28-10, and out-rebounded him, 10-2Ú “I just had a feeling the officials wouldn’t let me do anything that night. I seemingly couldn’t make a move without something being called. I just had to develop more discipline.”

During last season’s tribulations, Haywood “couldn’t talk to people, really. I had to keep all this within myself. It was just me and my music for comfort. I wore out two (phonograph) needles within two months, while all the legal problems were going on.”

Describing himself as “basically a jazz nut,” Haywood turned this interest into a summer job as a night-time disc jockey on a Seattle radio station. He’s since started learning television techniques. 

While Haywood’s legal battles led to what the NBA now calls its new hardship draft rule, he stated, “This was no planned crusade on my part. I had to turn to basketball to make a living. And if anybody wants an education bad enough, he’ll get it. Look at me now. I took seven hours at Seattle U. last spring and another 18 hours of summer work at the University of Washington. And my grades were fine (including straight A’s at Seattle U.)”

In a sense, he was another pioneer of sorts by playing on the 1968 U.S. Olympic basketball team, because several American black stars boycotted the team in protest. Explaining his appearance, Haywood said, “I was determined to make it out of the ghetto, and this was my only chance, my big chance, to do it. At the time, my family was in great need. When blacks came to me and asked why I was participating, I gave them my reasons and they accepted it.”

Haywood, who left home at age 13 to live with a brother in Chicago, says, “I never really lived a normal growing-up life from age 14 to age 22. I remember shaving a lot at 13 so I could grow a mustache and look older. That way I could get jobs.” (He Is clean shaven today)

“I did it all at that age. I smoked a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day (he doesn’t smoke now), I drank wine. Jobs? I was a pool hustler, a rack man for two years, a dishwasher at a restaurant, a caddie, delivery boy, salesman at a clothing store, worked in a nursing home. Just about anything to make a buck. 

“But I had to get off my rear end and prove my talent when I met Will Robinson, my high school coach. I had to stop everything bad. He was the coach-father type. I went to bed at 8 and was up the next morning at 8. If I did wrong, I might not get a meal as a penalty. And I played basketball 8 hours a day during the summer. 

“Robinson exposed me to all the players who came to Detroit. I remember him taking me to Piston games, and we’d wait outside the dressing rooms. I remember Bill Russell coming out and my looking up at him.”

Bill Russell is gone from the NBA, and Spencer Haywood is just coming on. And it’s other youngsters looking up to this 6-foot-8, 230-pound basketball talent who could realize all his individual and team goals. After all, this same 22-year-old had this conclusion: “When my playing is over, I really want to go into politics. I don’t mean as tokenism, either. I mean knowing the job and doing it right.”

Well, what’s wrong with a person, who has already helped change some rules, helping to write new ones?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: