Spencer Haywood: No Knocking on ‘Wood,’ 1970

[Spencer Haywood has been in the news lately taking up—yet again— his role in toppling the NBA’s four-year rule during the early 1970s. The rule, one of the NBA’s business cornerstones back then, required that no player could enter the league until his college draft class had graduated. As Haywood recently commented: 

“Now I’m hoping that the NBA and the NBA Players Association put my name on the ruling,” Haywood says. “They’ve tried to get around it. It is “Haywood vs. the NBA.” It is a U. S. Supreme Court ruling. They’ve called it ‘Early entry.’ They’ve called it ‘Hardship.’ They have called it ‘one-and-done.’ And I’m sitting here. I’m a real person. Why can’t you call it what it is?”

Good question, and why not? Haywood has consistently talked the talk and walked the walk since he entered the pro basketball scene in the late 1960s. To make this point, I copied a 1971 magazine article that made some good points, but it also skimmed over some of the facts and botched a few others. 

Then, I stumbled onto this syndicated newspaper article from February 1970 written by the Newspaper Enterprise Association’s Marty Ralbovsky, who wrote a lot about pro basketball. Ralbovsky finds the always-provocative Haywood talking the talk, including about the early entry. Haywood’s points made for clearly articulated, revolutionary copy back then, making a brash, 1960s me-first generational break from the more-passive, team-first 1950s NBA tradition that got the league off the ground.

Haywood states here that Black players are “too accomplished” from their daily battles on the playground “to be languishing in college.” His statement mostly stands the test of time, though ironically his lack of major-college polish limited his game in the pros. Denver coach Joe Belmont opined, even as his 21-year-old rookie blew up the ABA Record Book: “The defense sags a lot against him, and Wood has a tendency to hold the ball too long with two and sometimes three guys climbing all over him. He likes the challenge too much, and Wood will be even more of a threat once he learns to pass more quickly to the open man.”

Wood got more of the same critique from old-school Bill Russell in NBA Seattle. But to break down Haywood’s skills after all these years is to miss what a bellwether performer he was. Haywood was one of the  game’s first athletic, explosive power forwards, and his pre-injury numbers speak for themselves. Haywood, and other youngsters with the skills to follow in his wake, deserved to be playing for pay, not room and board. Long live the Haywood Rule.]


The way Spencer Haywood sees it, to be young and Black and playing college basketball can be a frustrating predicament. The showcase doesn’t match the show. It is equivalent to displaying the Hope Diamond, say, at a jewelry counter at Woolworth’s.

He contends that many Black players are too accomplished to be languishing in college surroundings. They should, instead, be playing pro ball, earning the money and acquiring the appropriate acclaim. Many Black players, he says, are aware of this and consider college ball a waste of time. But there is little they can do about it, except challenge the rule that prevents them from turning pro until their college classes graduate.

The result, according to Spencer Haywood, is lost time, money, and incentive to Black players who are good enough to turn pro, but can’t. “In my case, playing college ball was a wasted year,” he says. “I didn’t enjoy playing the game, I didn’t like the rules, and I didn’t like filling up gyms for people and getting nothing out of it. There comes a time when you have to think about yourself. I knew I was good enough to play pro ball and, before the season was half over last year, my mind was made up. I wasn’t going to waste two more years.”

Haywood left the University of Detroit last summer after his sophomore year and signed a $200,000 contract with the Denver Rockets of the ABA. The league said his circumstances were extenuating, that he was a hardship case and needed the money to help support his family. Detroit, supported by the NCAA, protested the move—but to no avail. Even if it had succeeded in preventing him from turning pro, Spencer Haywood would not have returned for his junior and senior seasons.

“What happened to me last year had been happening to Black players for years,” he says. “The college gets a good Black player or two, and all it thinks about is winning teams and packed gyms and money flowing in from all sides. Nobody thinks about the player himself. Heck, when the season ended last year, I had trouble getting seconds in the school cafeteria. Imagine what would have happened if I broke a leg and couldn’t play anymore. That scholarship would have been gone, real quick.

“There were a lot of problems at Detroit last year. We won our first eight games, then the coach started playing his own son and a lot of guys didn’t think he was good enough to be playing so much, and the whole club fell apart. We started losing to teams that we should have run out of the gym. I knew I had to get out. It was agony. I kept asking myself, ‘What am I getting out of all this?’ The school is making a lot of money, but why shouldn’t I be making some?’” [Note: The infamous Jim Harding was the new coach the University of Detroit. Today, Haywood could have entered the transfer portal. Back then, he was looking at two unpleasant years of Harding.] 

“Take a kid like Ralph Simpson, for instance. Now Ralph and I played on the same high school team in Detroit. We were unbeaten and won the state championship. Ralph is a great player. He should be in the pros right now, he’s that good. But where is he? Up at Michigan State, packing in crowds for them. But who outside of Michigan knows anything about Ralph Simpson? Nobody.

“If Ralph were to ask me what to do, I’d tell him, ‘Take the money,’ go into the pros, and finish school at your own convenience.’ Now’s the time to do it, with the leagues fighting for players. You can get a degree part-time. I’m going to the University of Denver for classes every Wednesday night. I don’t worry about my degree, because I know I’ll get it even if it takes me 10 years.”

Besides the money, Spencer Haywood says there is one more reason why the careers of Black players should be accelerated: They are more advanced than white players of similar ages.

“Black players in college are better than whites because of the playgrounds,” he claims. “In Detroit, the playground teams could beat some college teams. When I practice against high school kids during the summer, I went to the playgrounds and played against Dave Bing and Jimmy Walker and Walt Bellamy. White players need college ball to develop. Black players develop on the playgrounds.

“You take a good young Black player who grew up on big-city playgrounds, and he’s ready to play varsity for any college when he first gets to school. But he’s got to play freshman ball first. Now, there’s another waste. A whole year. You know, Ralph Simpson played four games all of last year, and he was better than any player they had on the varsity. Now tell me, is that fair to Ralph Simpson?

“My brother, Floyd, is 18, and he’s the star at Kettering High in Detroit this season. He’s 6-feet-3, and he can outjump me. He’s averaging 23 points and 21 rebounds a game. I know he’s going to make a good pro guard. He’s already asking me what he should do, and the last time I saw him, I told him real good. ’Floyd,’ I said. ‘You go to junior college for a year and then you come into the ABA. This new league is big enough for both of us.” [Note: Floyd Haywood later played pro ball in France.]

Celluloid Hero

Envision for a moment, Spencer Haywood in panavision, portraying a cowboy of 1880 vintage: six-guns on his hips, 10-gallon hat pulled over his eyes, and his Fu Manchu mustache protruding underneath. It could happen.

Spencer Haywood wants to be an actor, even more than a basketball player. Movies, television, live stage, anything. Just so long as he can play a role that doesn’t include stuffing basketballs into baskets.

“When I was a little kid, I was hooked on television,” he says. “I couldn’t afford going to the movies back then, but I watched television every chance I had. I always pictured myself on the screen, playing an important banker or a Western hero or a warrior in one of those Bible movies. I’d rather be an actor than basketball player any day.”

When he attended the University of Detroit, Spencer majored in Radio-TV and had a campus radio show, which specialized in Aretha Franklin, the Fifth Dimension, and Spencer Haywood.  Now that he’s playing for the Denver Rockets of the ABA, he has resumed his studies at the University of Denver and plans to launch a similar show soon on a Denver radio station.

“When the basketball season ends, I have two things planned. First, I’m coming to New York for a couple of weeks and catch every Broadway show I can. I want to see HairOh! CalcuttaMan of LaMancha, and all the others. I’ll see one every night. Then, I’m going to California and make the rounds of the movie studios and try to land a couple bit parts. I have an agent working on that already, but nothing is definite yet.

“When I go to a movie or a play, I don’t go to be entertained. I go to study the actors. I study the way they deliver their lines and the way they play their parts. I’m looking for naturalness. Now, that’s the kind of actor I want to be. Natural. Like Sidney Poitier. Everything he does is natural, not put-on, and he’s my idol.”

If he does break into movies someday, Spencer Haywood already has in mind the two roles he’d most like to play. One is a cowboy in a Western; the other is a gladiator in a Biblical epic.

“I want to play a mean, tough cowboy. The kind who leans up against the bar in the saloon, sneering at people. They could put a scar on my cheek and maybe a patch over my eye. And I want to play a gladiator, in the center of the arena with a big sword and a shield. Both roles require strength, and I think I can come across in strong, heavy roles.”

Another diversion of Spencer Haywood is clothes. Last year at Detroit, he and a teammate, Vern DeSilva, designed mod clothes and sold them as a hobby. This summer, they’ll go into business together in Denver.

“We’re going to open an unusual place,” says Spencer. “We’re going to call it, ‘The First Creation.’ We’ll have people come in and design their own clothes, and then we’ll make them. It’ll be something like a tailor shop, but everything will be original.

“Vern is a talented artist, and we’ll sell some of his paintings, too. There won’t be another place like it in the world.”

As for basketball, Spencer says he is delighted with the way things have been going for him in the ABA. He is the league’s top scorer and rebounder, and he was the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. He’s likely to be both Rookie of the Year and MVP at season’s end.

“I have no regrets about turning pro. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. This league is going to make it, just like the AFL [American Football League], and some day, you’ll see this league pass the other one. We’re ahead of the NBA right now in guards. The guards in this league, as a whole, can outshoot the guards in the NBA.

“The reason is the three-point basket. We’ve got guys in this league who can come off the bench and do nothing else but pop those long three-point jumpers. Now, when you’re leading by two with 10 seconds left, you have to worry about the guards just as much as the big men. They can beat you with those long ones.

“I tell you, there are teams in this league that can beat teams from the NBA right now.”

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