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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Olympic Star/ABA MVP/NBA All-Star Spencer Haywood Receives Overdue Hall of Fame Selection

Spencer Haywood, who has been selected as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2015 class, is a seminal figure in basketball history. He starred for the 1968 gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team after many black players boycotted that squad. Then, Haywood left the University of Detroit as an underclassman to play for the ABA's Denver Rockets, for whom Haywood won Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game MVP and regular season MVP honors in 1969-70 after leading the league in scoring (30.0 ppg) and rebounding (19.5 rpg). Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain (37.6 ppg, 27.0 rpg) and Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg) are the only other rookies in pro basketball history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 19.0 rpg.

After a contract dispute with the Rockets, Haywood jumped to the NBA and signed with the Seattle Supersonics, precipitating a legal battle that eventually reached the Supreme Court:

Haywood's case involved a tangled web of legal issues: the Denver Rockets accused attorney Al Ross of convincing Haywood to breach his contract with them, while Haywood and Ross responded that the Rockets had signed Haywood when he was still a minor and did not have proper legal representation; the NBA objected to Seattle signing Haywood before his college class had graduated; the ABA wanted Haywood to be forbidden from playing for Seattle and compelled to fulfill the terms of his Rockets' contract; the NBA Buffalo Braves felt that they should have the rights to draft Haywood and attempt to sign him before any other NBA club dealt with him.

The NBA's four year rule was declared illegal by the courts and Haywood was permitted to play with the Supersonics until the remaining legal issues were resolved. The legal wrangling wiped out most of Haywood's 1970-1971 season and he played in only 33 games for the Supersonics, posting very respectable averages of 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds. Haywood's case was eventually settled out of court, with the end result that he was allowed to remain with the Supersonics permanently.

The overturning of the four year rule had a lasting impact on collegiate and professional sports. In 1971 the NBA instituted a "hardship" rule that allowed underclassmen to be drafted as long as they proved that they suffered from financial hardship. Needless to say, such declarations were a mere formality, as noted by writer Jackie Lapin in the April 1975 issue of Sport: "…almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify--with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker’s son."


Haywood's case paved the way for players to enter the NBA before their college class graduated. He thus affected the career paths of a host of Hall of Famers, from Magic Johnson to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan all the up to Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Haywood's transition to the NBA was not easy. Haywood has often said that during his first season with Seattle the road team public address announcer would say Haywood's name and then declare that he was an "illegal player" who would not be permitted to participate. I have not been able to find a published account that includes that specific detail but, in a larger sense, Haywood's recollection is accurate. The Bulls sued the Supersonics for $600,000 and the Trail Blazers formally protested a 121-118 loss because Haywood's presence on Seattle's roster was an illegal distraction. According to an article in the January 4, 1971 edition of The Bulletin, Haywood sat on the bench but did not play in the games in question versus Chicago and Portland.

For decades, Haywood has felt slighted by the NBA, its players and the Hall of Fame selection process. He believes that the NBA never forgave him for winning in court and that many of the players who came after him never heard of him and/or did not appreciate his role in changing the rules. In a 2004 interview, Haywood told me, "The young guys coming out now don't get to know who Spencer Haywood is. They (the NBA) have named the rule 'early entry.' So, 'early entry' was not a person. 'Early entry' never went to the Supreme Court and fought anybody."

Haywood is very proud of his performance in the 1968 Olympics, when he averaged a team-high 16.1 ppg and set a U.S. Olympic record by shooting .719 from the field as Team USA went 9-0. He is the first teenager (age 19) to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Haywood told me, "In '68 we went to the Olympics and we had the black boycott and all these things, Harry Edwards and everybody was against us and all these things, but we looked at ourselves as Americans, Americans first, and that we had to defend our country against the oncoming enemy, which at that time was Russia, the Soviets, whoever. It's the same thing that is going on now in terms of sports. When you talk about international sports, you talk about the Davis Cup in tennis and the World Cup, I mean countries are going nuts over this. Why aren't we as Americans looking at it as something special?"

After carrying Team USA to the gold medal, Haywood made his aforementioned spectacular ABA debut. Haywood was a dominant player in the first portion of his career. He averaged 24.9 ppg and 12.1 rpg during his five seasons in Seattle, earning four All-Star selections and four All-NBA Team selections (including First Team honors in 1972 and 1973 when he finished fifth and seventh respectively in MVP voting).

Seattle traded Haywood to the New York Knicks in 1975 and his battle with cocaine addiction tarnished the latter part of his career. He bounced around to several teams and he only averaged more than 20 ppg once in his final seven seasons. Haywood averaged a career-low 9.7 ppg in 1979-80 as a member of the Lakers' championship team, though he was suspended during the playoffs and did not receive his championship ring for several years. He spent the 1980-81 season playing pro basketball in Italy. Haywood bounced back in 1981-82 as a solid contributor (13.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) who helped Washington advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the Bullets reached the NBA Finals in 1979.

Haywood averaged 20.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg in his 13 season professional career. His high performance level in college basketball, Olympic basketball and pro basketball should have earned him Hall of Fame induction years ago. When I spoke with Haywood about the slight, he was understandably upset but also philosophical about his situation: "What I do is I try to eat right, treat people right, and do right and pray right and just be righteous with people. In time, it will come. That's my thing."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:42 PM

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