The names echo like a who’s who of the NBA – Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Besides being basketball players, they all have one other thing in common. They all should thank Spencer Haywood. It was Spencer Haywood who sued the NBA to gain early entry into the NBA. His legal action transformed the game and made it possible for all of the above names to leave college early to partake their craft in the National Basketball Association. Haywood’s lawsuit was a turning point for the NBA and the lawsuit would change the game and how talent would be chosen in the NBA draft.
For Spencer Haywood, life was not easy. First growing up in Mississippi, and then later Chicago and Detroit, life dealt him several harsh blows before he even hit high school. Near destitute, Haywood’s mother struggled to find work and to provide for her ten children. Spencer, at the age of 14, moved in with his brother in Detroit. It was there that Haywood found his salvation – basketball. At 6′ 9″, the game came easy to Haywood. It was not because of his height Rather, Haywood had a gift of being a great athlete. He had great hands, could dribble, pass, spin, and shoot with ease. Spencer lead Pershing High School to the 1967 Michigan Class A Championship his senior year.
After high school, Spencer met another roadblock. At the time, freshman in college were ineligible to play for the varsity in NCAA basketball. He had to go someplace else to play. He wound up at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado. Haywood was dominant averaging over 28 points and 22 rebounds a game. His play caught the eye of US Olympic Coach Henry Iba. The summer of 1968 was not kind to the team as they struggled playing together in Europe before the trip to Mexico City. The US was not the favorite going into the tornament. Someone did not tell the youngest US Olympic player, Spencer Haywood. In Mexico City, Haywood, along with JoJo White, led the team to a 9-0 record and a gold medal. Haywood averaged 16.8 points a game to lead the team in scoring and shot 71% from the field.
At 19, Haywood’s future looked bright. He enrolled that fall at the University of Detroit. He was an unstoppable force as a sophomore at 32 points and 21 rebounds a game. However, forces were at play that changed his future. Haywood felt he could not continue to play basketball at the college level. He decided to go professional. The National Basketball Association (NBA) forbid any player from playing until after his college class graduated. On the other hand, the American Basketball Association (ABA) had no such restraints. The league that brought the game the 3 point shot, the dunk contest, and the red, white, and blue ball, had no qualms about signing a 20-year-old. The league needed attractions and Spencer Haywood was an attraction. Haywood signed with the ABA’s Denver Rockets for the 1969-1970. In his first year in the league, Haywood was the league He averaged over 30 points and 19 rebounds a game while also being named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.
Haywood, dissatisfied with his contract, jumped ship to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics in the fall of 1970. This was against the NBA’s own rules. The league sued to stop Haywood. Haywood sued to stop the league. Haywood was granted an injunction that year to play. He only played in 33 games. He was spit at and booed throughout the year.
The court case made its way to the Supreme Court. At its heart was this concept:
- ‘If Haywood is unable to continue to play professional basketball for Seattle, he will suffer irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated, his physical condition, skills and coordination will deteriorate from lack of high-level competition, his public acceptance as a super star will diminish to the detriment of his career, his self-esteem and his pride will have been injured and a great injustice will be perpetrated on him.’
Haywood wanted what every American wanted. He wanted to make a living albeit playing basketball. Similar to Curt Flood’s landmark case (which Flood lost), Haywood’s case could reshape the sports landscape and the dreams of inner city athletes everywhere. Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majority:
To dissolve the stay would preserve the interest and integrity of the playoff system, as I have indicated. Should there not be a decision prior to beginning of the playoffs and should Seattle make the playoffs then the District Court could fashion whatever relief it deems equitable.
In view of the equities between the parties, 28 U.S.C. 1651(a), I have decided to allow the preliminary in- [401 U.S. 1204 , 1207] junction of the District Court to be reinstated. The status quo provided by the Court of Appeals is the status quo before applicant signed with Seattle. The District Court preserved the status quo prior to the NBA’s action against Seattle and Haywood. That is the course I deem most worthy of this interim protection. The stay will issue.
Haywood got to play. Future players, although, had to show an economic hardship to the NBA first to be drafted. By 1975, the ABA-NBA rivalry lead to the “Early Entry” player being allowed to enter the draft with names like Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone leading that forefront.
Haywood’s career took off. In 1971-72, he averaged 22 points a game and increased it to 29 the next year. He was an All-Star and one of the marquee players in the league. Soon after, he was traded to the Knicks in 1975. Haywood began to live the life of a rock-star instead of an NBA player. He married super model Iman and then drugs and alcohol took over his career. He was later traded to the New Orleans Jazz and then Lakers before he washed out of the league including being kicked off the team during the 1980 NBA finals. Haywood, to his credit, cleaned himself up, played in Italy for a year, and returned to play for the Washington Bullets for two years.
Haywood went on to a successful post-career in real estate and construction and helps youth with drugs and alcohol dependency. Today, the NBA has set an age limit of 19 to enter the NBA. Spencer Haywood’s case had a lot to do with that. In a 2011 Interview, Haywood reflected on his case. he said,
I took on the NCAA, ABA and the NBA. People were hitting me in my stomach, hitting me in my face, sucker punching me when I was going through this whole court case. Throwing bottles at me when I would walk on the floor during games. They would be like: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor and he must be escorted off!” Because the NBA got an injunction. All kinds of things would happen. They put me out in the snow with just my uniform. Come on Black man! We need to know this! I’m not discrediting Jackie Robinson or anyone, but I know what I went through! […]
Because the NBA is still a predominantly Black league, the brothas need to understand our history. Don’t go to baseball and just celebrate what Jackie Robinson went through without knowing the total history of basketball and other sports. I’m the guy here! Get to know me, research me! […] It was very difficult to go through, but I used to just think about my mother and my brothers and sisters picking cotton down in the Delta, in Mississippi all day in the hot ass sun for two dollars a day! From sun up to sun down. So all the people–including myself for the fifteen years–picked cotton. My mother, her mother, her grandmother and so on. I had to pick through trash to find shoes so I would have shoes for the school year. I would put cardboard and other stuff in them to doctor them up so they would last. And you talk about me facing the league! My upbringing was hard enough. I was fighting for everyone before me and everyone after me.
For his great play and trailblazing lawsuit, Haywood’s number 24 was retired by the Sonics. In 2011, he was recognized by the NBA during All-Star weekend. He is also a member of the Hall of Fame and his lawsuit marked a turning point in draft history.The hardship, and later early entry players, reshaped the NBA game in the 1970s and 1980s. Had it not been for his rough childhood and dire financial conditions, Haywood would not have taken the chances he did to play professional basketball.
For further reading and viewing
Spencer Haywood: The Rise, The Fall, The Recovery
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association
For the full Interview – go here: http://thestartingfive.net/2011/02/20/spoken-word-the-starting-five-spencer-haywood-interview/