This ran in Slam about seven or eight years ago.. one of my favorite Slam interviews I’ve done. Spencer is a trip. He called me endlessly as we were doing this story, to clairfy or expand up on various things.
Spencer Haywood’s life reads like an epic blues song. As with all real blues, it encompasses the darkest, most profound human emotions and experiences. And like so much of the deepest blues, it starts in the Mississippi Delta. For it was there, in the tiny town of Silver Springs, that Spencer Haywood was born in 1949, beginning his life’s journey in the belly of the segregationist beast. It was the start of an extraordinary life that would land him smack dab in the middle of a series of culture-defining moments.
The crushing poverty and racism of the pre-civil rights Deep South – Haywood was there. The ’68 Mexico City Olympics, when Black Nationalism came to the fore of the nation’s consciousness with the defiant gesture of John Carlos and Tommy Smith –Haywood was there. The desegregation of Southern collegiate sports – Haywood was there. The struggle for athletes to break free of the oppressive slave mentality which bound them to colleges for four years and to pro teams forever – Haywood led the charge, suing the NBA to rescind its ban on underclassmen. The scourge of cocaine, which almost sank the NBA in the 80’s — Haywood was a tragic victim.
Tragic because before his downfall Spencer Haywood had a game to die for. A 6-9, 225-pound power forward who could run, shoot, block shots and rebound with the best, he played one year of D1 ball, averaging 32.1 ppg and a staggering 22.1 rpg for the University of Detroit. Then Haywood went to the fledgling ABA and dropped 30 ppg and 19.5 rpg, good enough to be named both MVP and Rookie of the Year. In ’70, he jumped to the NBA. His first year was truncated by legal wrangles, but over the next five seasons he averaged 24.2 ppg and 11.9 rpg and was headed for a Hall of Fame career before the demon drug sidetracked him. His numbers slowly slipped away until he was suspended from the Lakers and exiled to Italy in ‘81. A successful comeback the following year was again sidetracked by personal problems and maybe, just maybe, an NBA blacklisting.
But if Haywood’s story is a blues, it is not a tragedy. Not today, when he has become a successful Detroit businessman and a loving, providing husband and father of four girls. “This is a great time for me,” Haywood says. “And I appreciate every minute of it, because I know how fast it can all change.”
SLAM: You were originally from Mississippi. How did you end up in Detroit? HAYWOOD: My mother sent me here when I was 15 to find a better life. My father died three weeks before I was born, and my mother struggled with nine children in the Delta, where the only things you have are blue singers and cotton fields. You can’t even find Silver City on a map. We’re just a flashing light and a general store, and one big cotton field. Education was not a priority because the farmers ran the school board and they wanted you in the field. We were sharecroppers, earning like $2.50 a day. If that sounds like slavery, it’s because it was.
When a young black man grows fast, they get you in some kind of trouble, say you looked at a girl wrong or cursed at a white person, and throw you in jail so you miss some school and fall behind. Scare the heck out of you so that you end up uneducated and afraid and permanently on the plantation. My mom didn’t want that, so she put me on a bus and my brother, who had already escaped and was a student at Bowling Green, picked me up and said, “We got to find you a place to go to school in Detroit.”
SLAM: How did you do that? HAYWOOD: I went to the big summer tournament at Kronk, arriving with cardboard-patched holes in my shoes, living in my brother’s car while I played. I did really well against the high schoolers so they put me up against college stars like Cazzie Russell and Bill Buntin and pros like Dave Bing. I held my own there, too, so Will Robinson, the coach at Pershing High, said, “I am going to be your coach and adopt you.”
So he became my guardian and I moved in with him until one of my teammates took me in. I had two adopted families and they learned the same thing: “He can play basketball, but he can’t read for shit.” I was almost illiterate. My mother always said, “Jesus will send you what you need not what you want.” Lo and behold, Dr. Wayne Dyer, a professor at Wayne State University who is now very famous now for his self-help books [including 101 Ways to Transform Your Life and Wisdom of the Ages] took an interest in me. We spent tortuous hours studying and learning behavior modification and slowly but surely I went from a D student to C+ student to a B student.
SLAM: You were selected for the ‘68 Olympics, the first JC player ever to make it. HAYWOOD: I had to petition the Olympic committee to be allowed to try out, then I was the first player picked. We won the gold medal and I was named MVP. In fact, my record for points, blocked shots and rebounds still stands even after the Dream Teams. But, man, those were some intense days, and I learned a lot about life in that short period of time. Remember, this is 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, and the Democratic convention erupted into riots.
There were people picketing outside the gate saying that we were betraying black America by representing our country. Harry Edwards was in that group. We had a visit from Jesse Owens, who gathered all the black male athletes and questioned why we would want to make a demonstration. We said we wanted to show solidarity with the brothers in South Africa, and that we had to make some kind of statement. He sat back and paused for a second and said, “Young men, let me tell you something: you’re in the most important situation of your lives. Those people outside the fence are gonna go home and become professors and doctors and lawyers, and you guys will be left out in the cold. We had similar things going on when I ran against Hitler, people saying we shouldn’t be there.”
George Foreman looked at me, and said, “I know this — when I’m in the boy’s home in Houston none of those fools are gonna come visit me. I’m going out and winning me a gold medal.” And Mr. Owens was right –look at Harry Edwards now, a consultant to Major League Baseball and all that. SLAM: Then John Carlos and Tommy Smith made their silent protest of holding up their black gloved hand on the medal stands. HAYWOOD: Right. We all supported them and didn’t really think it was no big deal. Then, all of a sudden, Avery Brundage was on our floor telling them that they have to leave the Olympic complex immediately. It was pure chaos.
I’m sitting in the cafeteria eating my third dinner of the night — George and I had an eating contest because neither of us had ever had all the food we wanted, so we kept eating and eating –when Howard Cosell sits down with me. I was feeling all big time when he put the camera and lights on and says, “What are you gonna do about the boycott?” My young head was filled with patriotic visions of saving basketball from the commies, so I said, “We invented basketball, we can’t let them win.” And he goes, “50-million people will be watching to see if you are right.” All of a sudden, I started thinking about how many people that was and those three meals started juggling around in my stomach and I threw up all over him. I had been acting like a big, grown man, but I was just a 19-year-old kid. Suddenly I was laying in my room in a fetal position. They had to fly a private jet to Detroit to bring Will down and calm me down. In the gold medal game, I had 24 points, 14 boards and six blocked shots, and we kept the game safe from the commies. [laughs]
SLAM: Then you signed with the University of Detroit, thinking that Will Robinson would become the coach. HAYWOOD: That was the agreement. After the Olympics, I was the number one amateur player in the universe, recruited by everyone. When U-D told me that Coach Bob Callahan was going to retire after one season and they would name Will coach, I was really excited, and I even brought guys with me from Trinidad, ready to do some damage. We got to number seven in the nation when we had a meeting and were told that we can no longer start five black players.
Coach Callahan—who was a god man caught in a bad situation – put his son Bob Jr. in and it caused so much dissension that everything started falling apart. Then they decided that they were not going to bring Will Robinson in but they were instead going to bring a drill sergeant in to instill discipline. I was really disappointed and wanted to leave – but I didn’t want to transfer and sit out a year and I couldn’t play in the NBA, because of the rule against underclassmen. Then a group of law students told me that it was illegal and we could win a challenge.
SLAM: Did you have any idea what you were walking into? HAYWOOD: No way! I thought it would be simple because the rule made no sense. I just went on the premise that a hockey player, a tennis player or a baseball player can go pro when they want. Why did these rules only apply to football and basketball players, the only sports making money for the schools? And they kept talking about the importance of graduating and I knew that less than a third of basketball players were getting their degrees so that was pure nonsense. Some people said, “Don’t take this on. Just wait two years.” But my mother was still picking cotton in Mississippi, and it was an opportunity to get her off the floor. I didn’t even know if she would live two more years.
SLAM: You bypassed the problem initially by going to the ABA. HAYWOOD: Yeah, I signed with the Denver Rockets. The ABA had the rule too, but they were desperate. I won outstanding player and Kareem was MVP and he decided to go to the NBA so they courted me pretty hard. Then I won every award they had so everyone said, “This can be done.” But I wanted to go to the NBA because the business in the ABA was sort of fishy and owners weren’t up front. Like, they’d say you had a $1.9 million contract, and it really was $100,000 for six years, then a personal service contract for $1.3 million from ages 50 to 70. So I wanted out, and I thought the NBA was ready for me, but when I went there all hell broke loose. SLAM: What exactly happened? HAYWOOD: First, it was disputed if I should be in the draft or not. The Lakers figured they should have had me, but the Sonics’ Sam Schuman said he had just cause in signing me, going by what he was told—that he was supposed to get the best player available. There was no free agency, but I created that. So I signed with the Sonics and that set the rest of the league against me along with everyone else. I already had suits filed against me from the University of Detroit and the NCAA and now the NBA itself. Jack Kent Cooke [Lakers owner] was like Adolph Rupp: “If I can’t have him, he ain’t playing in my league.”
They filed an injunction against me and every game we would go out for warmups, then the announcer would say, “Ladies and gentleman we have an illegal player on the floor and this game is under protest.” People would boo and sometimes throw stuff. Just when we were ready to go on the floor a guy would come up and say, “I need your autograph real badly” and slip me a paper saying, “You’re being served.” That was the work of Stern and his gang. [Current NBA commissioner David Stern was the league’s chief counsel.] Then I would usually have to walk off the court, hearing things yelled at me that reminded me of Mississippi. I spent many nights in the locker room and one time in Milwaukee they said that I had to leave the premises. I went to the bus, but the door was closed, so I had to pry it open. It was 15 below and I was sitting there shivering and crying and wondering, “Why is this so difficult? “ But I couldn’t give up. Remember, you had Muhammad Ali giving up his heavyweight crown to protest the war in Vietnam. It was a radical time, and I told myself, “This is what God chose for me. This is payback for making it of Mississippi alive, for all the good things that have happened to me.”
SLAM: Was anyone in the league on your side? HAYWOOD: The players, the opposing coaches and the fans were all against me. The only people who kept me sane were my teammates Lenny Wilkens, who was player/coach, and Rod Thorn, who is now Stern’s right hand man. They were very strong individuals who tried very hard to insulate me. And Rod’s role was especially valuable, because it was one of the first times a white person had ever shown such kindness and consideration for me as a person. SLAM: What about opposing players with consciousness, like Connie Hawkins or Paul Silas? HAYWOOD: Their consciousness stopped when it came to me. The only player who ever reached out to me was Kareem. He met me at halfcourt, hugged me in front of everyone and said, “Welcome to the league.” And that was on the eve of my victory, when it was clear I was gonna win. We went all the way to the Supreme Court, and Curt Flood’s baseball case was being argued next door at the same time. Difference is, he lost and I won. To give you an idea of the importance of my case, my lawyers were Jack Quinn, who had been an advisor to President Kennedy, Pete Brown, the former governor of California and Frank Rothman, who’s now the NBA’s head of legal counsel. We finally won the case and then the floodgates were opened for the NBA. Then the owners said, “This is a great thing, We have a huge pool of players now, so we’re gonna expand.” A few years later, you have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entering under the Spencer Haywood rule.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a great black hero, said to me, “This is a wonderful thing you’re doing, you have to stay strong. The players are gonna love you. You’re gonna be like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.” But today the players hate me to death, tell me to get out of their faces.
SLAM: Who said that? HAYWOOD: Shaquille. I went up to shake his hand and introduce myself at the All Star game and he said, “Bullshit, get out of my face.” That made me feel like a piece of shit and basically he is no different than any of the other players. I’m still waiting for them to just stand up and say, “Thank you.” I thought it would finally happen at this big dinner for the 30th anniversary of the ABA. Bob Costas spent 32 minutes teasing Marvin Barnes about how many jails he had been in, but didn’t even mention my name.
My case changed the game more than anything else. Where would the league be if Bird and Magic and Michael Jordan hadn’t come out early? Everyone benefited from my case but me. I will not be nominated for the Hall of Fame, I will not be on the top 50 list. They’ve taken all of these things away from me, even though I left the NBA with 13 years and a 20-point average, because I was labeled a black militant. And that’s a hell of a label for a guy who’s really not that black and not all that militant.
SLAM: You developed a nasty cocaine habit. Do you blame your drug problems on all the stress the case put you through? HAYWOOD: No, I made those choices and have to take the blame myself. I was drug-free until I got to the Knicks and met my former wife, Iman. Then I changed my circle of friends and was running with the beautiful people, who were all snorting cocaine. That’s how they stayed slim. They used to give models a vial of coke and tell them to do a line whenever they got hungry. And I jumped in because I was sick of being the militant outsider and wanted to be accepted. But it wasn’t a problem until I got traded to the Lakers.
Iman and I were at a big party in the Hollywood Hills with lots of well-known people, big show-biz types. We walked into the kitchen and there was this guy cooking cocaine with baking soda and a glass vial and he said, “Look, I’m purifying this cocaine.” He showed me how all the pure cocaine was coming to the top and all the crap was on the bottom, so, as stupid as it sounds, my whole premise was that it must be ok because it was organic. So I fired it up and the first time I got high freebasing was the best feeling I’ve ever had. I was hooked from the first puff, and I did it all night long. Next thing I knew, I was out there sitting with all the zombies, crawling around the floor going, “Where is there more of this?”
SLAM: So that was that. HAYWOOD: Yep. I took a fast ride in a car with no bumpers or headlights heading into a wall. I started out averaging 26 points and 12 rebounds and went down to 17 and 7, then 7 and 4. It was pathetic, and I kept saying, “It’s got to be something else. It can’t be the drugs because they are organic.” But, of course, it was. I was lying to myself. And that lost opportunity hurts me more than anything. I was playing with Magic, who was just an absolute joy to be on the floor with, and Kareem, whom it had always been my dream to play with. It was a great situation for me, but I got trapped in this drug world and couldn’t find my way out. That was my biggest drug year, and that kills me. If I had been drug free throughout my career, there wouldn’t have been a power forward close to me.
SLAM: What did you have over Karl Malone, whom many consider the best power forward ever? HAYWOOD: I could shoot the ball better, I could move much better, and I blocked many, many more shots. And my excitement and love for the game was much higher than I’ve ever seen Karl display. But unfortunately, when I came to New York, I threw myself into my marriage and started living the decadent lifestyle. I lost my zeal for the game, and started going downhill.
SLAM: What was your low point? HAYWOOD: I was kicked off the Lakers for the final three games of the ’80 Championship Series because I went to [Coach Paul] Westhead and said, “I have a problem, and I need some help.” And they went, “Ah ha! You admitted it! We got you now.” And they kicked me off, when I wanted to finish the Series then get some help. You have to understand the times: a lot of people were doing cocaine. I mean, I had used with eight guys on the Lakers. The NBA started letting everyone get help but me, because of my background.
And then, these players, led by Magic — who came in under the Spencer Haywood rule – voted me out of my playoff share. I played 76 regular-season games and all the playoffs except the last three games and they voted me no share. And the NBA Player’s Association allowed this to happen. Years later, I sat down with Magic, Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon and they said, “You were doing so much that we thought you might die if you had the money and live if we delayed it.” And there’s something to be said for that, because I was very sick. This is my 14th year of sobriety now, and that’s a lot of meetings and church and praying, so you learn to accept a lot about yourself. It gets a little easier, but it’s a tricky disease.
SLAM: What happened after you left the Lakers? HAYWOOD: I went to Italy and started to play strong again, and got some time under my belt away from drugs and the bad influences. I was playing some serious ball, and I loved the Italian people, who took me in as one of their own.
I played one season there, and started a second when I got an offer to come back and play for the Bullets. I averaged 13.3 ppg and 5.6 rpg and carried the team and thought I was a lock for Comeback Player of the Year, but –surprise!– Gus Williams got it. Then the next year, I came back and was playing strong until I hurt my calf. Then two of my best friends died within two weeks and my wife was in a horrible car accident. I asked for some time off but they said no so I chose to take a leave of absence, and that was the last straw. They said, “That’s it for you buddy.” They weren’t going to give me any more chances. Then I slid back and got high again for about six months, so I went out to California and entered a program. It was the end of my basketball life, but the beginning of a new existence for me.
SLAM: You seem to have a whole new lease on life. HAYWOOD: I really do. One of my advantages as a basketball player was I knew about hard work, because of my upbringing. As a young man I was so much older than my years because I had lived through slavery in Mississippi, picking cotton from sun up to sundown form the age of five, and living through the most tumultuous racism that ever existed. All that made me mature, and now I’ve applied all those lessons to my new life.
I have four daughters — isis, shaaqira, nikiah, and zuleka — and a wife to whom I am totally dedicated. And I have a business with my college roommate, Gary Stewart. We are in the auto supply business and my good friend Dave Bing was instrumental in helping us get contacts at Ford and get off the ground. I broke down some doors with the help of several very good people and some good things have happened. I thank the Lord for that every day. Having lived through the bad, I really appreciate the good. Though it’s not good to think about the days when I screwed up my life, doing so provides a barrier. I want to remember what can happen even when things are going great, so as to make sure they never happen again. Ever.