Spencer Haywood's forgotten legacy and how he changed the NBA rules
Time ends up burying everything that is not installed in the collective imagination, that does not overcome the circumstantial barrier, that is lost in the infinite universe of news from the past. The banal aspects of everyday life will go unnoticed by the masses, which can ignore everything that happened any given Sunday. The vast cosmos that is the NBA offers an almost endless range of stories, some more or less well known, organized around what we could define as a historical canon, one that configures an unalterable and perfect historic narrative. However, a good number of events tend to be overlooked, with their relevance almost ignored, and without them, it would be impossible to understand the years that followed.
One of many is Spencer Haywood's story, who in the eyes of the mainstream is only placed on the same level as other league legends because of place in the record books. His on-court success speaks for itself, thanks to all he accomplished in his long career. A five-time All-Star in the NBA, four-time All-NBA (two-time First-Teamer), NBA champion with the 1980 Lakers, one of 95 players with more than 14,000 points, more than 5000 rebounds and 1000 assists, along with an Olympic gold medal in 1968. In fact, in those Olympic Games in Mexico he would establish a record that would take more than 40 years to break by scoring 145 points in the entire tournament, which Kevin Durant surpassed in 2012 (155) and later in 2016 (156). The difference is KD did it in a time where the 3-point line existed. Haywood also broke all the single-season ABA records in his only year in the defunct league, winning that season's MVP, Rookie of the Year and the MVP of the All-Star Game.
In short, Haywood is a legend in his own right and despite this, does not enjoy the recognition he deserves, not so much for what was done with the ball in his hands, but off the court.
Today's era of player empowerment is thanks to pioneers who risked everything they had to change the rules and set a precedent for generations to come. Figures such as Bill Russell as a civil rights activist, Oscar Robertson fighting for the achievement of free agency and the removal of the "reserve" clause, or Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn for the creation of the NBPA. History has put all of these legends in their proper place, making them recognizable personalities for all NBA fans.
This has not happened with Haywood.
Haywood's origin is as remote as you can imagine, and the harshness of its path is hardly matched. Born in remote Silver City of western Mississippi, which was not silver or even a city, as our protagonist used to joke about. Spencer was the youngest of eleven siblings and would lose his father just three months after his birth. Although slavery had been abolished less than a century earlier in 1865, it was not unusual to find places in the southern United States where servitude and oppression towards African-American communities continued in force. Camouflaged through installed practices like working as sharecroppers for large landowners or living in segregated areas of cities, away from white neighborhoods. In Haywood's case, he knew in his early years what life was like in the crop field, having to drop out of school during the planting months to pick cotton and work in the farms for white farmers.
“I was born in Silver City (Mississippi), son and brother of sharecroppers, Sharecroppers meant that we were picking cotton from sunup to sundown. We had no rights”, Spencer Haywood said to NBA.com Global during a February phone call. “I learned that my family was doing all the work. We picked all of the cotton, we harvest all of the corn, we did everything for this farm. And my mom was only making 2 dollars a day, and eventually did 2 dollars a day”.
“I remember this guy sitting in the porch all of the time, he was sitting drinking and smoking a cigar and smiling. "We are doing good", he said. And I was like: "this guy never works, he never do that, he got all of the money and he was sitting there making us work like dogs. But I got no other choice, so I lived that process of real slavery work”.
In the hostile South, Haywood soon realized that his life was not going to be like those of others in Silver City because of his skin color. He understood that he was going to be discriminated against on racial grounds almost constantly. At the age of 14, he spent a night in jail after being unjustly accused of murder, later released when it became clear he wasn't responsible. His mother, aware of the potential consequences for the youngest of her children, managed to get Spencer out of Silver City and sent him to live with his brother Joe in Chicago.
In Chicago, Haywood encountered the other side of the coin, a less explicit racism in a form that was not often verbalized but could be felt. It was a racism supported by clear segregation, from neighborhoods to businesses to public transport. He would spend little time in Chicago, soon moving to Detroit where he would fall in love with basketball, maturing and developing his game to become a high school star and one of the best players in the country at the time.
“I started playing basketball in Detroit with the idea that I could win the state championship for the city ... which had a drought for 35 years”, Haywood recalled from his house in Las Vegas. “We hadn't won the State championship in 35 years because once you got out of Detroit, the referees saw a good Black player and they would never let a team from Detroit get the State championship. That's just where it was. Certain racism, same racism”, explains.
Haywood's talent made him become one of the most coveted players in the country, with all the prestigious universities following him until he finally signed with the University of Mississippi so his mother could see him play, something she had not been able to do. “I didn't realize I was the first Black [player] down there and all this stuff was going on”, he remembered. “I just thought it was a good chance for when I go to play against Mississippi State ... that my mother could see me play. You know, my family could see me play”
“But it did not work well down there because Adolph Rupp was complaining over the fact that he had lost to five Blacks the year before against Texas West. So I ended up going to Trinidad State College in Colorado. Trinidad State”.
That's how he earned a spot on the 1968 Olympic team, being one of the youngest in the entire training camp. "And behold, they got around to the selection committee”, he remembers. “We all sitting in the room. I'm sitting there with Pete Maravich, Rick Mount, Calvin Murphy and they called my name. I was like, 'oh sh--' you didn't [look at] people's [scoring] averages ... Pete was averaging 44 points a game. Rick Mount was averaging 39 from Purdue and Calvin was averaging 33 from Niagara, and they pick me?”, Haywood laughed.
A selection for the US National Team did not save Spencer problems that arose from the lack a birth certificate due to his humble origins. All he possessed was a Bible where his mother had written basic information about his birth in the passage John 21. The document didn't have legal validity, but under those circumstances was enough to give Haywood a passport with which to travel. “We had to go send a person from the Jackson Daily News. You know, the big newspaper and the city of Jackson, Mississippi Capital. And they sent this photographer down and took a picture of the Bible”, he told NBA.com Global.
But 1968 in Mexico was not like other Olympic Games. Controversey raged over the decision by prominent figures like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lucius Allen and Mike Warren to sit out the games, as they protested the poliitcal situation surrounding the Vietnam War and racial discrimination against Black people, an issue that would lead John Carlos and Tommie Smith to make the Black Power salute after taking first and third place in the men's 200-meter sprint.
“They get up on their stand and they got the gloves. It was a salute to the people back home because we didn't boycott like Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Yeah, we went to show Black unity to an Olympic committee that thought of ruling the boys out of there. Man, I wanna be world champion.
Because we are American. True Americans”.
“When they put that medal on my neck, I was shaking. I couldn't stop this shake because I realized what happened all along. You're talking for years before I was in Mississippi picking cotton, man. So here I am, being saluted as a great American champion, a gold Medalist. It hit me on that stage”.
Shortly before going to the Olympics, Haywood had committed to the University of Detroit under the agreement that they would hire his high school coach, Will Robinson, after his first season in the NCAA. Despite a fantastic year in college averaging 32 points and 22 rebounds per game, that agreement was not honored, and he soon dropped out of school for a number reasons.
The first reason was financial. Due to the pressure of having 10 siblings and no income, Haywood was on the ropes. The second reason was racial. The situation in Detroit would become untenable, even for someone raised in the hard state of Mississippi with continuous insults and racism. The third reason was competitive. The NCAA prevented transfers at that time, blocking him from going to New Mexico to play under Bob King and Will Robinson.
This left only one possible avenue for Haywood: the ABA.
“So I was close to have nothing [financially]”, Haywood said. “And the ABA came with 'we want Haywood to leave school because he’s the next best player after Kareem.' And I was like, I’m gonna get paid? And I'm gonna play? You gon’ break the rule for me? And my mother and my brothers and siblings are still in Mississippi making $2 a day?
This led to the introduction of the Spencer Haywood Hardship Rule, which allowed players to leave college for the ABA before graduation if they endured extenuating financial circumstance or familial needs. "So there's [a reason for calling it] the hardship rule," Haywood explained, "because it truly comes from a hardship state. Your family can't survive much longer”.
In 1969 he signed with the Denver Rockets (now Nuggets) on a three-year contract worth $450,000. Under the agreement he would receive 50,000 per year during the deal, then 15,000 annually for 20 years after reaching the age of 40, thanks to the ABA's Dolgoff Plan, a deferrment move to manipulate the pockets of many talented players.
This aforementioned "trap" hidden in his contract prompted Haywood to make the leap to the NBA, after one incredible ABA season season in which he won the Rookie of the Year, the MVP and the MVP of the All-Star Game (for which he received a Dodge Challenger and an RCA television valued at $2,000). He engaged in talks with the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls,, but it would be Sam Shulman's Seattle SuperSonics that were most convincing.
The problem? It was illegal for a player who had not completed the mandatory four years of college to sign a professional contract in the NBA. So Haywood would dress for warm-ups, was introduced by the PA announcer, but never took the court. Article 2.5 of the league's constitution prohibited league owners from “Employing a player less than four years after his leaving High School and, at the same time, negotiate with him”. The constituion also cited the Draft as the only possible way to enter the NBA. This rule invalidated the contract between Haywood and the Sonics, who were hit with a lawsuit by the Denver Rockets for having signed their player under these conditions. Under this rule, Haywood would not be able to play in the NBA until his college class graduated, which would happen until 1972.
At the beginning of 1971, Haywood filed a lawsuit against the NBA that resulted in lengthy proceedings under the United States Supreme Court. There, his attorney alleged that the league was violating monopoly laws, accusing it of “a group boycott” . The NBA countered by defending the league's right to establish its own rules of entry, referring directly to the NCAA as a mandatory step for all players looking to make the leap.
Nevertheless, Haywood joined the Sonics, taking part in pre-game warm-ups, which led to bizarre scenes in rival arenas and the infamous words: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor, number 24 and we have an injunction tonight and he must be escorted out of the Arena". Predictably, this attracted hatred of opposing fans on many occasions, who hurled insults of all kinds. Haywood was even forced out of the arena during one snowy night, dressed only in his warm-ups.
“So they put me out into the snow. I don't know I was freezing and I was like I think I want to go back to school but I couldn’t because I chose the pro journey”.
“So I finally get on the bus and Lenny Wilkens, who was player coach ... show me some love me saying: You're gonna win this, man, you're gonna be alright. And I was so disgruntled and so hurt”.
In the legal proceeedings, the NBA argued that their entry rule was critical to the survival of the business and was "necessary to ensure that every prospective basketball player has the opportunity to complete four years of college before starting his professional basketball career". However, this argument was not sufficient enough for the Supreme Court, of which Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court judge, was a part.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff by 9-0, alleging that continued impediment from playing basketball would inflict on Haywood “irreparable injury as a substantial part of his playing career will have dissipated. His physical condition, skills and coordination will deteriorate from the lack of high-level competition. The public acceptance of him as a superstar will diminish, to the detriment of his career. His self-esteem and his pride will have been hurt and a great injustice will be committed."
Haywood vaguely remembers the entire judicial process, which happened just 50 years ago. “They were speaking about the case in terms of, you got hockey, there is no rule for hockey of four year rule. Tennis, there's no four year rule. So why would you ask the Black boy from the cotton fields that he got [four years]? . So and they pull out the Sherman Antitrust Act”, Haywood remembers. “You know, we got asking these young men to go to Vietnam at age 18, put their life on the line. But yet you can't go make no money for yourself if your family is in the cotton fields”.
The NBA, in response, unsuccessfully appealed the decision and eventually allowed Haywood to join the Supersonics in time for the playoffs. The league also imposed a fine on Schulman, in addition to him having to shoulder the costs of the trial.
“The Spencer Haywood rule was in effect, and it was called Hayward versus the N.B.A. And they didn't like that idea [of naming it after me] ... so they called it the Hardship Rule”, Haywood recounted.
The Hardship Rule officially stated that a player who had not completed his four years of college could only enter the Draft if he proved challenges within his "financial condition, his family, his academic history or lack of it, and his ability to obtain employment in another field". It became a rule that many players used to their advantage, including Moses Malone, the first player to go from high school to the NBA in 1974, and guys like Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby.
After Haywood set the precedent, many years later a new generation of players would make the leap without going through the NCAA. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard and Jermaine O'Neal were among the stars who went this route during the mid-1990s and early 2000s, until a minimum age of 19 was instated in 2005. This rule established that a player must be one year removed from graduating high school, playing either on a professional team, in college, or in an academy, before entering the league.
“I stood up for the rights of players, but deep down it wasn’t for the rights of players,” Haywood said while speaking at Edmonds Community College in January. “It was for the rights of my mother to get out of that cotton field, for my family to get off those knees. So that was the whole motivation for the fight that was to come.”
Although his story has been forgotten by some, Haywood acknowledges that the current generation of players has surpassed the previous one in every way, on and off the court. Something that is appreciated throughout the evolution of the game and the empowerment of the stars. “I'm not going to let you dictate to me when and where to play at this time. Right. So that's why I went to the Supreme Court. And fought for this money”, he said.
The rule inspired by Spencer Haywood was the initial sign that something was changing in American basketball, and that its evolution could not be limited through college basketball. Haywood deserves recognition for his insistence and determination to break down barriers, opening the way for future generations and making sure that talent is not restricted, regardless of their age or origin. "Put my name on the rule", the Hall of Famer said.
“My life has been been a journey. I survived the 80s in the NBA where cocaine was running, and I became addicted to coke with the Lakers. And I survived that. Now you know, this is my 30th year of sobriety. I survived COVID this year, I survived that. Seven years ago I survived prostate cancer. And so I'm a walking testament of like, God's grace”.