Despite winning a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, his excellence in the American Basketball Association (ABA) and National Basketball Association (NBA), and a publicized battle with drugs, Spencer Haywood’s most lasting legacy may prove the 1971 Supreme Court victory that enabled him to enter the NBA.
Haywood was born in Silver City, near Belzoni, on 22 April 1949. His father, John Haywood, died three weeks earlier, leaving his mother to raise Spencer and his nine siblings. Eunice Haywood worked both in the cotton fields and as a domestic, often laboring eighteen- to twenty-hour days. Because the infant Spencer was sickly, Eunice Haywood took him into the fields when he was a week old to monitor and nurse him. The family lived in abject poverty, often gleaning clothes from a nearby dump and receiving government rations. According to Haywood, he was shot at several times while walking roads at night during his early years and ordered to act as target on a driving range while working at the county’s all-white country club. At the same time, however, Haywood recalls his boyhood in Mississippi as being marked by the strongest family bond he has ever experienced.
After Haywood’s mother sewed together a basketball made of croaker sack and rags, he began shooting hoops whenever possible. By age thirteen, Haywood had grown to 6ʹ6ʺ, and on his first day at McNair High School Coach Charles Wilson, an eleven-time Mississippi Black Coach of the Year, recruited him to play basketball. Though success on the court at times earned him a modicum of respect from white citizens in Belzoni, Haywood moved to Detroit to live with relatives after his sophomore year. There, he helped lead Pershing High School to the 1967 Michigan Class A championship.
Haywood attended Trinidad State Junior College, where his dominant play led to a position on the 1968 US Olympic basketball team. At the time, the nineteen-year-old Haywood was the youngest player ever offered a spot on the roster. He set a US team record in Mexico City, shooting 71.9 percent, and led the team with 145 points scored. The following year, playing for the University of Detroit, he averaged 32.1 points per game and led the nation with an average of 21.5 rebounds per game. Haywood then decided to turn professional, joining the ABA’s Denver Rockets in 1969. He was named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player for the 1969–70 season, leading the league in scoring and rebounds.
The next year Haywood and Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman defied NBA rules by completing a contract. At the time players were not permitted to sign with or be drafted by any NBA team until four years after their high school graduation (their designated college class graduation year). When the league threatened to punish the SuperSonics and Haywood, Haywood and Schulman filed an antitrust suit, claiming that the NBA’s draft policy was in effect a restriction of trade, violating the Sherman Act of 1890. Haywood played for the Sonics while the case worked its way through the courts, with fans frequently booing him and players physically threatening him both off and on the court. In 1971, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Haywood and Schulman, paving the way for future players to join the league before finishing—or even beginning—college careers.
Haywood proved one of the NBA’s most dominating forces, averaging a career 9.3 rebounds and 19.2 points per game while playing for Seattle and several other teams. He was named to two all-NBA first teams, played in four NBA All-Star Games, and was a member of the 1979–80 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Like many players of the era, however, he also began using cocaine, eventually developing a serious habit that ultimately led to his dismissal from the Lakers. Haywood sobered up and played one year in the Italian league before spending two more seasons with the NBA’s Washington Bullets.
In 2010, nearly four decades after Haywood v. National Basketball Association, the league honored Haywood during its annual All-Star Game. Of the twenty-four players selected as all-stars that year, twenty-one had come into the league as beneficiaries of Haywood’s efforts. In 2015 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
- Spencer Haywood with Scott Ostler, Spencer Haywood: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery (1992)
- In re. Spencer Haywood v. National Basketball Association, 401 US 1204 (1971)
- Tim Povtak, NBA Fanhouse website, http://nba.fanhouse.com
- Dan Raley, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (22 November 2006)