By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
Controversial. That word comes up a lot.
“I am a controversial figure,” Spencer Haywood said, ducking nothing. “It’s about time they bring a controversial figure into the fold.”
Pariah. That’s a word Haywood has used himself. Outcast. Contentious. Persona non grata.
He has heard them all, used many and embraced some. Twelve seasons of playing in the NBA, one in the ABA, two others in college, two more in Italy, a summer with the U.S. Olympic team … but Haywood rarely played other people’s games. Being a follower, listening to conventional wisdom — that was for other people.
Haywood is the finalist with NBA ties for the Hall of Fame this year who touched the most history, generated the most controversy and conquered the world on the most levels. High school state champion in Michigan. Olympic gold medalist. All-America at the University of Detroit. MVP and Rookie of the Year at the same time in the ABA. Four-time All-Star with the SuperSonics. NBA champion with the Lakers in 1980. An average of 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds a game in the NBA and ABA.
Oh, and he sued the NBA.
Haywood left Detroit after his sophomore season in 1969 for the ABA Denver Nuggets, averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds, set four single-season records and then signed with the SuperSonics. When the NBA blocked the contract under the provision that players had to be four years out of high school, he sued. And when the NBA stood firm, he took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Haywood won in 1971, a landmark decision that eventually led to college underclassmen (and, later, high schoolers) leaving to join the NBA . But he also lost. A long and successful run with the Sonics, Knicks, New Orleans Jazz, Lakers and Bullets that should have been celebrated, at 19.2 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, wasn’t.
“They should view my career in a total package,” Haywood said of the 24 anonymous voters who will rule on his place in history for the Hall, an outcome that will be announced Monday at the Final Four. “I have the Olympic career. I was the outstanding college player of the year. I won a high school championship. I went to the ABA, was Rookie of the Year, leading scorer, leading rebounder, player of the year and MVP of the All-Star game. I left the game after 14 years with 20 and 10. That’s pretty serious stuff there. I had a great career. And also, I went to the Supreme Court to have Haywood vs. the NBA. That rule has ushered in all of these players. The Jordans, the Magics, the Birds. All the way up to LeBron and Kobe and those guys today.”
Conflicting views on Haywood’s career are everywhere. Averaging 20 points a game six times in the NBA and just missing (at 19.9) another … yet constantly being traded or waived. Having his No. 24 retired by the SuperSonics … and a cocaine addiction, and fallout that included reportedly falling asleep during a Lakers practice during the 1980 Finals.
That one of Haywood’s greatest moments came when he actually played by society’s “rules” is too often overlooked. In 1968, amid searing racial tensions on campuses, as organizing boycotts and protests around the Summer Games began, Haywood, an African-American, declined to participate. He went to Mexico City with pride.
“I had a U.S. passport and that meant that I am an American, and we are always fighting for our country,” Haywood said. “That’s what the Olympics are all about. It’s not about the individual, it’s not about anybody. It’s about America. We are the champions. We are the United States of America. I had no issue about that. I loved my Olympic year.
“Harry Edwards [one of the protest organizers] beat me down pretty good. I was 19 years old. I was 18 years old when I made the team. I was a freshman in college. I was the miracle child that happened on the scene and everybody was like, ‘This guy’s going to save us.’ Yeah, there I was. Saving America.”
Haywood, a 6-foot-9 forward-center, made 71.9 percent of his shots and averaged 16.1 points. The United States won the gold. Saving America.
Talented. That word comes up a lot too.