Spencer Haywood is a basketball innovator. The former Olympian gold medalist and ABA and NBA star big man helped break the league’s reserve clause by jumping from the ABA’s Denver Rockets to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1970, at just 21 years of age, breaking NBA law at the time. This move allowed for an influx of worthy (and, sometimes, unworthy) underclassmen to accept employment from NBA teams that wanted to hire them, while Haywood went on to make four All-Star teams while working with Seattle, New York, New Orleans, and by 1979-80, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Those Lakers were led by a rookie named Magic Johnson, structured around center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and (after former head coach Jack McKinney injured himself in a bike accident 14 games into the season), helmed by coach Paul Westhead. By now working at age 30, Haywood did not start for the emerging title contender, but he did do solid enough work as a scoring forward off the bench, averaging 9.7 points and 4.6 rebounds in 20 minutes a night as the Lakers made their way to the NBA Finals.
By this time, though, Haywood had a raging cocaine addiction, and in the days before drug testing, the Lakers and the rest of the league were just left to either deal with the ins and outs that tend to result from employing someone with such a significant problem, or ask them to leave the team. Westhead made it all the way to the Finals before suspending Spencer, cutting the big man just days before Abdul-Jabbar would go down with an ankle sprain, forcing him to miss the deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
He would also be cutting Haywood just before his best chance at winning a championship ring, something the Magic-led Lakers would eventually go on to win. By now, with the drugs doing most of the talking, Haywood formulated a revenge plan that would end in Westhead’s murder. He admitted as such in a 1988 interview, wanting to possibly cut Westhead’s car’s brake lines at his house in Palos Verdes, and went into great detail in a must-read piece by Rob Trucks at Deadspin, discussing flying out a “genuine certified gangster” from Detroit, along with his associate, to formulate a plan:
What happened was this: I had hooked up with people who was spurring on this talk. "They can't do that [stuff] to you, blah blah blah blah. You've got to take charge. You've got to do what you need to do." So, of course, I get the idea that, well, yeah, this is the last guy that pulled the string right here, because I went to the team with three games to go and said, "Look, I've got a problem, man. You know, I'll sit the bench or whatever. I don't want to be a disturbance or anything, but this is what has happened."
I mean, there was a thought about this. It was not a plot per se that you went and sat outside his house waiting for him to come out. They're more like, you know, "Spike his drink" or "Spike his car" or something. We did drive down to Palos Verdes and we looked around, and when I came back I got high. My mother called and she said, "Hey boy, what the hell are you up to?" And my paranoia, as I was explaining before about the drug, is that everybody knew what I was doing, including my mother. So what was going in my mind was unholy, ungodly and not clear at all, so I knew my mother was onto it.
When I got back, I did some more coke, and that's when I hit rock bottom, when I realized what the hell I was thinking about. It wasn't an act. I didn't attempt to do anything. But it was an evil intent. I know my God is watching me at this time. And I really went off my rocker.
I don't even know where he lived [laughs]. I mean, that's the drugs. You know, they talk. They had me willing to, you know ...
They do talk. Ask any addict. They scream.
Haywood, with help from the Lakers’ owner Dr. Jerry Buss and general manager Bill Sharman, eventually worked out a release program that would allow for him to play overseas in Italy the next season, something that Haywood called “the best thing to ever happen to me.” He hooked up with the playoff-bound Washington Bullets in 1981-82 and for most of the next season to cobble together two respectable years after cleaning up, but the Bullets and Haywood eventually parted ways after Spencer’s then-wife (supermodel Iman) was involved in a major car accident. Iman was in a taxi that was hit by a drunk driver, and the reconstruction surgeries she required kept her in a hospital for months.
Haywood, still clean, later went on to find some success as a semipro tennis player, and he now lives in Las Vegas working in the construction industry. Cruelly, last year Haywood was told by a misinformed journalist that he was well on his way to a Hall of Fame nod, before being told by Springfield that he didn’t make the cut. That aspect is a shame, and so is the part that puts Spencer Haywood – again, a basketball innovator that has helped make billions of dollars for hundreds of athletes over the last 44 years – out of the Hall’s ranks.
His legacy should be somewhat tarnished by his full admission about his day-long plan to hire someone to kill his former coach, but not to a great extent. Narcotics like cocaine have an insidious and destructive way of turning you into someone or even something you aren’t, and we’re just happy that Haywood was able to rid himself of the beast in him before it was too late.
Give the entire piece a read. It will help you understand the measure of the man, more so that the pull quote we decided to highlight.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Spencer Haywood
- Paul Westhead