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Ball Don't Lie

Spencer Haywood: ‘Someone from the NBA told me I was in’ Hall of Fame, but he’s left out again

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Spencer Haywood dunks over Bob Lanier in 1970 (Getty Images)

At first, it would seem that the cruelest joke of all is that Spencer Haywood is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Though his per-game stats may have been amplified a bit by the pace of the 1970s, his work as a basketball groundbreaker in the early part of that decade should have made him a shoo-in to the Hall as soon as he became eligible.

It turns out that the Hall has somehow found an even crueler joke to crack right in Haywood’s face. Last week several outlets reported what “someone in the NBA” told Haywood, according to Spencer. That he would be announced as a Hall of Famer on Monday. A recognition that would be the right move after over two decades’ worth of needless neglect on the voting committee’s part.

It turns out that Haywood was misled. And the four-time All-Star is rightfully furious over it. From the Las Vegas Review Journal:

“I don’t know why there was confusion,” Haywood said Saturday from Atlanta, where he is attending the Final Four. “Someone from the NBA told me I was in, then I found out Friday night that I wasn’t in.

“This is so embarrassing. My stomach has been so bad I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. This isn’t a punch in the stomach. It’s below the stomach.”

The Review Journal was one of many news outlets that reported that Haywood was part of a crew that will be announced officially on Monday morning, a group reported to include Gary Payton, Bernard King, Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Pitino. Last week, the Review Journal’s Steve Karp put together a very good feature on the too-often forgotten basketball legend, one who dared challenge the NBA’s reserve clause and age restrictions after a sophomore season at the University of Detroit that saw Spencer average 32 points and 22 rebounds (!) per game.

In 1969, the NBA required that your college class had to graduate before a player could become draft eligible. Haywood, needing to provide for his family and having already earned a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics (famous for the earth-shaking work of Tommie Smith and John Carlos), attempted to break the system.

The system won, initially. And Haywood was made into a pariah as a result. From Carp’s interview with Haywood:

“Here’s the thing — I wasn’t looking for trouble. I just wanted to earn a living playing basketball. So when Seattle signed me (in 1970), and the NBA said I couldn’t play, I was angry. I couldn’t provide for my family. So I did what I had to do.”

With the support of SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman, who had signed Haywood to a $1.5 million, six-year contract, and a sharp legal team headed by Pete Brown and Al Ross, Haywood sued. But when he tried to play, he was served an injunction just prior to tipoff, and he had to leave the arena.

“The P.A. announcer would say to the crowd, ‘We have an illegal player on the Seattle roster,’ and that’s how I was introduced,” Haywood said. “Then I’d have to leave the building after they’d serve me with the injunction. I remember being in Cincinnati, and we were playing the Royals and I stood outside of Cincinnati Gardens in the snow waiting for the game to end so I could rejoin the team. I went through a lot of humiliation.”

(The Cincinnati Gardens, which is a tiny little arena I’ve been to many times. Only recently was it able to move into the five-figures in terms of potential attendance numbers per event. This is where the NBA was at 43 years ago.)

Luckily for Haywood, his move wasn’t a career-killer, as Curt Flood’s decision was.

Flood had his own personal problems to work through, and Curt’s age played a role in his diminishing returns upon his baseball comeback after challenging Major League Baseball’s basically-illegal system. Haywood was just in his early 20s, and moved on to dominate the ABA for the 1969-70 season. Spencer led the league in scoring at 30 points per game, he played in all 84 contests for the Denver Rockets (neither of those are typos), and led his team deep into the playoffs before they were felled by a veteran Los Angeles Stars squad that was also working without a player who was forced by injunction to sit out a season due to archaic reserve clause-based decisions — the also-overlooked Zelmo Beaty.

Before age and an admitted cocaine addiction put an end to his career, Haywood managed to average over 20 points and 10 rebounds for five NBA teams. He would have won a championship ring with the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers (and would have probably started in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s injury-vacated center position in the deciding Game 6) had coach Paul Westhead not dismissed Haywood from the team after he fell asleep in practice during that year’s Finals.

Personal issues aside, it’s tough not to conclude that the bookends of both addiction and his wars with the NBA to start his career have pushed the Hall of Fame voting committee to leave him on the sidelines. Which is ridiculous.

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Haywood and man who could, but hasn't, used political in-roads to put him in the Hall: David Stern (Getty Imag …

The entire Hall of Fame is a back-scratching joke at this point, as the scads of (great, but not NBA-level great) international players, longtime NCAA coaches, and legacy-driven NBA administrative inductees has turned what could be a celebration of the game into one massive shoe company-funded tribute to The In Crowd.

To even hint to a player that he’s due for induction, only to pull the carpet again? Whoever leaked that dubious information is a weasel.

This particular soap opera, though, is beside the point. Spencer Haywood should be in the Hall of Fame, full stop. His statistics compare favorably, scoring-wise, with that of Bernard King — only Haywood averaged far more rebounds per game, and King had just as many dust-ups with coaches towards the end of his playing career. For Haywood’s career to be “tainted” by the completely un-American concept of the Reserve Clause and a cocaine addiction that many of his contemporaries shared is to ignore the significant ways he altered this game for the better … and the badass play he provided while he was on the court.

Adding insult to injury with last week’s taunt is just a further reminder of what a misled organization the Basketball Hall of Fame is.

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