Despite his accomplishments in college, with the 1968 U.S. Olympic team and his 11 years in the NBA, Spencer Haywood still hasn’t made the Hall of Fame.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
It is impossible to say exactly why Spencer Haywood hasn’t sailed into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame long before now. The Springfield, MA., gallery has a non-transparent selection process, one of the most secretive in American sports, in which neither the voters nor the vote totals are revealed. Haywood’s exclusion could be the result of many factors, but house politics are likely a contributing factor.
Haywood, a finalist this year, once again failed to make the cut. But at least this rejection didn’t carry nearly the sting that last year’s did. That episode turned out to be one of the more embarrassing in Hall annals, regardless of where blame lies.
Haywood told ESPN during a 2013 interview that someone – he didn’t identify who – from the NBA office contacted him and gave him the good news: He would enter the hall along with, among others, former Sonic Gary Payton. Elated and relieved after waiting so long, Haywood flew to Atlanta, where the inductees were scheduled to be announced during Final Four festivities.
But when Haywood arrived, he discovered he hadn’t been elected after all.
“This isn’t a punch in the stomach,” Haywood told The Las Vegas Review Journal (Haywood makes his home in Las Vegas, where he runs a contracting business). “This is a punch below the stomach.”
The NBA insisted that no operative from the league office would have contacted Haywood about his Hall of Fame status, since the responsibility for doing so belonged exclusively to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nor did the NBA receive a “heads up” on new members.
So was Haywood the victim of a hoax or cruel trick? Who perpetrated it? Was Haywood simply confused? Did he fabricate the phone call from the NBA official? No one knows. Neither Haywood nor anyone else has been able to clarify what happened.
“I don’t know,” Haywood told ESPN. “I can’t be a private eye, running my mouth or running around, trying to figure out what happened.”
Haywood spent another year waiting to find out whether this would bee the year he assumed his place among the game’s greats. Now it isn’t, and maybe it will never be. If Pro Basketball Reference.com’s “Hall of Fame Probability” ranking is a reliable guide, Haywood’s chances aren’t great, just 51 percent. But many players elected did so with lower probability scores, including K.C. Jones (46 percent), Bernard King (37 percent) and David Thompson (27 percent). Bill Walton entered the Hall in 1993 with a probability score of 16 percent, a reflection of the numerous injuries that compromised his professional career.
Born April 22, 1949 in Silver City, MS., one of 10 children of cotton pickers, and a cotton picker himself as a youth, Haywood eventually moved to Chicago and, finally, Detroit to live with an uncle, arriving there at 15. Over the next couple of years, Haywood developed into one of the greatest prep stars of his time while playing at Detroit’s Pershing High School.
After leading Pershing to the 1967 Class A championship, Haywood spent a year at Trinidad Junior College in Colorado, where he averaged 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds.
When the major college stars of the era, notably Lew Alcindor (UCLA) and Elvin Hayes (Houston), took the advice of San Jose State sociology professor Dr. Harry Edwards and boycotted the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, Haywood, 19 and about to enroll at the University of Detroit, took one of the roster spots at the invitation of U.S. Olympic team coach Hank Iba.
He dominated the Olympic tournament, averaging 16.1 points per game while shooting an absurdly good .719 from the field. Haywood scored a tournament-high 26 points against Italy, 25 against Panama and 21 in the gold-medal game against Yugoslavia.
After returning to the U.S., Haywood averaged 32.1 points and an NCAA-best 21.5 rebounds for the University of Detroit, his spectacular play drawing media interest all around the country. Sports Illustrated carried this observation in its Jan. 6, 1969 issue:
“One month into the season, Haywood is proving to be an even more brilliant catalyst for Detroit than he was for the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team last October. Single-handedly, he is turning a bona fide collection of nobodies into a smooth, winning outfit that now is playing on the edge of college basketball’s Top Ten.
“The Titans made a laugh-in of their own Motor City Tournament, rolling past Mississippi State 86-62 and then beating Temple 87-76. The story was the same each night: everywhere the befuddled visitors turned, there was Haywood blocking their shots, grabbing rebounds out of their hands, gliding through or muscling over them to fill the baskets with points.
“Haywood got 32 points and 29 rebounds against State, but Temple found him even more awesomely perfect, or perfectly awesome. He made his first 10 shots from the floor to settle matters early, and then ambled out to accept the Outstanding Player Trophy while the stands chanted, “Spencer’s got soul! Spencer’s got soul!”
At the end of his lone season in Detroit, Haywood declared himself ready for professional basketball. But the NBA wasn’t ready for him. The league had a rule stipulating that a young man could not play until four years after his high school class graduated. That left Haywood with two options: Return to college or accept an offer to play in the American Basketball Association, not yet a serious rival to the NBA. Haywood took his prodigious skills to the Denver Rockets.
Haywood tore up the ABA as he had done the collegiate ranks, averaging 30 points and 19.5 rebounds. At 21, Haywood won the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. That’s when things got complicated. Haywood learned that the six-year, $1.6 million contract he signed with Denver wasn’t guaranteed, as he believed it to be.
In those days, the ABA was famous for signing players to contracts that had large “face values,” but not corresponding dollars behind them. When the Rockets refused to bump Haywood’s pay to $3.25 million as compensation to cover the lack of a guarantee, Haywood quit and let it be known he wanted to play in the NBA, even though his high school class had yet to graduate.
Sam Schulman, owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, had his lawyers review Haywood’s contract with the Rockets. They determined it to be invalid. In December 1970, at the NBA owners meetings in Chicago, Schulman asked Commissioner Walter Kennedy for permission to sign Haywood. Kennedy refused.
“Kennedy runs a double-standard league,” huffed Schulman. “He takes a hard stand on one hand and turns his head when it suits him. I don’t think he has the ability to administer the league or the ability to lead. He is devoid of leadership.”
On Dec. 30, 1970, after Los Angeles federal judge Warren J. Ferguson ruled that Haywood’s contract with Denver was invalid, Schulman signed the 6-foot-9 Haywood to a multi-year contract – over Kennedy’s objections — that guaranteed Haywood would receive the $1.6 million he was supposed to receive in Denver.
At the same time, Ferguson issued an injunction and temporary restraining order forbidding the NBA from interfering with Haywood’s agreement to play for Seattle.
“We did not sign a player out of college,” Schulman argued. “He is already a professional. We consider his contract with Denver invalid. That makes him a free agent. The graduation clause does not apply in this case.”
Haywood wore a Sonics’ uniform for the first time Dec. 30, 1970 and received a standing ovation from the crowd of 12,935 at the Seattle Coliseum (KeyArena). Although he did not play against the Chicago Bulls that night, the Bulls nevertheless sued the Sonics for $600,000, claiming that Haywood’s addition to the Sonics amounted to a “diminution” of Chicago’s chances of reaching the playoffs.
Seattle player-coach Lenny Wilkens, whose best players included Bob Rule, Dick Synder, Don Kojis, Zaid Abdul-Aziz and Tom Meschery, did not use Haywood until Jan. 4 in a game against Lew Alcindor’s Milwaukee Bucks at Milwaukee’s Civic Arena. Haywood scored 14 points and collected nine rebounds. But his presence on Seattle’s roster caused howls of protest from other clubs.
“Seattle has no right to Haywood,” fumed Celtics coach Red Auerbach.
Haywood faced legal challenges everywhere, often getting slapped with injunctions during warm-ups that prevented him from playing. Public address announcers frequently identified him as “an illegal player.” One night, when the Sonics played at Cincinnati, Haywood was forced to stand outside the arena during a snowstorm because an injunction prevented him from entering the building. Due to the blizzard of court papers he was served, Haywood played in only 33 of Seattle’s 82 games.
After the NBA took Haywood and the Sonics to court, Schulman’s lawyers broadened their complaints against the NBA by adding antitrust allegations involving the college draft and reserve clause to the original attack on the league’s four-year college eligibility rule. Haywood’s lawyers also argued that Haywood, as the sole wage earner in his family, was a “hardship case” and therefore had a right to begin earning his living.
Haywood’s case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled March 1, 1971 that the NBA’s reserve clause and its attempts to keep him from earning a living were unconstitutional and that he was entitled to enter the league under the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Supreme Court’s decision in Haywood vs. National Basketball Association opened the doors for underclassmen to enter the NBA Draft. It also placed Haywood in intriguing company.
Curt Flood fought baseball for the right to play where he wanted (he did not want to play in Philadelphia after St. Louis traded him there) and, while he lost a 1972 Supreme Court decision aimed at overturning the reserve clause, his legal battle against baseball led to free agency. Flood won seven consecutive Gold Gloves and hit above .300 six times, but is not in the Hall of Fame.
Neither is Marvin Miller, the executive director of the MLBPA who knocked down the remaining obstacles to free agency after Flood plowed the road. Because of Miller, the average salary rose from $19,000 in 1966 to $326,000 in 1982.
Recently retired NBA Commissioner David Stern worked as one of the league’s lawyers who argued the 1970 Supreme Court case against Haywood, who has never publicly blamed Stern for his exclusion from the Hall of Fame, although others have advanced the where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire argument on Haywood’s behalf. Instead, Haywood has consistently argued his Hall of Fame case on the merits of his play with a healthy ego.
The case for Haywood’s induction into the Hall of Fame comes almost entirely from his brief but spectacular collegiate career, his contributions to the U.S. Olympic team, and the years (1970-75) he spent with the SuperSonics. His notable accomplishments in Seattle:
During a game at the Coliseum March 5, 1972, Haywood slipped on a wet court and suffered a knee injury. Haywood and the Sonics filed claims against the city totaling $441,100. A settlement resulted, but the injury hastened Haywood’s decline as a player even though he continued to put up some monster games.
By 1975, Haywood’s personality conflicts with new coach Bill Russell made him an unhappy player. Russell felt he had no choice but to trade Haywood. The deal went down Oct. 23, 1975, Haywood going to the New York Knicks for $2 million and rookie forward Eugene Short.
Haywood’s legendary production plummeted upon his arrival in New York and he never made another All-Star team in four seasons with the Knicks, one with the Jazz, another with the Lakers and two with the Bullets (Wizards). His brief stint with the Lakers included the well-publicized nadir of his career: After Haywood fell asleep during a practice during the 1980 NBA Finals, and later admitted to cocaine use, coach Paul Westhead dismissed him from the team.
Haywood played professional basketball for 14 seasons, finishing with 14,445 points (20.3 average) and 8,675 rebounds (10.3). But he performed at a Hall of Fame level only during the six years he spent in Denver (ABA) and Seattle (NBA). His relatively short span of peak production, his willingness to take the NBA to court, and his late-career incidents with the Lakers have not aided Haywood’s Hall of Fame cause. Still, Haywood doesn’t understand why he hasn’t been inducted.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of other reactions from other people and everything else, but I’m personally in a better place spiritually so I accept it,” Haywood told USA Today after he missed again this year. “Hey, I know it’s not right. It is (expletive) up. It is terrible and all those other bad things, but I’ve got to accept it. What is God setting me up for? Something far greater and something bigger, so I accept it.”
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org