Spencer Haywood, the NBA Draft and the Legal Battle That Shaped the League

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistMay 6, 2011

Spencer Haywood in 2006
Spencer Haywood in 2006A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

After the playoffs end this year, the NBA’s owners and players will enter a battle far more ferocious than the championship series—a clash over what really governs the league, money and control.

Whether or not it ends in a lockout, the labor dispute is a reminder that the development of basketball is indelibly tied to economics and, by extension, constant tension between the NBA’s wealthy owners and its players, many of whom come from modest backgrounds.

If one player embodies the modern business of basketball, it’s Spencer Haywood, who—though it’s now mostly forgotten—laid the groundwork for the last 40 years of pro basketball.

Haywood, born into a family of 10 siblings in Silver City, Mississippi in 1949, grew up in a dying era of American history—his mom picked cotton for $2 a day, and Haywood joined her in the fields at age five. The kids slept three to a bed in a shack with no gas or electricity.

“The rules were different for people like us in a place like that,” Haywood later wrote. “We just lived. You had babies and you worked and you tried to survive.”

It was an environment in which race determined a person’s station in life. At the country club where he worked as an adolescent, Hayward wrote, the white men who were members jovially told him that if the civil rights movement caused blacks to get out of hand, they’d have to cut his balls off.

LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 17:  NBA legend Spencer Haywood watches the Sacramento Kings play against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 17, 2006 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Kings defeated the Lakers 96-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“No matter what was happening in Birmingham or even in Jackson, we were still black,” Hayward wrote, “and our lot in life was to serve the White man and to try to stay alive.”

At the time, the mechanization of cotton picking was ending the demand for black labor in the fields of the South, and waves of migrants were heading north and west to look for better economic opportunities. Some found them; some did not.

In 1964, Haywood moved north, first to Chicago, then to Detroit, where he lived with his brother. He may have joined thousands of other African-Americans on the assembly lines at GM or Ford, or he may have taken to the streets of the ghetto, had he not grown to be 6'9" and extremely good at hoops.

“Basketball saved me from becoming an alky or an addict or a hood,” he wrote. “If you can’t sing a song, man, or stuff some basketball or something like that, you got to find some way.”

Haywood got a scholarship to the University of Detroit, where he dominated in his sophomore year, averaging 32 points and 22 rebounds a game. In 1968 he led the U.S. basketball team to the gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics.

After two years in college, Haywood was fed up with racial tension on the Detroit team and decided he was ready to turn pro. The problem was that the NBA had instituted a “four-year rule,” which held that players could not enter the league until the college class they would be in had graduated.

Haywood saw college basketball mainly as a business in which the concern was for money rather than the players.

Haywood with the Washington Bullets
Haywood with the Washington Bullets

“Most colleges, including the University of Detroit, were doing their damndest to see that their basketball players did not get an education in anything more academic than square dancing,” he wrote, “and now they were worried about out educations.”

A few years earlier, Haywood would simply have been out of luck. For one, before the civil rights movement, it would have been nearly inconceivable for a young black man from the South to challenge an institution such as the NBA.

Outspoken athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell had helped to forge a path for more assertive black athletes.

Second, the economy was shifting. During the two decades after World War II, a corporate state had emerged in which the American economy centered around mammoth companies such as GM, General Electric and AT&T, which provided stable middle-class jobs (blacks and women were, of course, excluded).

To get along during that era, it was expected that people moved lockstep through school and into jobs—rocking the boat could be career suicide.

By 1970, though, that era of stability was ending, with the first outward signs coming from the rise of the emergent Japanese automobile industry. Increasingly, people with exceptional talents would start to exploit them for greater salaries.

In that sense, Spencer Haywood and Curt Flood—the African-American baseball player who challenged MLB’s reserve clause—were harbingers of far more dramatic changes in the American economy.

LAS VEGAS - JULY 9:  Former Los Angeles Lakers player Spencer Haywood arrives at the celebrity basketball 'New School vs. Old School' poker tournament at the Mirage July 9, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event was held to benefit Operation Smile, the Amer
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Finally, the third essential factor was the 1967 launch of the American Basketball Association, a new league started by a group of businessmen hoping to steal some of the NBA’s thunder.

The ABA’s differentiator from the NBA was entertainment and showmanship. The league’s first commissioner, basketball legend George Mikan, came up with the idea for the signature red, blue and white basketball. We can also thank the ABA for innovations such the three-point line, the slam-dunk contest and scantily clad ball girls.

If the NBA wouldn’t take an exceptional player such as Haywood due to its arbitrary four-year rule, the ABA was happy to have him. The Denver Rockets drafted Haywood, who during his 1969-1970 rookie season averaged 30 points and nearly 20 rebounds a game.

Haywood’s performance made it obvious to many NBA owners that the four-year rule would cause them to lose great players to the ABA. Sam Schulman, the dissident owner of the Seattle Sonics, decided to take a chance and break the rule by signing Haywood for the 1970-1971 season.

The NBA moved to block Haywood from playing. In response, Schulman and Haywood filed an anti-trust suit against the league, arguing that the four-year rule infringed on Haywood’s right to make a living.

During the season, Haywood’s case wound through the courts, accompanied by a series of injunctions and legal maneuverings. He played in only 33 games. On the road, he was booed, spit upon and taunted from the stands.

Spencer Haywood playing for the Denver Rockets
Spencer Haywood playing for the Denver Rockets

For Haywood, the arguments about what was “good for the game” of basketball were academic. He saw playing in the NBA in terms of economic survival.

“If you’re from the ghetto, it doesn’t matter what you do or how you get it, only if you got it,” he said. “What loyalties you got? To your brothers and sisters. But to basketball? To some team? Forget it.”

Haywood’s case progressed to the Supreme Court, which in March 1971 upheld a lower court decision that barring Haywood from the NBA would cause him “irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated.”

In response, the league instituted the “hardship” rule, which allowed a player to enter the league early as long as he could prove he needed to do so for financial reasons. That essentially recognized the tie between the economic status of most players’ families and the windfall represented by professional basketball.

Haywood came from the cotton fields of the Deep South. Many players in the league today come from similarly impoverished backgrounds.

Haywood was just the spearhead for major change to the economics of the game during the 1970s: The average player salary rose from $35,000 at the start of the decade to $180,000 at the end.

This was driven by competition from the ABA, which grabbed superstars such as Julius “Dr. J” Erving and George “The Iceman” Gervin. To fight the spread of the ABA, the NBA expanded into smaller markets such as Portland and Buffalo (the franchise that is now the L.A. Clippers).

Spencer Haywood's jersey getting retired by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007.
Spencer Haywood's jersey getting retired by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007.

Both leagues also turned their sights to high school players for the first time, with the ABA’s Utah Stars drafting Moses Malone and the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA taking Daryl Dawkins.

In 1976, worn out by the escalating costs of their battle, the two leagues merged, with the ABA’s Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets joining the NBA.

Through its short life, the freewheeling ABA had pushed pro basketball towards a more open style of play and dramatically increased the pay scale for players. Basketball was starting to become a big-money business, though the transition would not be complete until the 1980s.

Haywood, in the meantime, enjoyed a few huge seasons with Seattle, making the All-NBA team in 1972 in 1973. He was traded to the Knicks in 1975, where he became, briefly, an even bigger star, and even married Iman, the supermodel.

But by the late 1970s, Haywood had become hooked on cocaine. As a member of the Lakers during the playoffs in 1980, he was kicked off the team during the championship series against the 76ers—which featured the classic matchup of Magic Johnson versus Dr. J—for falling asleep during a practice.

He later wrote that he missed watching the Lakers win the finals because he was getting high.

Haywood played in Italy and then returned to play for Washington Bullets, ending his career in 1983. By then, though, he was synonymous more with wasted talent than his pioneering legal case.

He spent years trying to regain his reputation. Now, long sober, Haywood travels the country to speak about the drug and alcohol dependency. 

He has also sought recognition for his pioneering legal efforts. In 2010, he got his wish as the NBA honored him during All-Star weekend.

Now, it’s almost unheard of for any NBA star to stay for all four years in college: LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard came straight out of high school; Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose spent one year in college; Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo each put in two years.

In 2005, the NBA instituted the 19-year-old age minimum, which has led to “one and done.” It too seems ripe for a legal challenge.

For many players who could use a few more seasons in college to hone their games, coming out early ends up a terrible career move. Haywood’s legal victory, though, means the choice is up to the player.

And as the NBA prepares for labor talks, it’s worth remembering that what happens away from the court can shape the game as much or even more than what occurs on it. While most people watch the game for entertainment and diversion, for players like Haywood it comes down to a one-shot chance to move up in life.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further Reading

Spencer Haywood has written two memoirs. The engaging Spencer Haywood: The Rise, The Fall, The Recovery, written with Scott Osler, was published in 1992.

Stand Up for Something: The Spencer Haywood Story, written with Bill Libby, came out in 1972 and covers much of the same ground, in slightly different words.

Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, by Terry Pluto, is an amusing oral history of the league.

This chapter, excerpted from the book Basketball in America, gives a solid intro to the ABA.

Doug Merlino is the author of The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White.Visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter. This is the sixth of eight parts, with new installments every Friday. Read Part 1,  Part 2 and Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Merlino’s interview with Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player. 


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