If Spencer Haywood had never scored single point, grabbed a rebound, or done anything of significance on the basketball court, he’d still have a righteous spot in the Hall of Fame. His fight, his legal battle was the one that opened up the NBA to college underclassmen and gave a way for impoverished players to instantly make good on their skills instead of being stuck as indentured athletes in the NCAA.
Of course, someone was bound to challenge the prevailing order in 1970, but that someone would have needed the same capacity for struggle and the same basketball talent as Haywood. Unfortunate as it may be to admit it, but the Seattle SuperSonics were trying to sign Spencer Haywood because his family was impoverished. They wanted the man who could be the best power forward in all of basketball.
Before his NBA legal battle began, Haywood left college early to join the ABA. That upstart league had no qualms of signing college underclassmen and the Denver Rockets gave Haywood a handsome $1.9 million contract. His rookie season in 1969-70 was equally handsome.
Haywood was named Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, All-Star Game MVP, a member of the All-ABA 1st Team and the league’s Most Valuable Player. He also led the ABA in scoring with 30 points per game and rebounding with 20 per game… just for good measure. In the playoffs, Haywood didn’t abate as he averaged 37 points and 20 rebounds in 12 games.
However, bigger dollars loomed in the NBA, and Haywood charged that Denver wasn’t fulfilling all of their salary obligations. As the ABA and Rockets fought to keep Haywood, the Sonics signed Spencer and joined his case against the NBA to let him in that league. Haywood won his case in March of 1971 and was free to be a Sonic.
The agile power forward was a smash success for Seattle. His whirling spin moves, soft touch, and thunderous dunks propelled Haywood to the All-Star Game and to the All-NBA Team from 1972 to 1975. During these years, the super forward averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds.
Team success, however, was hard to find during these years. And they always would be for Haywood. The Sonics made the playoffs just once in Haywood’s tenure. A trade to the New York Knicks did nothing to alleviate the situation. Unfair expectations and chaos reigned in the Big Apple and Haywood became caught up in a cocaine addiction.
The drugs began to erode his skills and he was passed from the Knicks to the Jazz to the Lakers to the Bullets. The end came in February 1983 with Washington as he scored 0 points against the Denver Nuggets, the franchise that 14 years earlier as the Rockets had given Haywood his break into pro ball.
Despite never reaching its full potential, Haywood’s career is still one of the most important in the history of basketball. Every player since his landmark Supreme Court case owes him a debt of gratitude. Every point they score, every dollar they make prior to the age of 22 is basically thanks to the efforts of Spencer. That he was such a good ball player isn’t the essence of the story, it just adds another measure of greatness to it all.
Years Played: 1969 – 1983
Rookie of the Year (1970)
All-ABA 1st Team (1970)
All-Star (1970), ASG MVP (1970)
All-Rookie Team (1970)
2x All-NBA 1st Team (1972-’73)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1974-’75)
4x All-Star (1972-’75)
ABA – 84 Games
30.0 PPG, 19.5 PPG, 2.3 APG, 49.3% FG, 77.6% FT
PPG Leader (1970), RPG Leader (1970)
NBA – 760 Games
19.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 46.5% FG, 80.0% FT