Haywood belongs in basketball's Hall
Basketball season is in a good position for review and reflection, with the college game in adrenaline withdrawal since crowning Louisville as its national champion two weeks ago and the NBA starting to crunch the gears on the two-month drag race of its playoffs.
Spencer Haywood’s career should be under review by anyone who has a passing -- or dribbling, shooting, rebounding -- interest in basketball and the process that determines who gets inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
On every possible level -- college, pro, Olympics, historical ground-breaker -- Haywood’s credentials are as gold-plated as the gold medal he won in leading the US team to the championship in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
But he didn’t make it this year, just like he hasn’t in any year he has been eligible since retiring after the 1982-83 season, his 13th pro season -- one in the old ABA and 12 in the NBA.
A couple years ago, I had an e-mail exchange with Ray Scott, a fine pro in his own right who played nine NBA seasons and two in the ABA and later coached the Detroit Pistons.
Scott knows basketball. Growing up in Philadelphia, Scott competed on the same playgrounds as Wilt Chamberlain. With the Pistons, he played with three Hall of Famers -- Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing and Bailey Howell. With the ABA’s Virginia Squires, he played with Julius Erving, the legendary “Dr. J.”
My question was simple. Does Spencer Haywood deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
“Absolutely,” Scott wrote back.
He ticked off his reasons: ABA MVP, All-American at the University of Detroit, Olympic gold medal, four-time NBA All-Star. And there was the precedent set when Haywood defied the NBA’s rule that required players to be out of high school for four years before they could be eligible for the draft.
Haywood beat the NBA in court to open the gates for young players to become instant millionaires when they could be playing for free while making money for their colleges.
It all sounds good enough to me for the Hall of Fame.
In the weekend of the NCAA’s Final Four in Atlanta, Haywood endured the most emotion-sapping experience I can recall of any athlete involved in any Hall of Fame voting process.
Basketball announces its Hall of Fame inductees the night of the NCAA championship game, and Haywood was informed by someone that he’d made it. Finally. His emotions flowed. What relief. What joy.
Except when he arrived in Atlanta, he found that there had been a miscommunication. He was still on the outside. The emotional plunge was indescribable.
I spoke with Haywood by telephone that weekend, and Haywood talked in soft spurts between long pauses.
“In . . . and out,” he said softly. "Like being punched in the gut -- or worse.
“I’ve got my girls (daughters) with me. It’s so embarrassing.”
He had planned his acceptance speech.
“I was going to talk about Will,” he said, referring to Will Robinson, his legendary coach at Pershing High School in Detroit.
Look, no one should get in the Hall of Fame because his feelings were hurt. But the case for Haywood isn’t based on emotion. It’s based on credentials, and his are sterling. He was a 6-foot-8 power forward who could score, rebound, block shots and shoot.
He was a finalist this year but did not get the required 18 of 24 votes from the Hall’s Honors Committee.
Haywood, who just turned 64, and I attended Pershing High on Detroit’s east side. He graduated in 1967, after he and Ralph Simpson led Pershing to the state championship. For full disclosure, I admit that I’m prejudiced in favor of Haywood, but not because we’re Pershing alums or that I covered his one season at the University of Detroit for The Detroit News.
I like athletes who chart their own path and don’t see anyone’s favor, and Haywood did that.
After graduating from Pershing, he accepted a scholarship to Tennessee. At the time, no African-American had ever played basketball for an SEC school.
Haywood’s grades didn’t qualify him to attend Tennessee. He spent a year at Trinidad Junior College and made the US team for the 1968 Olympics, at a time when some black athletes had decided not to compete.
UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known then as Lew Alcindor, did not play. Haywood led the US team in scoring (16.1 points a game). When it was mentioned to him that some players had chosen not to play, Haywood responded by showing his gold medal.
“They don’t have this,” he said.
He was a dominating player in his one season at the University of Detroit, in 1968-69, averaging 32.1 points and 21.5 rebounds -- most in the NCAA.
Haywood was the only sophomore on an All-American team that included Abdul-Jabbar, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and Rick Mount.
After that season, Haywood split to the pros, signing with Denver of the ABA, which had no restriction on underclassmen.
Haywood ripped the ABA apart, leading the league in scoring (30 points), rebounds (19.5) and minutes played (45.3). He was rookie of the year, All-Star Game MVP and league MVP.
The next year, he was in the NBA with Seattle. Court cases limited him to 33 games, but Haywood ultimately prevailed, and the NBA’s gates were open to underclassmen.
He made the NBA All-Star Game four times, was first-team All-Pro twice and second-team twice.
Haywood had some warts and hard edges, and it would be unfair not to include them on his resume.
His one season with the Lakers was 1979-80, and he later admitted that he became addicted to crack cocaine. In a first-person article in People Magazine, he said he hatched a plot to kill then-coach Paul Westhead. The plan never was put in place.
He caused some distractions and was dismissed from the team after Game 3 of the Finals after falling asleep during a workout. The Lakers went on to win the championship, beating the 76ers in six games.
Westhead was fired by the Lakers early in the 1981-82 season and wound up back in the NBA the next season as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times several years ago, Westhead spoke of a reunion with Haywood when the Bulls played the Washington Bullets, Haywood’s last NBA team.
“He went over, grabbed my hand, went out of his way to welcome me back to the league,” Westhead said in the LA Times interview. “I’ve always had a good feeling about ‘Woody,’ that he was a good guy.”