One thing that will probably be overlooked in Spencer Haywood's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday is the gift God gave him to play the game. How, as a 21-year-old playing in the NBA, Haywood was a rarity. How, at 19 years old, he became the youngest American to make an Olympic basketball team.
All the focus surrounding his induction will be on Haywood's role as one of the game's first advocates for the rights of players with financial "hardship" cases to play basketball professionally in the United States.
Is that more important than the game? In the big picture, of course it is. But the brilliance Haywood displayed on the court doesn't have to take a backseat to history.
"He pioneered this whole movement. He was the first one to fight for what he believed in. And it's because of him. He's opened up the doors for guys like myself, [Kevin] Garnett, [Tracy] McGrady, Rashard Lewis and LeBron James, etc., etc. It all started with him." -- Kobe Bryant on Haywood in 2011 on HBO's Real Sports
Spencer Haywood, the pioneer, was as (if not more) important to basketball as Curt Flood's pioneering was to baseball.
Haywood turned pro after his sophomore season at the University of Detroit, but NBA rules at the time prohibited him from doing so, as it was required that players wait four years after high school. After a season with Denver in the ABA, Haywood joined the Seattle SuperSonics in 1970 and challenged the NBA's eligibility rule in a court battle that would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Haywood won his case and changed the landscape of the game. Ultimately, this had more of an impact for others than for him. It set the stage for underclassmen, including today's one-and-done players, to join the NBA.
Haywood fought that fight alone. No other player's name was attached to the case. It was just a 20-year-old kid representing a portion of society that had no idea what true freedom was but a clear idea of what it wasn't. If Jackie Robinson had become sports' version of Rosa Parks, then Haywood was sports' Adam Clayton Powell.
But there is much more to the greatness of Haywood than his landmark court ruling.
Long before Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard, Haywood was Superman, as the SuperSonics depicted in this photo, in which Haywood wears an "S" on his uniform and an open shirt draped over his shoulders like a cape as he comes out of a phone booth with coach Lenny Wilkens watching. Haywood was the second-best player in college basketball at the time, given that the greatest of all time -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) -- was playing. Haywood was, without question, a basketball prodigy.
1967-68 Colorado: In his single season at Trinidad Junior College, Haywood averaged 28.2 points per game and 22.1 rebounds per game.
1968 Mexico Olympics: As the youngest player to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, he averaged 16.1 points on 72 percent field goal shooting while scoring more points (145) than any American basketball player in a single Olympics. That record stood for 44 years, until Kevin Durant broke it by scoring 156 points in the 2012 Olympics.
1968-69 University of Detroit: In his first and only season playing for Detroit (Mercy), he led the nation in rebounding with 21.5 per game, to go with 32.1 points.
1969-70 Denver Rockets: Haywood was the regular-season MVP and rookie of the year in the ABA, as well as the All-Star MVP. He averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds per game in the regular season and 36.6 and 19.8 in the playoffs.
1970-71 Seattle SuperSonics: As a 21-year-old, he averaged 20.6 points and 12 rebounds in 33 games in his first NBA season, while going through the Supreme Court battle.
1971-72 Seattle: With the court victory behind him -- and the freedom to play a full, uninterrupted season without public address announcers across the league saying there was an "illegal player" in the game -- Haywood got back into what had become his normal groove, and he put up 26.2 points and 12.7 rebounds per game.
1972-73 Seattle: Why not follow one All-Star season with an All-NBA First Team season? Haywood averaged 29.2 points and 12.9 rebounds and became one of the players redefining the power forward position.
1973-74 Seattle: Haywood's points average went down to 23.5, but his rebounds went up to 13.4, and he was second-team All-NBA.
1974-75 Seattle: He averaged 22.4 and 9.3, led the SuperSonics to the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's seven-year history and was second-team All-NBA again.
Haywood had seven other NBA seasons of respectable numbers while playing for some respectable teams, including a championship with the 1980 Lakers. What will be lost in his Hall of Fame induction will be the general awareness that for eight years, Spencer Haywood was arguably one of the two or three best basketball players alive whose last name wasn't Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain or Erving.
"The NBA Hall of Fame will never be complete until the first guy who made it possible for guys like myself and all of the guys to go pro: Spencer Haywood. For him not to be elected, and especially for him making it possible for all of us to leave college early, for Spencer Haywood to not be in the Hall of Fame is a travesty." -- Charles Barkley on TNT
At 13 years old, Haywood became the primary source of income for his family. He picked up to 200 pounds of cotton daily for $4 a day. He grew up listening to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson with his mother. What stuck with him and resonated more than anything with his mother was a phrase directly related to following God's plan -- not your own. "He may not come when you want him, but he's always right on time," Haywood wrote last year on Sheridan Hoops.
Those words helped Haywood maintain his sanity over the decades he was rejected by the basketball powers-that-be for entry into the game's final resting place. Those words also shaped him to fight demons such as drug addiction, beat cancer and understand people and life in general, as well as better deal with never being fully recognized or appreciated for the contributions he made to the game.
"It's 27 years, man," Haywood said Thursday before the Hall of Fame press conference. "I'm like Nelson Mandela ..."
Then he let out a huge laugh.
"When I say to LeBron and those guys, 'I helped you guys make $100 million extra when I gave you those four years extra to come into this league,' they get it." Spencer Haywood
"These players [today] understand one thing," he said in validating his significance and why he belonged in the Hall long before now. "When I say this to them, when I say to LeBron and those guys, 'I helped you guys make $100 million extra when I gave you those four years extra to come into this league,' they get it. When I told Kevin Durant I got him that [extra] $75 million, he said, 'Oh, I get it now.' Blake Griffin was giving me a kiss. He said, 'S---, I know what you are talking about when you say that now!'
"All of those guys, from [Michael] Jordan on back, all of them felt like they were under attack for leaving college to make money for their families to get them out of poverty. No one should have to be made to feel guilty for that. It's a helluva thing to be the one who does that for them and have guys not knowing that you did that and then guys not knowing how to embrace it."
There was a pause. Then the certitude.
"Slavery is a m-----f-----."
Haywood once said, "I realize it is my destiny to go through extreme, weird hardships before tasting the cake. But that's how the great spirit works in my life." Like so many other great African-Americans who paved the way for so many, Haywood sat back and watched as the results of the fight he put his basketball career on the line for became the norm.
He watched as people became so comfortable with the results of the personal sacrifice he waged alone against the NBA that his achievements became less and less important to everyone but him.
As the conversation changed over the years from "hardship" to "early entry" to "one-and-done" to "age restriction," Haywood just sat, patient, with a smile on his face, hearing Mahalia's voice in his head and knowing one day her words would become his truth.
Because for Haywood, the fight for "justice" was the only thing that had the power to get him enshrined. Already forgotten and dismissed were his game and playing career. He had to keep praying a selection committee wouldn't -- couldn't -- do that to him again -- at least not any longer than they already had.
"I'm miserable. I'm shaken ... All I've tried to do is live by a rule I learned on the Chicago streets: Man, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for everything ..." -- Spencer Haywood in 1971
Every great story is not a feel-good story, even when the ending is a happy one.
"My game was the s---. At the end of my speech, I'm going to tell them, 'Wait a minute now.' I want these young players to know I had serious game!" Spencer Haywood
Haywood says at the end of his Hall of Fame speech, he will let everyone know how, even without his off-the-court accomplishment, he should be in the Hall for what he did on the court.
"Oh, I'm going to let them know! My game was the s---," he said. "At the end of my speech, I'm going to tell them, 'Wait a minute now.' I want these young players to know I had serious game! All you have to do is pull up the numbers. The numbers will bear it out."
When a man is no longer miserable, when he has full understanding of his life's purpose, of why he was here, along with the impact he had on others' lives, outside of what he has done to serve himself and his God, he can -- and will -- stand tall.
When he walks up to the podium to give his speech during the Hall of Fame ceremony, pay attention to how tall Spencer Haywood stands. Pay attention to the smile on his face, pay attention to the tears that will likely form in his eyes, pay attention to the words that come from his soul.
It will be then that you will realize, as he did many years ago, that he never needed the Hall of Fame to validate him as a player, as a pioneer, as a leader, as a man. His game and his spirit did that many years before his induction.
But on that particular day, he'll finally be rewarded by someone else.