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Haywood's honor long overdue

Forty years of frustration and persecution and, in a sense, exile were wrapped up in about 45 seconds. The flash of time was so brief and seemingly innocuous to those without the proper context that they would have let it pass without a second thought -- just another tribute in a long procession of appreciation during All-Star weekend.

But on Feb. 13, there was so much significance and implication in those 45 seconds that it could and did make a grown man -- a man who picked cotton as a child, a man who has known the ravages of drug addiction and divorce and civil disobedience -- cry.

The moment came during a timeout between events on All-Star Saturday night at American Airlines Center in Dallas. A video tribute played on the giant television screen above the court, introducing a young black man who led the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1968. Some people paid attention. Others drank their beers or talked to their neighbors.

The tribute showed a man who started his career with the Denver Rockets of the ABA, went on to play for the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA and made a few more stops along the way.

Then the video cut to the man who was sitting in a plush leather chair in the front row. Spencer Haywood unfolded his long frame, came to his feet, beamed a smile and waved to the crowd. This was his moment.

Steve Smith, the NBA TV analyst and former player who was competing in the Shooting Stars competition, sprang out of his seat and forcefully clapped in his own personal ovation. A few other players stood and cheered, too. Some in the crowd applauded politely.

And then the moment was over. Just like that. The video cut away to something else, Smith returned to his seat and Haywood to his, where he got a slap on the knee from Darryl Dawkins.

***

Earlier in the day, Haywood had spent a few hours in the lobby restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Dallas, where Haywood's playing contemporaries were staying for the annual celebration of past meets present. Oscar Robertson rumbled through, as did Willie Norwood, who, as Haywood playfully teased, was unable to pick more than 100 pounds of cotton before noon when they were growing up in Mississippi.

"That's cause I couldn't bend over," Norwood said, laughing.

Picking cotton. Seems like the stories of men and women in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novels, not of men who have donned an NBA uniform.

Bill Walton limped in to get breakfast at the buffet with his wife, Lori, who quickly sought out Haywood for a hug. As his long arms and giant hands engulfed her petite frame, Haywood looked down and told her, "You know, they are honoring me tonight."

"Good for you," Lori said. "It's about time."

Haywood could not have mouthed the words more perfectly or more precisely himself. More than anything, the 60-year-old feels both scorned and unappreciated. He is a vital part of the league's history, having led an unprecedented cultural revolution by countering the NBA's requirement that a player must complete four years of college eligibility before turning pro. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in his favor -- a decision that forever changed the landscape of the league and its stars -- Haywood can only look back on decades of obscurity while fellow NBA icons sit courtside at prominent league events and are feted by an endless procession of adulators.

Haywood wants to be remembered in the same light as Jackie Robinson. But he finds himself closer to Mark McGwire.

"I was raised with the idea that you are supposed to make things better for the generation that comes after you," Haywood said.

Haywood's life is well chronicled. He grew up extraordinarily poor -- so poor, he jokes, that when he moved to Detroit and saw somebody giving a $2 tip, he thought the person was rich. Haywood played at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado from 1967-68 before transferring to the University of Detroit a year later, where he averaged an NCAA-high 25.1 rebounds and 32.1 points. He left college early to to go pro, but the NBA forbid him from entering the league because of its rule that players had to be at least four years removed from high school. So he joined the ABA's Rockets.

A year later, in 1970, Haywood signed a six-year, $1.5 million contract with the NBA's SuperSonics. With the backing of team owner Sam Schulman, Haywood sued the league for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act with its four-year rule. As the case made its way to the Supreme Court, Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens tried to play Haywood during the season, but there were injunctions and protests. Haywood said he remembers public address announcers telling the crowd, "We have an illegal player on the court tonight."

Some nights he had to sit on the bus while his team played. Some nights he wasn't even allowed in the building and he had to wait outside, across the street, until the game was over and he could rejoin his teammates.

At the time, Wilkens and teammate Rod Thorn told Haywood that the fight -- as difficult and arduous as it was in the moment, with self-doubt and regret a constant companion -- was a historic development; the hurled insults and the unapologetic spitting were only small weapons in a war that had much larger implications, the results of which would be felt for decades to come.

"Every day there was something else with the courts," Thorn said. "He was a nice young man who was rushed into an unusual position because nobody had ever been in that position before."

Eventually the case was settled and Haywood won, paving the way for generations to come. Of the 27 All-Stars in Dallas earlier this month, 24 had entered the league through early entry, making them direct descendants of Haywood's successful ruling. In a way, it is hypocrisy at its finest. The NBA props up, celebrates and earns billions off the players for whom Haywood took a stand. Yet, until now, the league publicly disregarded the man who allowed the process to move ahead.

Being renounced by the NCAA is understandable. Haywood said he was at an event recently and several well-known coaches, whom he declined to identify, commented that their game had been unnecessarily diminished because of Haywood.

"They were joking," Haywood said, "but they weren't joking, if you know what I mean."

But it's an entirely different thing to be shunned by the very league that ultimately benefited from him, even if his actions were controversial at the time. Though Haywood is asked to speak to young NBA players and kids about the pitfalls of celebrity and how to avoid them, and though he is never excluded from All-Star weekend and is hardly a pariah, Haywood desires more.

But what, exactly?

"If it were my choice," Haywood said, "it would be at the All-Star Game, [players] would walk me out onto the floor in the first quarter or the second quarter, and as the players are getting ready to go back into the game they announce, 'Ladies and gentleman, our first early-entry candidate -- Haywood vs. the NBA, that is what produced early entry into the NBA. Now, all you guys come over here and give him a big hug and go out and play your game.' Now that is real. That would be a beautiful thing."

The problem is, Haywood did not say what he wants until it was too late. If life were fair, Haywood could try to patent his imprint on the league, in the same way that Robert Kearns tried to patent the intermittent windshield wiper. He would get a small percentage of the contract of each player who comes into the league early and he would become a rich man for his efforts four decades ago.

But as he has found out all too painfully, life is not always fair. Hell, it's safe to say that a large percentage of the men in those All-Star locker rooms don't know very much, if at all, about Haywood, his case or the ruling that allowed them to enter the league early.

"It's a time thing," Thorn said. "It is nothing against the players today, but there has not been a lot written about it or talked about it. And guys tend to know who is within 10 or 15 years of them."

Haywood said Kobe Bryant is the most demonstrative, the one current player who always acknowledges him and his impact on the league. "It changed everything," Bryant said of Haywood's lawsuit. "He comes around pretty much every All-Star Game and everybody goes up and says hello to him. I definitely have an appreciation for him."

But in the same way that time dulls wounds -- real or perceived -- it also tends to blunt what are supposed to be the sharp edges of appreciation. Jackie Robinson is known but not tangible to today's baseball player. Haywood's case becomes less palpable to today's NBA player with each passing year.

To his credit, NBA commissioner David Stern reached out to Haywood about a month ago to make amends.

"We go around the arena and recognize different people and he is one we think deserves a pop," Stern said. "After 40 years, it is a unique circumstance for me to be able to recognize somebody who got to be known for Haywood vs. NBA. That is OK."

According to Haywood, Stern also asked, "Spencer, what do you want?" Haywood shot an airball. "Whatever you want to do," Haywood told Stern. And the order was passed on to subordinates to play the video tribute and give Haywood recognition during Saturday's event.

"I should have said what I wanted, but I didn't," Haywood said. "I was being humble. And I didn't speak up. I feel sick inside that I didn't do that and I left it to somebody else. That is my fault."

Even after the tribute, though, Haywood felt slighted. He told his two daughters that the league was finally recognizing him during All-Star weekend. So, they sat at home and watched the proceedings on television. Only, because Haywood was recognized between events at the arena, the television broadcast was in a commercial break and his family did not see the tribute.

Having spoken with his daughters after the procession, Haywood left American Airlines Center upset, but he eventually came to terms with the NBA's honor and accepted it as the first step toward redemption.

"It's just the beginning," Haywood said that evening. "It's just the beginning."

***

Haywood may have waited too long to express what he wants from the league. But it's not too late for the game to honor him properly -- with an induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Because the Hall is not the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, all of his contributions to basketball would be recognized somewhere inside those hallowed walls. A sort of lifetime achievement award.

If he were judged just on his playing career, it likely would not be enough, though as the youngest player on the team (19) he did lead the underdog United States to a gold medal in 1968 when every other player of significance boycotted the Olympics.

Haywood was a phenomenal player his only year in the ABA -- where he averaged 30 points and 19.7 rebounds with Denver and was named both the MVP and Rookie of the Year -- and then the NBA, averaging a career-high 29.2 points and 12.9 rebounds in 1972-73, once he got his legal issues resolved and his career on track. He was a four-time NBA All-Star and a two-time All-NBA first-team selection.

He even won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980, though it is that memory more than any other that detracts from his reputation: When someone mentions that 1970s drug-crazed NBA, the names that come to mind are David Thompson, Micheal Ray Richardson and Spencer Haywood. Haywood was suspended by the Lakers in the middle of their NBA Finals series with Philadelphia after he admitted he had a cocaine problem.

"That story is true," Haywood said. "But they didn't suspend me because I did anything wrong. Yes, I did the stuff. But with three games left in the Finals, I went to them and told them I need help and the minute after we win the Finals I am going into rehab. But right away they said, 'You are admitting to this? Then we are suspending you.'

"As far as the Hall of Fame, how do you take everything that I accomplished, scrap everything and say, 'He used drugs'? There are a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame who used drugs. Let's be real, man."

Haywood said he has never even been nominated to be on the ballot for the Hall of Fame, which then goes through a screening committee before being put in front of the Honors Committee. Five of seven votes are needed from the screening committee, while at least 18 votes are need from the 24-member Honors Committee.

Thorn has been on several Hall of Fame committees. He said it would not take a great deal for Haywood to be nominated. Somebody needs to advocate for him and introduce his case to the screening committee for consideration. It can be anybody with a basketball background, Thorn said.

"I think for the uniqueness of what he did, for how good he was and what he did in the Olympics, he is definitely deserving of being nominated," Thorn said.

The most natural team to advocate for him would be Seattle, except the Sonics no longer exist and the Oklahoma City Thunder have no real ties to Haywood, whose retired number is getting dusty in a box in the Seattle Museum of History and Industry near the University of Washington. Haywood needs permission from the Thunder just to be able to see it.

That leaves his supporters.

"If I was in charge, things would be different," Walton said. "Spencer changed the way basketball was played. He had the skills of the great small players but he had the magnificent body.

"It is unfortunate he had to be the guy who stood tall and was courageous enough to sue the league. He was so far ahead of his time. When you talk about the guys who stood tall to change the legal and social course of basketball, you're talking about Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and Spencer. Spencer is one of my heroes. He is a beacon of hope and he is a shining star."

Perhaps those 45 seconds a week and a half ago, which took 40 years to produce, are just the beginning of his acceptance back into the circle that he so desperately craves. Spencer Haywood has already survived one recovery. Maybe this will be his second.

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