This will not come easily. The world's final glimpse of Haywood, in 1980, couldn't have been more wretched. As the Los Angeles Lakers took on the Philadelphia 76ers in what proved to be a historic Finals, Haywood, by then a 31-year-old Lakers role player, celebrated with an epic binge of freebasing. He smoked so much cocaine that he passed out during a practice and was kicked off the team midway through the series. Teammates refused to give him a playoff share until he proved himself clean; he didn't get his ring for six years. Haywood's last act was a disgrace, and the Age of Magic and eventually Michael was at hand. No one talked about how it couldn't have happened without him.
In 1970 the 6'9" Haywood took on the NBA's rule against signing a player whose college class hadn't graduated, suing for the right to join the Seattle SuperSonics. In March 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, breaking down the door for the likes of Magic, Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
It's a strange role, agent of change. From 1969 to '75, Haywood averaged more than 25 points and 10 rebounds a game, but his true mark is carved between the lines of every early entrant's contract. And how do you recognize what many regard as a negative? "I'm not in the Hall of Fame," Haywood says. "The word from the NBA is that I'm too controversial. Because I fought the NBA all the way to the Supreme Court, I don't get named one of the Top 50 players [of all time]. I'm supposed to be erased out of all history."
Not quite. Haywood overstates his greatness, and his complaints about the league's efforts to "blackball" him can seem like paranoia. Lately the NBA has been quite generous. Real estate investments keep him--and his wife Linda and the youngest two of his four daughters--in fine clothes and homes in suburban Detroit and Las Vegas, but when the IRS dunned Haywood for back taxes a couple years ago, the National Basketball Retired Players' Association gave him $20,000, and the NBA began giving him work in its speakers' bureau. Haywood, who has been sober for 19 years, is a regular at the Rookie Transition Program, and during All-Star weekend in February he was one of eight ex-pros feted at the NBA's Legends Brunch.
But a recent episode in which his 1968 Olympic gold medal purportedly was sold by teammate Charlie Scott only fed Haywood's feelings of persecution: Scott's out to hurt him, he says, trying to savage his name. (Scott claims he sold his own medal.)
"What is God trying to tell me?" Haywood says. "I'm just so tired. Why are people sabotaging me? Why, when I try to do something right, do people get angry?" --S.L. Price