The selection of Lenny Wilkens, player-coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, as the most valuable player in the All-Star Game provided the proper note of irony on which to close last week's 25th anniversary celebration by the National Basketball Association in San Diego, for what should have been a sterling occasion for the league was tarnished by problems involving Wilkens' own team. The problem was an All-Star in absentia, a 21-year-old man-child not quite in the promised land whose activities affected every official meeting, monopolized all casual conversation and muddied the mood of those who would have been the most avid celebrants, the league's commissioner and owners.
The pall was cast by Spencer Haywood, all 6 feet 9 of him. He is a player of extraordinary ability, and the basic problem was whether he should be allowed to play with the Sonics, who recently signed him to a $1.5 million contract.
Haywood has dominated basketball conversation before—happy talk when he led the U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Mexico City, and angry talk when the American Basketball Association's Denver Rockets signed him to a professional contract in 1969 even though he had two years of eligibility remaining at the University of Detroit. Both the NBA and ABA prohibit the hiring of college players before their classes have been graduated, but the ABA allows the premature signing of "hardship" cases. Haywood, one of 10 children whose mother worked as a domestic in Silver City, Miss., fit the ABA's undefined hardship qualification—as a lot of college players would. He quickly became the ABA's scoring and rebounding champion, its Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year.
Late last season several NBA teams, most prominently Milwaukee, tried to induce Haywood to leave Denver. (It is another point of irony that Milwaukee President Ray Patterson last week was calling for Seattle's expulsion from the league after the Sonics used Haywood in a game against the Bucks.) Hearing of the proposals from the NBA teams, Rockets' Owner Bill Ringsby offered to renegotiate Haywood's original S450.000 contract. "I was happy with the contract I had," says Haywood now, "but he told me, 'I want to make you the highest-paid basketball player in the world because you deserve it.' "
A new contract was hastily roughed out in pencil and agreed to, and Haywood formally signed it a few months later, after he turned 21. "At first I didn't look at the contract," he says. "After all, they were the ones who offered to give me a new one; I hadn't asked for it. I trusted them, and I was doing a good enough job for them that I thought they'd never cheat me."
At the time of the signing it was announced that the contract was for $1.9 million over six years. In fact, only $394,-000 was to be paid as salary during the playing term of the contract. The remainder was supposed to accrue from a long-term annuity that had the effect of tying Haywood to the Ringsby organization for 10 years. None of the deferred income was guaranteed if either the franchise or the ABA went out of business, nor would Haywood receive the benefits if he were traded. In addition, Haywood's attorney-adviser, Al Ross, and four West Coast law firms that have been retained in the case now insist that the Rockets' investment of $100,000 in the annuity is likely to yield $1 million less than Denver claims.
After finally reading the contract and unsuccessfully attempting to obtain "clarification" from the Rockets' management, Haywood retained Ross as counsel last October. Between Oct. 30 and Dec. 25, Ross, Haywood and Ringsby, along with ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph and his lawyers, met frequently to try to resolve the disagreements.
In November the Rockets filed a $1 million suit against Ross and his associates for inducing breach of contract and slander. Los Angeles Federal District Court Judge Warren Ferguson enjoined Ross from negotiating in Haywood's behalf, but at the same time he turned Haywood's contract over to experts charged with determining whether the player's contention is valid that he was misled into signing it. A subsequent injunction issued by Judge Ferguson forces the NBA to allow Haywood to play at least temporarily with Seattle, indicating he may be already disposed to declare the Denver contract void.
Regardless of the judge's final decision, Haywood has said that he will not return to play in Denver. He has agreed to a six-year contract with Seattle. Before signing Haywood, Seattle Owner Sam Schulman asked the NBA Board of Governors for permission to make the deal. His request was voted down, but apparently gambling that the courts would help him circumvent the rules of his own organization, Schulman went ahead with the deal. Normally the league could block the Haywood contract by applying the four-year college eligibility rule, since Spencer's old classmates have yet to be graduated. But Haywood's lawyers prevented that by suing the NBA (including Schulman, for he is part of the league) and getting an injunction through Judge Ferguson that barred the NBA from exercising the rule.
Schulman, who once publicly rebuked NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy for breaking off merger discussions with the ABA, is being attacked by his fellow owners because he did not respect their vote. They also feel he is testing many of the same legal weapons against them that could prove useful to their opponents in pending battles with the ABA and their own Players' Association. However, most of Schulman's critics have avoided the real issues, resorting instead to unveiled threats or half-truths. ("We'll have to kill him, or else he's going to kill us," says one owner.)
"I think the reason the other 16 NBA teams did not sign or attempt to sign Haywood is that they felt he had a valid contract with Denver," says Los Angeles Lakers' general manager Fred Schaus. But the Lakers were one of six NBA teams that showed serious interest in signing Haywood. Spencer delayed closing his deal with the Sonics in order for Los Angeles to make an offer. Other NBA leaders have taken to moralizing about the sanctity of college basketball and what the signing of Haywood will do to the league's image.
"We're not the ones who made him a pro," says Lenny Wilkens, defending the Sonics' position. "The ABA made him a pro, and there is no way he is going back to college now. We're not the ones who are violating the rules. He's on the open market. I get tired of teams suing us because we signed him. They wanted to sign him, too."
Wilkens' last point is valid. What the other teams are really most concerned about is the draft system—the fact that if the court upholds the signing of Haywood, none of them will have a chance to obtain rights to him. "A lot of clubs were interested in talking to Haywood," says Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo, one of the few to address the core of the controversy. "I did myself, but I was informed by the NBA office that he must go through this year's draft. As much as I respect Sam Schulman as a progressive owner, I can't see the Board of Governors letting this take place. It's unfair, especially to Buffalo, Portland or Cleveland, teams that might have a chance to draft Haywood in the first round."
At the NBA board meeting during the All-Star break, the owners called for Kennedy to determine the "most drastic penalties" that could be imposed on Seattle without violating the injunction which stipulates that Haywood must play. Kennedy estimated that those penalties could range from minimal fines to disenfranchisement. Schulman angrily countered with threats to expose unspecified illegal policies which he alleges all the other owners in the league have followed at one time or another.
Such a harsh exchange would seem to preclude compromise, but the NBA owners did not arrive at their present position in sports by precluding compromise. They have shouted at each other before. An accommodation may yet be worked out that would have Seattle keeping Haywood but losing its first draft choice, paying a fine and giving up a veteran player to an expansion team.
Haywood and the NBA are due back in Judge Ferguson's court again later this week, and the issue will be the most far-reaching one of all—is the league violating antitrust laws? That kind of question can make a compromise overwhelmingly attractive to everyone. Self-interest, which got so many people into difficulty in this case, will probably get them out of it.