A mundane May evening concluded in front of the television. Spencer Haywood sprawled his 6-foot-8 frame in a chair at his Clement, Mich...

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A mundane May evening concluded in front of the television.

Spencer Haywood sprawled his 6-foot-8 frame in a chair at his Clement, Mich., home and turned on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” after a busy day running his auto-parts factory. Kevin Garnett’s face popped up on the screen, and Haywood listened to the Timberwolves star’s acceptance speech for the 2003-04 MVP award.

Mixed with the expected acknowledgments of family and teammates was something unexpected.

“I want to thank Spencer Haywood,” Garnett said.

“What?” Haywood blurted to the TV set.

Haywood is more accustomed to scenes like All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, when young NBA stars trampled over him to get to Diddy, not knowing about the legend with his right arm extended for a handshake.

The next generation rarely thinks about the past. But Garnett’s ability to be drafted after his senior high-school season in 1995 and to sign a six-year, $126 million contact — the biggest in sports history at the time — is directly linked to Haywood.

On Monday, in a halftime ceremony, the Sonics will retire Haywood’s No. 24 jersey. But as Haywood’s banner rises to the KeyArena rafters, his legacy is as much about smashed barriers as shattered backboards, as much about one man’s refusal to accept the status quo as his remarkable statistics. His legacy is also that of a proud man who overcame poverty and drugs to become a success off the court.

“I’m forever grateful to him for leading the way,” Garnett said last week. “Without Spencer Haywood there would be no Bill Willoughby, Darryl Dawkins, Moses Malone or myself. I’m very happy that he’s being recognized for all of his accomplishments and is receiving the recognition he deserves. I want to congratulate him on having his number retired.”

Seattle’s first pro superstar

Seattle was a rainy town just becoming accustomed to professional sports when Haywood busted onto the scene. The Sonics played their first season in 1967-68 and outside of Lenny Wilkens, who joined the organization in 1968, few names stirred the imagination.

Haywood, then 19, started to blow minds internationally in 1968.

Teamed with Jo Jo White at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Haywood shot a USA basketball record 71.9 percent from the field in helping the team win gold. He scored 21 in the 65-50 title win over Yugoslavia and recalls “crying like a baby” when they placed the gold medal around his neck.

“We didn’t go to the cotton fields that day,” said Sonics legend Slick Watts, like Haywood, a native of a small Mississippi town who was 17 at the time. “To see this Mississippi boy tearing up backboards gave you a sense of pride.”

Haywood had moved from Mississippi to Chicago, then to Detroit as a teenager and was a star at Pershing High School, graduating in 1967. He played one season at Trinidad State Junior College in Alamosa, Colo., and following the Olympics, played at the University of Detroit as a sophomore.

After one season, he signed with the Denver Rockets of the ABA. He was Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1969-70, then opted to jump to the rival NBA. Eight teams bid, but Sonics owner Sam Schulman signed him to a six-year, $1.5 million contract.

Haywood vs. the NBA

Haywood had left Detroit after his sophomore season, and didn’t qualify under NBA rules that a player was ineligible until he was four years out of high school. NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy led the suit against Schulman to keep Haywood out, and the Rockets sued Schulman to retain rights to Haywood.

“I was in the court one day and on the court the next day, and they were booing and throwing bottles at me,” Haywood said. “It was a battle.”

Haywood was served injunctions and ordered to leave arenas as public-address announcers said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor.” The crowd hurled racial slurs along with ice and balled-up programs at Haywood. Players turned their backs.

He would return to his top-floor hotel room in downtown Seattle and stare at the Puget Sound as the sun set behind the Olympics.

“I had empathy for Spencer because he became the trial balloon,” said Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo, then general manager of his organization. “He was looked at by people in basketball as a little bit of a pariah for having opened up the floodgates.”

Finding his way

Haywood, then 21, was never deterred. His father died at 62, three weeks before Haywood’s birth in April 1949. When older brother Andrew left their Silver City, Miss., home at 16 to marry, Spencer became his family’s sole provider. He was 13.

Born with huge hands that would later make a palmed basketball look like a grapefruit, Haywood first believed he was going to be, “the greatest cotton picker ever.” But maxing out at $4 for 200 pounds of cotton a day and making only $30 a month off side jobs as a barber, gardener and caddie, Haywood realized basketball was his future.

“I was fighting for my family’s well-being because my mother and a lot of my family were still in Mississippi picking cotton for $2 a day,” Haywood said of his fight to join the NBA. “And I thought I was doing it for the future of the game. But I thought the future of the game would treat me better.”

Schulman paid about $700,000 in court fees and settlements, but won with a 7-2 Supreme Court decision in March 1971.

The ruling led to the NBA’s “hardship rule” allowing players to enter the draft early if they could prove a financial hardship. The NBA altered the early-entry rule in 1976 and under the current collective-bargaining agreement, a player must be one year removed from his high-school graduating class to enter the draft.

In his book, “Spencer Haywood: The Rise, The Fall, The Recovery,” Haywood quotes Kennedy as saying the ruling, “could kill college athletics and seriously injure professional athletes” while then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said, “it could destroy college football and basketball.”

The ruling, as it turned out, did not lead to mass exodus in the 1970s.

“Whenever I go to an NCAA game, there’s somebody angry with me,” said Haywood, who averaged 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds in 33 games his first season in Seattle. “They look at me and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, we would have had all of these great players.’ … But this is not bothering … baseball. No tennis player. No hockey player.

“Is it just that y’all love free labor? Look at the NCAA, for the round of 64 they make about $13 million dollars, and every year the players don’t get a dime. That is the last vestige of slavery in America right there. But I shouldn’t say that. They’ll say, ‘There he goes being bad, again.’ “

Embraced by America

A photo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar embracing Haywood helped rekindle America’s love for the Olympian. Once the 1971-1972 season started, Haywood was able to repay the Sonics for their support with plays that made fans leap from their seats.

His game and his persona were bigger than life. Haywood seemed to elevate from a platform suspended three feet in the air as he leaped over 6-11 Bob Lanier for a rim-rattling dunk. He was one of the few big men averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.

In five seasons, Haywood averaged 24.9 points and 12.1 rebounds, career bests for the Sonics.

He wore the snazziest tailored suits with fur coats. The lavish home he built in Leschi could have been featured in Ebony magazine.

Haywood started a jazz radio station, and everybody from Grover Washington Jr. to Nate Archibald would stop by the downtown studio. Of course Haywood was flanked by women who could have easily graced the pages of Playboy or Squire magazines.

And a table at 13 Coins still clears for his arrival.

“It was interesting, when I got there he was on billboards and buses,” said Sonics legend Fred Brown, who was a rookie during the 1971-72 season. “He was Superman of the SuperSonics. I had never seen anything like that. He was the man!”

Divorce and drugs

About 15 years later, however, Haywood’s Rolls-Royce was parked at the garbage dump on his property back in Mississippi, and he sat on a river bank wondering what happened to his life.

He was about to get divorced from Iman, and was raising their daughter by himself. He was struggling with his recovery from drug addiction.

Haywood had struggled with drug use toward the end of his career. He had passed out at the beginning of practice during the 1980 NBA Finals when he played for the Lakers because he had been getting high for 24 hours.

The addiction wasn’t uncommon around the league. Reports have estimated drug use among players in the early 1980s as high as 80 percent.

Haywood’s drug abuse led the NBA to enact an anti-drug policy, and he was released from the Lakers during postseason and not given his championship earnings or ring until proven sober six years later. He was banned from the league during the 1980-81 season, when he played in Italy.

He returned and played two seasons with the Washington Bullets, getting cut, then retiring unceremoniously in 1983. He says he has been sober for 21 years, has been hired by the NBA for speaking engagements and asked to participate in the Rookie Transition Program.

“It was like candy,” said Haywood, who used cocaine in New York, but began freebasing at a Beverly Hills party while with the Lakers. “Here I am sitting on top of the world with everything and I’m sitting there saying, ‘Why in the world would I allow this thing to get into my life?’ That was the end of my days with it forever. I came out publicly about it to help somebody else, but the stigma was, ‘Oh, he’s a drug addict.’ “

Haywood’s hands

The dark shadows of Haywood’s past, whether he is being demonized for the hardship rule or cocaine, are why some have a problem with his jersey being retired. Or why he has never been nominated to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But watch Kobe Bryant or Rashard Lewis play, and Haywood’s mark is as indelible as that of Martin Luther King Jr.

Haywood never stopped giving to the game he cherished. Those who know him remember a man who loved practical jokes, singing on the bus, and jazz, as well as a man who electrified the game.

“He changed basketball,” said Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a close friend of Haywood’s. “You have to question the legitimacy of the Hall when a player like Spencer, who made such a remarkable impact, is not in. He was such a unique player, but a greater human being.”

Haywood, 57, continues to give back to basketball. He wants his jersey ceremony to help revive the city’s passion for the Sonics and to build an arena in Renton. And if it happens, owner Clay Bennett has agreed to allow the construction arm of Haywood Group LLC to help build the facility.

Fitting that the hands that helped build pro basketball in Seattle may help save it.

“These hands took me to the top of the game,” Haywood said. “I look at my hands now and I always try to keep them open because I always want to give. Through giving, you receive a lot of wonderful blessings. If I ever close them, I’m a sad person.”

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Previous retired Sonic numbers


Fred Brown


Nate McMillan


Lenny Wilkens


Jack Sikma


Gus Williams

Haywood career stats
Spencer Haywood, a 6-9 forward, played 12 seasons in the NBA, including five with the Sonics.
Year Team G Min FG FT 3-pt Pts Reb Ast
1969-70 Denver (ABA) 84 45.3 .493 .776 30.0 19.5 2.3
Playoffs 1 season 12 47.3 .511 .831 36.6 19.8 3.2
Year Team G Min FG FT Pts Reb Ast Blk
1970-71 Seattle 33 35.2 .449 .734 20.6 12.0 1.5
1971-72 Seattle 73 43.4 .461 .819 26.2 12.7 2.0
1972-73 Seattle 77 42.3 .476 .839 29.2 12.9 2.5
1973-74 Seattle 75 40.5 .457 .814 23.5 13.4 3.2 1.4
1974-75 Seattle 68 37.2 .459 .811 22.4 9.3 2.0 1.6
1975-76 New York 78 37.1 .445 .757 19.9 11.3 1.2 1.0
1976-77 New York 31 32.9 .450 .832 16.5 9.0 1.6 0.9
1977-78 New York 67 26.3 .484 .711 13.7 6.6 1.9 1.1
1978-79 New York 34 30.1 .489 .733 17.8 6.1 1.6 0.9
New Orleans 34 39.4 .497 .849 24.0 9.6 2.1 1.6
1979-80 L.A. Lakers 76 20.3 .487 .772 9.7 4.6 1.2 0.8
1981-82 Washington 76 27.4 .476 .842 13.3 5.6 0.8 0.9
1982-83 Washington 38 20.4 .401 .724 8.2 4.8 0.8 0.7
Career 12 seasons 760 33.7 .465 .800 19.2 9.3 1.8 1.1
Playoffs 4 seasons 33 27.0 .448 .789 13.4 5.7 1.2 1.0