The basketball world is discovering — make that rediscovering — Spencer Haywood. The joy that makes him feel is immense, all the sweeter for the wait.

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The basketball world is discovering — make that rediscovering — Spencer Haywood. The joy that makes him feel is immense, all the sweeter for the wait.

For decades, Haywood felt like a pariah in NBA circles, exiled because of a lawsuit against the NBA. A brilliant hoops legacy, the richest element of which was in Seattle as the city’s first pro sports superstar, was swept to the fringes.

“You know that movie (Usual Suspects), where they are always worried about saying that guy’s name, Keyser Soze?’’ Haywood mused during a visit to Seattle. “That was me. Don’t say his name, the bogeyman’s going to come.

Spencer Haywood file

Age: 66

Height: 6-8

Position: Power forward

NBA career with Sonics: 1970-1975

NBA career notables:

• 17,111 points (20.3 average)

• 8,675 rebounds (10.3 average)

• 4-time NBA All-Star

• Won NBA title with Lakers in 1980


“All of that has been lifted. What a joy this is to have that burden lifted off your back. Now the history and who I am is just bubbling up.”

Everything changed April 6, when Haywood received the glorious call from John Doleva, CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Haywood sat on the same couch on which he had waited in vain in previous years. That included a painful false alarm in 2013 when Haywood was misled into thinking he had been elected, going so far as to fly to Atlanta for some HOF festivities.

“That was the worst,’’ he said. “Everyone was congratulating me. That was embarrassing. The last three years, it was just torture. I decided, if it’s God’s will, it will be done. If not, it won’t. The minute I let go, let it all out, I get the call.”

And this time, it was genuine.

“Spencer, you’re in,’’ Doleva said simply.

Sitting in a restaurant booth in Seattle this past Friday, Haywood flashed an impish grin as he remembered the moment.

“I had to throw in one of my little stupid jokes,’’ Haywood said. “I said, ‘I’m in where?’ John said, ‘You shouldn’t play around like this, Spencer.’ ”

The tears followed, but not before one more patented Haywood wisecrack. When Doleva told him that the cream always rises to the top, Haywood replied, “I don’t care about Kareem. I’m in here now. I’m in the Hall of Fame.”

Indeed he was, at age 66, an honor that will become official at the induction ceremony Sept. 11 in Springfield, Mass. What has followed his election is a whirlwind of accolades and recognition Haywood wondered would ever come.

He calls it “the discovery of Spencer Haywood” — and not just his transcendent skills on the basketball court. Granted, it was gratifying to hear Kobe Bryant say recently his repertoire included the old Haywood turnaround jumper.

“Before, they never knew,’’ he said. “Now they’re looking at old footage. The young players are starting to learn.”

Whoever checks out the Haywood legacy will see a guy who averaged 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds during a tumultuous 13-year pro career as a 6-foot-8 power forward from 1969 to 1983.

He was an Olympic gold medalist in 1968. He was the nation’s top collegiate player at the University of Detroit. He averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds as a rookie with Denver in the ABA, and 24.9 points and 12.1 rebounds in five seasons with the Sonics, where fans ate up his ahead-of-its-time razzle dazzle.

“I came in fresh,’’ he said. “I’ll catch it over here, and what the hell, I’ll tie my shoe while I’m dunking. Seattle got it first. They loved this stuff. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I felt I could do anything. I could fly from half court.”

For Haywood, however, the best part of making the Hall of Fame is not the recognition for his basketball talent. It’s the re-examination of Haywood’s pioneering role through his legal battle in 1970-71 for the right to play in the NBA.

At the time, players couldn’t join the NBA until their college class graduated. Sonics owner Sam Schulman wanted Haywood, who had left college early, to jump from the ABA to Seattle. An ugly, brutal legal battle ensued, all the way to the Supreme Court, where Haywood prevailed.

The Haywood case paved the way for early entry into the NBA, which was supposed to be the death knell of the league. Last week, Atlanta Hawks owner Ed Peskowitz invited Haywood to be his guest at the opening game of their conference final series against the Cavaliers — to thank him for helping escalate the value of NBA franchises.

“He said, ‘I’m honoring you. Not these players,’ ” Haywood related. “ ‘They can do what they want to do. We’re honoring you as owners, because we were able to not be swallowed up by the ABA.’

“The ABA had a non-four-year-rule, and they were stealing all the young guys coming in. They could not expand and grow … I’m the owners’ favorite guy now.”

And early-entry players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and so many more are beginning to appreciate Haywood’s role in their careers as well. Haywood figures he helped James make an extra $100 million by giving him four additional years in his prime.

During his visit to Atlanta, Haywood talked to James in the Cavaliers’ locker room.

“We’re finally getting to know you, who you are,’’ James told him.

Says a glowing Haywood: “The more they learn, they look at me differently.”

Haywood’s Hall of Fame speech, which he is formulating but will come from the heart, without copious notes, will be formatted as a history lesson to LeBron and other current players. His presenters will include Charles Barkley and Lenny Wilkens, two longtime supporters.

One of Haywood’s current missions, and the prime reason for his visit to Seattle, is to set up a foundation to help with his pet projects: cancer research, drug-abuse prevention and advocating for youth. Haywood is a prostate cancer survivor and kicked his addiction to cocaine (a drug he refers to as “nasty, filthy, demonic”) in 1982.

“I want to do wonderful things,’’ he said. “It doesn’t help to hold it in. You’ve got to give it away in order to receive it. I’m trying to keep the blessing flowing.”

Blessings continue to flow Haywood’s way. At a recent Hall of Fame dinner in Annapolis, he was lauded by both Bill Walton and Nike founder Phil Knight, moving Haywood to tears. Knight related Haywood’s role as the very first Nike endorser, before it was even a company, earning Knight’s everlasting gratitude (but not a lucrative shoe contract. Yet.).

Haywood still has a special place in his heart for the players who stuck by him when he believes the NBA shunned him. High on the list is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who gave Haywood a big hug on the court in the midst of his lawsuit, when other players were afraid to associate with him.

Haywood’s social calendar is “exploding,” and with it a second look at his career. Those who take the time to watch old YouTube videos often have the same realization: Haywood would fit right in with the modern game.

“That’s me,’’ he said of today’s NBA. “It finally caught up with me.”

And so, at long last, did the Hall of Fame. Haywood likes to tell people his election “didn’t happen on my time, or your time, but God’s time, which is the right time.”

No question, it’s Spencer Haywood’s time.

“The Hall, the NBA and everyone else is, like, ‘We love this guy. Where was he?’

“I was here all along.”