When he began his fight in 1970 to play in the National Basketball League before finishing college, former basketball star Spencer Haywood’s mission was to provide financial support to his mother and nine siblings who were living “dirt poor” and picking cotton in Mississippi.
In the end, though, his successful legal battle — which started when he joined the Seattle SuperSonics and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — paved the way for opportunities for future NBA players
“I stood up for the rights of players but deep down it wasn’t for the rights of players,” Haywood told a standing-room-only crowd gathered Thursday at Edmonds Community College for the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day program titled “Athletes and Activism.” “It was for the rights of my mother to get out of that cotton field, for my family to get off those knees.”
The 68-year-old Haywood received a standing ovation when he first walked onto the Black Box Theater stage and again at the end of his appearance. He spent the first part of the program answering questions from the program host — appropriately Edmonds CC men’s basketball player Devin Price — and then fielded questions from the audience.
Haywood talked about growing up as one of 10 children, picking cotton in Silver City, Mississippi. “The deal was, if you could work for a full day you could get paid $2 a day from sunup to sundown,” he said. “That’s where I learned work ethic because you were working for your food, working for your family.”
“We didn’t have much. We just were very dirt poor,” Hayward continued, describing how the family’s Christmas gifts came in February, not in December. “We had to wait until all the kids threw away their toys and we’d pull the toys out of the junkyard and put them all back together and my mother would declare Christmas on that day,” he said.
He described playing in his first high school game after moving to Detroit, Mich., and putting the ball in the wrong basket. He eventually led his high school team to the state championship.
From 1967-68, the 6-foot-9 Haywood played at Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, Colo., where he averaged 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds per game. He was tried out and was chosen to play for the 1968 USA Summer Olympics basketball team in Mexico City after Kareem Abdul Jabbar decided to boycott the games. “They needed a center,” he recalled. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Haywood ended up being the leading scorer for the Olympic team, which won a gold medal.
As a college freshman playing in the Olympics, Haywood said he was “hanging on the outer edge” of the racial unrest that was rocking the nation. In addition to peaceful protests led by Dr. King and others, boxer Muhammad Ali in 1967 was convicted of draft evasion after refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War on religious grounds. (That conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.) African American track and field Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the summer games in a Black Power salute, to draw attention to inequality in the U.S.
At the time, Haywood said he remembered thinking: “One of these days, when it becomes my turn, I will stand up. But this is not the right time because we are trying to win a gold medal for this country. And there’s nothing like winning a gold medal for America,” he said.
After the Olympics, Haywood played his sophomore year at the University of Detroit, where he scored 32.1 points and 21.5 rebounds per game. Because the NBA had a rule that a player could not play there until he was four years out of high school, Haywood went to the ABA’s Denver Rockets, where he led the league with 30 points and 19 boards per game, was named Rookie of Year and also the league’s Most Valuable Player.
In 1970, Haywood joined the Seattle SuperSonics. “When I arrived in Seattle that day, I said to (Sonics owner) Sam Schulman, this place is like a postcard, so beautiful,” Haywood said. He said he also felt warmly welcomed by the city’s residents, and it encouraged him to take legal action against the NBA
“The people in Seattle were different than any place I’d ever been,” Haywood said. ” It felt right then, this is the right place to take on this case. It’s going to be a tough case and I need that support.”
He eventually won a favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision 7-2 in March 1971, opening the door to high school players entering the NBA. But he faced a storm of controversy a few games into his first season, when the NBA served him with an injunction stating that he couldn’t play. “They let me get out on floor, let me get ready for a jump ball and then announced that the game was being played under protest because there was an illegal player on the floor.”
The reaction was brutal. Away teams wouldn’t play when Haywood was on the floor, fans booed and threw things. One time in Cincinnati, he was escorted out of the arena and had to stand outside in the snow until it was time for the team bus to arrive.
“I knew I was doing the right thing because at that time my mom and my brothers and sisters were still picking cotton in Mississippi,” Haywood said. “My mom had been picking cotton and chopping cotton since she was 3 years old and her back went out. She was crawling on the ground picking cotton.
“So that was the whole motivation for the fight that was to come.”
Program moderator Devin Price asked Haywood for his take on the status of NFL quarter Colin Kaepernick, who began protesting racial injustice by not standing while the National Anthem was being played before the start of games. In 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, accusing them of colluding to not hire him.
“Of course he (Kapernick) is being blackballed for leading the protests, but he was doing it for the right reasons,” Haywood said.
During the 1974–75 season, Haywood helped lead the Sonics to their first playoff berth. Overall, during his five seasons with Seattle, Haywood averaged 24.9 points per game and 12.1 rebounds per game. In 1975, the Sonics traded him to the New York Knicks, and he also later played for the New Orleans Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, and Washington Bullets.
During the late 1970s, Haywood had drug problems that caused him to be suspended from the Lakers, and he played in Italy for a year before returning to the NBA to play two seasons with the Bullets. (He addressed this issue briefly during the audience Q&A, stating that he had been sober for 31 years.)
The Sonics retired Haywood’s No 24 jersey on Feb. 26, 2007, and Haywood has remained loyal to his Seattle roots. When he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, Haywood said the NBA encouraged him to be represented as a player from the New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets or even the Oklahoma Thunder (where the Sonics team moved to in 2008). The reasoning was, those franchises are active and he would get revenue from jersey sales. But Haywood was firm that he wanted to go into the Hall of Fame as a Seattle Supersonic.
“I owe it to Seattle to be a Sonic,” he said.
Haywood said he’s hopeful, given all the recent talk of bringing both a professional hockey and basketball team to Seattle soon, that “we’ll get a chance to bring the NBA back.”
“Sonics are forever and trust me, we’re coming back,” Haywood said to audience applause. “Soon, very soon.”
Answering another question from Price, Haywood said that athletes have an obligation to be leaders and role models. He pointed to current player LeBron James, who started a foundation that has funded putting 1,000 students through college. Haywood said that James and several other current players also pledged to donate $17 million annually to fund health insurance for the NBA’s Retired Players Association (which also covers WNBA and Harlem Globetrotters players). Haywood currently serves as chair.
An audience member asked whether athletes should do more to highlight discrimination against Muslims and Latinos. Haywood agreed, noting that his first wife, the model Iman, was from Somalia and he was a practicing Muslim during their 12-year marriage.
Another questioner asked his opinion about the importance of activism. “I think you have to agitate,” he said “You have to speak out, you have to make things right because if people don’t know, they just don’t know. How do you get out there to step out and help them know?”
How would Haywood encourage young men today to engage in activism, one attendee asked. “You do your best for yourself and I think you have to be a little careful that you don’t get so swallowed up in your activism that you lose what your goals are,” Haywood replied. “The balance is what it’s all about. And love each other, because you are each other and that’s all you have.”
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel