Wednesday, October 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Original `Hardship' -- Spencer Haywood, The First Player To Bolt Early For The Pros, Waits For History To Remember Him

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

He stitches together a decade of professional basketball with stream-of-consciousness ramblings, jumping from vignette to colorful vignette like a rebounder.

So much to encapsulate and the 24-second clock of life running down. Ten, nine, eight . . . Spencer Haywood is starting to wonder when the recognition will come.

Too bad he thinks he is alone in this pursuit.

The man whose challenge helped bring about bigger salaries by gaining greater freedom and leverage for players has to buy a ticket to NBA games like the rest of us.

Twenty-six years ago, Haywood and Sam Schulman, then-Sonic owner, helped end the NBA's policy on drafting players only after their college eligibility expired. Through a series of court challenges, the NBA had to revise its policy, which later ushered in a young Magic Johnson jumping to the pros early and helping to save the game.

"The players today, many are under this ruling," Haywood said recently. "I go up to shake their hand, `Hey, I'm Spencer Haywood.' They look at me blank and tell me I didn't do it. At least, I thought they would respect me for doing it."

Some of the young stars of this new, hep NBA that starts anew Friday do appreciate Haywood's struggles even if they don't show it.

"He's not getting nearly all the praise he should because some players don't want to speak out," said Kobe Bryant, the Laker guard who skipped college to play in the NBA last season. "The owners might not be too happy about it. It's a (delicate) topic."

Bryant, though, wants Haywood to know he is thankful.

"I know who he is," Bryant said. "I think it is important for what he stood for. He wanted to walk a different path, to follow his heart. He set the standard for years to come. All the hype about us skipping college has made people wonder. But first and foremost, Spencer is the first to do it."

Being remembered is all he wants, Haywood says, although there is a trace of something else around the edges of his low-pitched voice.

At 48, Haywood could enjoy his bounty, which includes living on a Michigan golf course with his second wife and two daughters. He is financially secure because of smart real-estate investments, emotionally secure after facing a drug addiction in the late 1970s.

But the recurring theme of respect shadows him like a day-old beard. Haywood, who has called reporters over the years to plead his case, is not saying anything new. He didn't let go of a challenge 26 years ago, and is not going easily now.

The perseverance has resulted in minor victories. Haywood recently was honored by the Black Sports Agents Association for his contribution to basketball.

"It was a matter of principle," Schulman, 87, living in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Century City, said of the draft fight. "I couldn't see any logical reason for keeping a man from making a living. I thought it was unconstitutional."

Schulman also suffered as a result of the challenge in which current NBA Commissioner David Stern was a league lawyer fighting it. He said the owners treated him coolly after the court victories even though he paid the league $200,000 in fines in an out-of-court settlement that ended the dispute in March 1971.

The treatment resulted in Schulman selling the team and getting out of professional sports.

The NBA isn't embracing Haywood? Well, it's not exactly a point in league history owners and officials are thrilled to recount.

When Haywood was the country's leading scorer as a University of Detroit sophomore in 1969, the NBA did not draft players until their college eligibility expired.

But Haywood left school two years early to sign with the Denver Rockets of the now-defunct American Basketball Association. Trying to tweak the NBA, the upstart league signed "hardship" cases to play before their college eligibility ended.

In Haywood's situation, the rule was well-meaning. One of 11 children from a carpenter's family in poor Mississippi, Haywood was born a month after his father died. He started picking cotton at 2.

"We were nothing but sharecroppers," he said. "I was born on my mother's bed with the help of a midwife. As a kid, I didn't see any future at all. When I arrived in Detroit as a young person, I didn't know what a lawyer was."

His basketball talent led him to a Detroit high-school coach who adopted him. He went to Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, then made the 1968 U.S. Olympic team and started at center because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Elvin Hayes did not try out.

As a 6-foot-7 1/2 forward, Haywood led the United States to a gold medal. By the time he attended Detroit the next year, he was considered one of the country's best - college or pro.

Haywood proved he was ready for the pros, earning ABA awards as most valuable player and rookie of the year in 1970. But the forward feuded with the Rockets over the fine print of his contract - $1.9 million for six years - and wanted out.

Al Ross, his agent, approached Schulman about coming to Seattle. Haywood also had offers from eight other NBA teams. Schulman, a Harvard business graduate, didn't need much persuasion to see the positive returns of having Haywood in the lineup. He offered to pay cash, and signed the ABA star, arguing Haywood already was a pro and the college rule no longer applied.

The league disagreed, filing suit to stop the move in January 1971. That started Haywood on a three-month course through the legal system, including the Supreme Court.

Because of the legal challenges, Haywood never knew what would happen next in his first season with the Sonics. One minute he would be eligible, the next he would be served papers on the basketball court barring him from that night's contest. He played in only 33 games, averaging 20.6 points.

"They would wait until I got on the floor to jump ball and then an announcement would come on, `Spencer Haywood is being served right now,' " Haywood recalled. "I would have to leave the gym and maybe sit on a cold bus until the game was over."

Some teams refused to play against him, saying Haywood was an illegal player. In his first eight games, opponents filed protests with the league, attempting to ban Haywood. After his third game, the Chicago Bulls sued the Sonics because forward Chet Walker suffered a twisted ankle during warmups.

The suit, which eventually was dropped, claimed Haywood's appearance was a distraction that caused Walker's injury.

"Most kids today don't think it was a battle, but it was a Supreme Court fight to the end," Haywood said.

Haywood, an NBA all-star from 1972 to 1975, rewarded Schulman's support - the owner paid $500,000 in legal fees - by leading the Sonics to their first playoff appearance in 1975. Coach Bill Russell traded him to the New York Knicks the next season, and Haywood's salad days in Seattle were over.

Surprisingly, Haywood doesn't have a shrine in the family den to pay tribute to his career. No trophies, plaques or certificates of honor.

"All I have is the gold medal and the (1980 NBA) championship ring," he said. "My folks didn't allow me to keep all that stuff. My mom thought I'd get a big head. My kids question whether I did any of the things I tell them."

He did them, and not all of it was memorable. Haywood's well-chronicled drug addiction might be the mark that keeps him from achieving the recognition he says he desires.

After Seattle, Haywood seemed to lose his touch and became trade bait, eventually landing with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979-80. Married to the model Iman, he could have been known as Hollywood Haywood because he seemed to enjoy the fast-paced party life of Los Angeles more than basketball.

In one of the most ignominious moments, Paul Westhead, then-Laker coach, suspended Haywood after Game 3 of the NBA Finals when the troubled player acknowledged he had a crack-cocaine addiction.

Haywood said he was seeking help from his coach, not repudiation. The response devastated him. The Lakers won the championship in six games by defeating Philadelphia in Magic Johnson's rookie season.

Although Haywood played 76 games and averaged about nine points, teammates voted him out of a share of the championship earnings. The team also didn't give him a ring or invite him to the victory parade in downtown Los Angeles.

After going through treatment for a number of years, Haywood revealed in an autobiography that he plotted to kill Westhead by sabotaging his car. He said his mother dissuaded him from hiring friends to execute the plan.

"My addiction was bad, but 90 percent of the team were doing drugs," Haywood said of perhaps the NBA's worst period, with rampant cocaine use. "I was always tagged as a troublemaker, a clubhouse lawyer."

The Lakers eventually gave Haywood his ring in 1988 and a portion of the championship earnings in 1992. He recently talked to a former teammate and for the first time is feeling better about the entire affair.

Such occasions raise his spirits, and the lilt in his voice jumps an octave. It's a sweet moment, as sweet as his old jump shot.

It doesn't last.

"I get a little bitter," Haywood said. "It's so unfair, because if I am the cornerstone of the NBA in how this has grown, don't you think I should get some kind of due?"

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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