Spencer Haywood reminds us he was as big on the basketball court as he was in the courtroom
We’re not quite halfway through the 25-day Seattle International Film Festival but one of the clear highlights so far, especially for local sports fans, has been the documentary “Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story.”
Perhaps the greatest athlete to ever play for the Seattle SuperSonics, Haywood was a superstar on the basketball court and a man of historic significance in the courtroom as well.
Today, when the charismatic 67-year-old Hall-of-Famer reflects on his life, his mind goes back to where it started with his mom in the cotton fields of Mississippi.
“She started picking cotton when she was 3 years old,” Haywood said. “When I got to Seattle, my mother was still picking cotton for $2 a day. She had picked so many years, that her back went out. So she was crawling on the ground to pick it.”
“So I couldn’t take it,” he said. “I just wanted to get her off of her knees. That’s why I fought to the Supreme Court … I wanted to get my mom off of the ground.”
The Supreme Court case that Haywood references was his legal challenge to the NBA’s four-year rule. That rule forbade any player from playing professionally until he was four years out of high school. Bankrolled by Sonics owner Sam Schulman, Haywood took on the entire basketball establishment to knock that rule down.
“Not only the all-mighty NBA, but the NCAA, also the ABA, and then the University of Detroit joined the suit,” he said. “I had all of these people coming against me and I was 20 years old.”
Haywood finally prevailed at the Supreme Court. But it wasn’t as easy on the court after that. In fact, one of the justices warned him of the consequences he faced.
“When we got there and we won under the Sherman Antitrust Act, which is you can’t stop a person from making a living, Thurgood Marshall said to me, ‘You won a case, but you will be ostracized for life,’” Haywood said.
“And I was like, ‘What does that old man know?’” Haywood said with a laugh. “Now, 45 years later, here we are and yes, I have been ostracized for years and years.”
Although that court ruling — dubbed the Spencer Haywood rule — paved the way for the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James to enter the league earlier than they would otherwise have been able to, the NBA establishment continued to treat Haywood as persona non grata. He wasn’t voted into the NBA Hall of Fame until last year, decades after his contemporaries had made it in.
And at his Hall of Fame acceptance speech last September, he wanted to make sure that fans of the game realized he should be known for more than just setting legal precedent.
“OK, that’s all fine and well. I did do all of that,” Haywood said. “But the end of my speech was a message to all the players … ‘Hey, listen, I understand I have this case that paved the way for all you guys. But remember the key thing — I had serious game.’”
And although he’s been out of the game for 30 years, he insists his game would translate well to today’s NBA standards. He notes his stats were impressive even when lined up against modern players. Haywood never lacked for confidence and clearly he still doesn’t.
But the film also reveals a growth in maturity that eluded the young star much of his career. In the documentary’s most poignant moment, Haywood admits to one of his biggest regrets in life — not attending a parade held in his honor in his tiny hometown of Silver City, Miss. after he won an Olympic Gold Medal.
“When I came back from the ’68 Olympics, this big parade was taking place in my hometown and we only had a population of 300,” he said. “I was all, ‘I’m too much of a big shot now to come and sashay around with you old country folks down in Silver City, Mississippi. I’m a gold medalist!’”
“For my mom, that was her day,” Haywood said. “I didn’t realize it. I kind of squandered that idea. That hurt her.”
His mom eventually would join Haywood in Seattle, providing her son with plenty fish-out-of-water stories. She couldn’t understand why anyone would risk driving across a “floating” bridge. Or who would want to eat hundreds of feet in the air at the Space Needle. Or why someone would build a house out into the water — Haywood had a home on Lake Washington at the time.
But Haywood realizes it was his mother’s heroic sacrifices to raise him and his nine siblings in the cotton fields of the deep south that allowed him to be the successful and contented man he is today.