Before he ascended the podium as youngest member of the 1968 gold-medal winning U.S Olympic team, Spencer Haywood wasn’t a household name. He grew up picking cotton in rural Mississippi and playing basketball in his spare time.
“My earliest memories of a little kid, maybe age two, was pulling the low cotton. When I was 6 or 7, I started picking two rolls of cotton. I wanted to beat my brothers. That gave me hand and eye coordination with the cotton. It has a thorn, you have to pull the cotton out of the thorn. I was pulling the sack as a young kid, a sack can get up to 100 pounds, so my body was developed,” Spencer said. “So, when I picked up a basketball, basketball came pretty simple to me because it was like, I can work with my left hand, I can work with my right hand. And I had strong legs. And I had a nemesis named Andrew Hayward, my brother, who was older and we started playing basketball.”
Spencer started his basketball career playing on the dirt ground with a barrel rim basket and ball made of cotton. He got his first taste of organized basketball in elementary school. He played with students at Bowling Green State University, competed with the pros and was recruited by coach Will Robinson in Detorit.
“Will Robinson, who became the first black coach in Division One history, said, ‘This is my boy here. We’re gonna have to put him up in our home. We’re gonna have to adopt him. And I’m gonna raise him for the next two years.’ Then when he introduced me to the team, he said, ‘Boys we’ve been playing with mules. I got a horse. And he is your horse. We got to ride him all the way to the Class A State Championship.’ I was like, wow, somebody gave me some kudos,” Spencer said.
Spencer went to Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado and was named Junior College Player of the Year. Spencer’s career took off after being selected for the 1968 U.S. Olympics Men’s Basketball team. The U.S beat Yugoslavia 65-50 and Spencer was the team’s leading scorer with a 16.3 average.
“In my mind and all I could think about was four years ago, I was a slave in Mississippi picking cotton. And now, I am the leader of this gold medal basketball team,” Spencer said.
He shares memories of meeting all-star athletes in the Mexico City Olympic Village and how Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute sparked controversy. Despite the threats athletes faced of not being able to return home after the Olympics, Spencer was greeted warmly when he returned to the states.
“We landed at the airport and, back then, people could come out to the airport. I had my medal on my neck and everything. There were like thousands of people out there cheering.”
After his stellar performance, Spencer was drafted by the American Basketball Association’s Denver Rockets. He was named ABA MVP, ABA All-Star Game MVP, All-ABA First Team, ABA Rookie of the Year, ABA rebounding leader and ABA scoring champion all in 1970. The following season, Spencer signed with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics.
“I went out there and played. I was the outstanding college player of the year behind Kareem. And I was ready to go. They changed their mind and said no…The ABA, the American Basketball Association, which was the common league, with the red, white and blue ball, they came around saying, ‘Well, you know, we didn’t get Kareem in the draft. And we don’t know how we can beat the NBA and the draft. The way that they set up their draft, we can’t compete. We need something different. So, we’re going to offer a contract to you to play in the NBA and I was like, ‘I’m gonna get paid.’ “
Spencer came of age at a time when the ABA was receding and the NBA was gaining popularity. The leagues eventually merged in 1976 and the NBA became the dominant league in the land. However, the NBA had a rule prohibiting players from joining before their high school class graduated college.
Even after he was signed with the SuperSonics, Spencer faced injunctions from the NBA and numerous roadblocks.
“I got to Cincinnati, I was thinking it’s gonna be a good night tonight. But they slammed with the injunction and they said, ‘ladies and gentlemen, we got an injunction against him tonight. But tonight he must stand outside of the grounds in which this arena is set out.’ Put me out into the snow,” Spencer said.
After fighting the case in the Supreme Court, the decision was handed down 7-2 in Spencer’s favor. The Spencer Haywood Rule allows players to join the NBA without waiting four years after high school graduation. The court cited a “hardship rule,” stating that Spencer’s family needed his NBA income to prevent undue hardship.
This rule still stands today and has paved the way for greats like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to join the league fresh out of high school and countless others without four full years of college behind them. Spencer has been petitioning the NBA to name his case victory “The Spencer Haywood Rule” instead of other monikers such as “Early Entry” or “One and Done”.
Despite his enduring legacy, Spencer feels the NBA snubbed him at the NBA 75 ceremony, noting that 44 of the 75 players have benefited from the Spencer Haywood Rule. He also had to wait 27 years to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“It was so hurtful because I was taped for this special. And I was assured that my basketball skills put me in the top 75. But then they came up with an idea that I only played in five All-Star games,” Spencer said. “I just couldn’t figure it out and it hurts. But I know that I have to surrender and let it go. All of this in due time. Not all on my time. But on God’s time.”
Spencer played with the Showtime Era Lakers but was battling a cocaine addiction and was later barred from the championship parade and stripped of his full playoff share.
“My character was just so over the top. When I got to the Lakers, I was doing fantastic. I was like, in the best shape, I was ready to roll. Then I fell into a different crowd of people who were snorting cocaine and I watched my game go…I went to one of the practices where I fell asleep stretching with the Lakers. And, so the trouble started with that, because we were at the Finals,” Spencer said.
Hear Spencer’s opinions on the “Winning Time” series and his close friendship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who he describes as his best friend.
“He gave me the idea that I’m welcome to the NBA. He had a 75th birthday and I was the only player that he flew in for his birthday,” Spencer said.
Listen to Spencer’s current work with the Spencer Haywood Foundation and his memories of Kobe Bryant.