In a year when the Basketball Hall of Fame finally did right by Bernard King, it dropped the ball when it came to Spencer Haywood.
by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports
This is not the column I wanted to write. I yearned to pen a love poem to one of the inductees of the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2013, my boyhood hero Bernard King. I wanted to sing the praises of the player who, at his peak, was the best scoring small forward I ever saw in person. I wanted to shout it to the heavens because the greatness of the man who dropped 50 on consecutive nights in Texas back in 1984 was finally being recognized. But I can’t. I can’t praise Bernard because of a different dirty-pool decision the Hall of Fame voters made that reeks to high heaven: the inclusion and then subsequent exclusion of Spencer Haywood.
For those who don’t know the name Spencer Haywood, his playing résumé speaks for itself. In a career that lasted from 1969-1983, he averaged 20 points and 10 boards per game, including an insane 30 and 20 his rookie year with the ABA’s Denver Rockets when he won both Rookie of the Year and MVP. The stunningly graceful power forward also has a ’68 Olympic Gold medal and four All-Star teams on his résumé. Yet he has been snubbed for years. This year was the most bitter of all pills because Haywood had actually been told that he finally at long last had made it before it was taken away. “Someone in the NBA told me I was in,” he said. “This isn’t a punch in the stomach. It’s below the stomach.”
It seems the 64-year-old Haywood has been blackballed. The question is, why? Some say it’s because he suffered a very public drug addiction late in his career. But Bernard King also went through rehab, not to mention many others in the HOF. So what’s the real reason?
The answer lies, ironically, in the number one reason why Haywood should be enshrined: his political sacrifice. Before Haywood, you couldn’t play in the NBA until four years after the graduation of your high school class. Haywood, whose family lived in dire poverty, wanted to jump in after his freshman year at the University of Detroit and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and won, changing the rules forever. That means Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, almost every great player of the last 40 years owes Haywood a debt. He’s our Curt Flood, the Major League Baseball player who challenged baseball’s reserve clause in court and opened the door for free agency, except unlike Flood, Haywood won. The powers-that-be in the NBA have long memories, and clearly, they haven’t forgotten the 21-year-old who has cost them billions in salary. If that sounds conspiratorial, consider the name of the lawyer who argued the NBA’s case in front of the Supreme Court and lost: a young attorney named David Stern.
As Haywood remembered, “For me, it was like a holy hell. Even now, it’s painful for me to go through those memories. I’ve tamped them down…I got heckled. Punched. I’d not just have to leave the team or game—to not even be allowed on the arena grounds? I was treated no different than I was in my hometown in Mississippi. It felt like the only difference was, during that period, I could use the same bathrooms, the same water fountains. That’s about it.”
After the Supreme Court decided on Haywood’s behalf in 1971 that the NBA couldn’t legally prevent him from making a living, the 21-year-old Haywood was told by Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall—the first black justice—that the road ahead would not be smooth. As Haywood said to ESPN writer Johnette Howard, “Thurgood Marshall explained to me it was because pioneers are usually ostracized—history told you that. And, I mean, look at Curt Flood. He died in poverty. People didn’t give a damn.” Another similarity to Curt Flood is that despite his awesome contribution to the game of baseball, he remains outside the baseball Hall of Fame, alongside the union leader who stood by his side, the late Marvin Miller. It’s been said that a baseball Hall of Fame without Miller and Flood lacks legitimacy as a true Hall of Fame. The same could be said about a basketball Hall of Fame without Haywood. It’s an absolute embarrassment, and he should be enshrined in Springfield without delay.