Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Haywood's legacy lives on in basketball and life

By John McMullen
Philadelphia, PA - Spencer Haywood was a spectacular professional basketball player.

Before retiring in 1986, the five-time ABA/NBA All-Star punctuated his resume as a member of the 1979-1980 Los Angeles Lakers championship team. But, Haywood's on-court exploits were dwarfed by his impact on the game away from the floor.

It's now been 40 years since the young Olympic gold medalist joined the Seattle SuperSonics, after challenging the NBA's eligibility rule of waiting four years after high school graduation to play professional basketball.

It all started in the late 1960s. A spectacular athlete, the 6-foot-8, 225- pound Haywood was so good at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado during the 1967-68 college season, he parlayed that into making the USA Olympic Basketball team in 1968, where he was the leading scorer on the gold medal team during the Olympics.

Haywood transferred to the University of Detroit later that year, and led the NCAA in rebounding with a 21.5 average per game while scoring 32.1 points per game during the 1968-69 season. He wanted to turn pro after his sophomore year, but the NBA balked and Haywood joined the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association for his rookie season.

Haywood was sensational in the Rockies, leading the ABA in scoring (30.0 points per game) and rebounding (19.5 rpg), en route to being named the ABA All-Star Game MVP, Rookie of the Year and league MVP, quite a trifecta at the tender age of 21.

In 1970, despite the NBA's eligibility rules, Haywood signed with the Sonics, and with the help of owner Sam Schulman, launched an anti-trust suit against the league, resulting in the landmark Haywood V. National Basketball Association case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Sensing it was on the losing end of the argument, the NBA settled the case, which resulted in the early entry rules that the league abides by today, and opening the floodgates for many of the league's finest players to leave school early for a shot at the riches pro basketball had to offer.

Legends like Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, along with current stars like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James all owe a debt of gratitude to Haywood's foresight, fortitude and determination.

Traits Haywood downplays, even to this day.

"I didn't realize the significance of the ruling at the time," Haywood said. "I was just a young man who wanted to play basketball. Now, it's quite astonishing to look at the caliber, talent and success of the list of players that have benefited from the early entry ruling."

Things weren't all rosy for Haywood, however. During his first season in Seattle, he was booed at several arenas but persevered and was named to the All-NBA First Team in 1972 and 1973. His 29.2 points per game during the '72-73 season and 13.4 rebounds in '73-74 are still the single-season records in franchise history, and he fueled the Sonics to their first ever playoff berth.

The success, fame and incredible athletic ability were not enough to save Haywood from his personal demons and he spiraled down a path of drug addiction that eventually cost him his family.

By 1980, his championship season in LA, Haywood says he was often going on 24- hour freebase cocaine binges. In the ensuing years he lost his first wife and young daughter, forcing him to evaluate his self-destructive ways.

Haywood made the commitment to get sober and although it took three 30-day rehabilitation programs to do it, he has remained sober for 24 years.

"The success of my 24 years of sobriety is due to surrounding myself with good people and for having a passion and opportunity to mentor rookies at pre- season camp," Haywood said.

Since regaining his sobriety, Haywood has enjoyed a lot of success that spans fare beyond the NBA. A successful developer, and founder of American Community Builders, Haywood is also the co-founder of a drug and rehabilitation facility in Las Vegas called Las Vegas Resort & Retreat, a residential medical village that will provide a 24-hour therapeutic environment.

"Addictions, whether it be drugs, alcohol, or a variety of other addictions, impact families and friends from all walks of life," Haywood said. In Las Vegas, where I have a home, there is a great need for such a facility."

Already redeemed in the game of life, Haywood is about to redeemed by his old profession.

Once the NBA's greatest antagonist, he will be honored by the league during All-Star Saturday for paving the way for so many great young players.
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