Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story

The luminaries that were gathered in one of the conference rooms at the Sheraton Centre Toronto on Friday afternoon, February 12th, were beyond impressive. They were there to honor the finalists for the 2016 class of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, headlined by Yao Ming, Allen Iverson and Shaquille ONeal.

Being able to speak and rub elbows with the likes of Tiny Archibald, Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, George The Iceman Gervin, Oscar Robertson and many others made the frigid Canadian weather bearable for me, as I was there on assignment covering the NBA All-Star weekend.

The best moment of the press conference was when Shaq was handed the microphone.

The first time I met Mr. Haywood, he cursed me out, Shaq said, referring to the legendary Spencer Haywood, a 2015 Hall of Fame inductee who smiled wide behind him on stage. He went up to me and said, Do you know who I am? I said, No. He just grabbed me and said, Well you need to know. I paved the way for you! If it wasnt for me leaving early, you wouldnt have been able to leave early.’

Haywood and everyone else on stage erupted in laughter, but there was a serious undertone to the moment, because for entirely too long, Spencer Haywoods contributions to the game of basketball have long been underappreciated. He was one of the most dominant players and exceptional young talents that the game has ever witnessed.

But the story of his journey, both within the game and the larger crucible of life are equally fascinating. It has all of the elements of a Horatio Alger novel and a Shakespearean tragedy all rolled into one.

Before he blossomed into one of the greatest forwards in the history of the NBA, his beginnings were rooted in the dirt soil of Silver City, Mississippi. The Blues provided the soundtrack of his upbringing. His father, a hard-working and gifted carpenter, died three weeks before Spencer was born.

With ten children to feed, his mother toiled from sunup to sundown picking cotton, with baby Spencer strapped to her back. Despite slavery having long been abolished, the system of tenant farming that took its place in areas of the deep south, where agriculture was king, proved not to be much of an improvement.

In the 1960s, he was told by a white man whose interactions with him had been very kind throughout his life that, If the Civil Rights Movement gets out of hand, Ill cut your balls off.

When he wasnt working in the oppressively hot fields picking cotton or in church, Spencer, his brothers and their friends would play basketball, with a ball that was nothing more than a burlap sack filled with cotton. Despite not having a ball that could bounce, he learned early about passing, spacing and ball movement. Once receiving a pass, the boys were allowed to take only two steps before dishing off or shooting.

Theyd walk for miles in search of pickup games. After one game where hed impressed his older brother Andrew, whod assumed the mantle of the man in the house after his father passed away, young Spencer felt a change bubbling up inside of him.

His mother bought him his first pair of sneakers, for which she paid $3.00, along with one of her homemade pecan pies.

The Ku Klux Klan was an active presence in Silver City and the nearby town of Belzoni, where Spencer attended the all-black McNair High School. By the time he was 15 years old, he was the biggest thing to ever surface on Mississippis prep basketball scene.

Knowing that his future was destined to take him no further than the cotton fields if he stayed in Mississippi, his family decided to send him to Chicago, to live with his older brother Andrew. From there, serendipity took over, leading him to Bowling Green, Ohio and eventually Pershing High School in Detroit, where under the mentorship of the legendary coach and mentor Will Robinson, Haywood established the foundation of what would become a charmed life.

His story, though, is filled with ups and downs, triumph and struggle, defeats and vindication. Its one of astounding NBA success, ushering in an era of million dollar contracts in pro basketball and cringe-worthy struggles with addiction.

Early in his career, he was approached by his friend Phil Knight to help promote his fledgling new sneaker company, Nike. He was offered $100,000 in cash, or 10 percent ownership in the company. His agent took the money, so he could quickly liquidate his commission check. Had Haywood not listened and chosen the longer-term view with the stock options, that 10% ownership stake in Nike today would be worth approximately $9 Billion.

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Its one example of the many lessons learned, of opportunities lost. But those missteps have also proven to motivate and inspire him to pull himself back up, when lesser men would have simply wallowed in misery.

Luckily, he gives us an intimate look at his life in the gripping new documentary, Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story, which is narrated by legendary Hip Hop icon Chuck D of Public Enemy.

The film provides some nuance and texture, and moments that induce both laughter and tears, to the man who is responsible for the current state of the NBA today. With his court challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Haywood was responsible for the NBAs hardship rule, which allowed players to enter the league early. Previously, they had to wait until they were four years removed from their high school graduation.

People are quick to point out how Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Roberston, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Dr. J and Michael Jordan changed the game. But none of them altered the landscape with the same type of impact and reverberations that Spencer Haywood did.

If you consider yourself a true basketball fan, do not miss the documentary. But even more than that, if youre a student of the intersection of sports, commerce, culture and the real story of America from the 1940s through today, seen through the lens of an athletic wunderkind from rural Mississippi who went on to win an Olympic Gold Medal and accomplish things that he could have once never imagined, this film will touch you.

And if you understand the power of hope, of pulling oneself out from poverty and some self-inflicted later destruction, of believing that one can become whole again after being shattered to pieces through the ugliest and most sinister things that life has to offer, Full Court will be well worth your time.

Spencer Haywood recently took some time to sit down with The Shadow League to talk about the film and his life.

The Shadow League: How did the idea of the documentary come about?

Spencer Haywood: Since my Hall of Fame induction, there’s been a lot of interest in people wanting to tell my story. A lot of today’s young players didn’t know that I was that type of player. They also didn’t know that I was the guy who went to the Supreme Court and made it possible for them to have all that they have today.

TSL: Why did you decide to produce it independently, as opposed to going with some of the other companies with big names that put a bid in on the project?

SH: I met Dwayne Clark, a wealthy Seattle businessman at a fundraiser that Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, put together. Dwayne had just started his film company. We started talking about the possibility of this film.

There were a number of other bidders, but I decided to go with Dwayne because we would be independent and we’d be able to do what WE wanted to do with it. He was based in Seattle, that’s where the court case took place and that’s the city that I grew up in as a young man when I was playing for the Seattle Supersonics. So it seemed like a divine fit.

TSL: I’ve heard Charles Barkley and Shaq talk about your importance, letting some of the younger generation know what you meant to the game and how you changed the entire dynamic of the NBA. You were also the original sports superstar in Seattle. Who are some of the old Sonics that have been supportive of the documentary?

SH: All of the great Sonics like Jack Sikma, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, Fred Brown, Shawn Kemp and Lenny Wilkens, who also played a major part in the film. 

TSL: And one of my favorite emcee’s played a major role as well.

SH: Yes, Chuck D from Public Enemy is involved. He did the narration as well as the soundtrack.

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(Photo Credit: USA Today)

TSL: In just a few words, how would you characterize the film?

SH: It’s an educational piece, but it’s also a happy piece. It’s the story of a person coming out of the cotton fields of Silver City, Mississippi, a town with a population of 300 people. And it answers the question: How did he become the one chosen for such a monumental task?

TSL: Tell me about a young Spencer Haywood, before the athletic gifts prospered.

SH: I was born with an extra joint in my hand. All of the people in my community were cotton pickers. they picked from sunup to sundown. I started working in the cotton fields, working 12 hours a day, when I was three years old.

People told me that I was going to be the best cotton picker in the county because my hands were so big and I could hold more cotton than anyone else. We would go into the fields when the cotton was wet and practice.

TSL: How did basketball come into the picture?

SH: We were so poor that we couldn’t afford a basketball. My mother made one out of a burlap sack and cotton. We had a wooden backboard and a rim that we created. My first introduction to basketball was through a ball that couldn’t bounce, so you learned to pass and you learned to cut. 

TSL: When did you realize that you loved the game?

SH: When I was in junior high school was when I said, ‘Oh my God! I love this game!’ I just kept practicing and practicing all the time. My freshman year at McNair High School, one of our star players was in jail for throwing a brick through somebody’s window. My coach threw me out into the fray. I was so excited that I scored my first two points in the wrong basket.

TSL: How did you wind up at Pershing High School in Detroit playing for the great Mr. Will Robinson?

SH: My mother realized that I could not go any further in Mississippi. The schools and everything else were completely segregated. She wanted me to get out of Silver City. So she got me a ticket and I went to Chicago to stay with my brother Andrew. That took me on a journey to Bowling Green in Ohio, where another brother was, and that led to me finding my way to the great Will Robinson in Detroit. He basically adopted me, along with James and Ida Bell. They became my second family.

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TSL: Today, we see so many ulterior motives with guardianship issues around talented young athletes, with people looking for something in return. But it wasn’t like that with Mr. Robinson and the Bell family, was it?

SH: I was lacking in education and they brought in Dr. Wayne Dyer, who was one of the teachers at the school who would go on to become famous, to work with me. He took me under his wing and began to re-educate me. He taught me how to read, write and speak, over and over.

Even though I was in high school, I had the equivalent of a second grade education when I got to Detroit. Yes, I was a great athlete, but Mr. Robinson cared about me and tried to mold me into the best young man that I could possibly be.

TSL: And you helped Pershing win a Michigan state title, something that a Detroit school had not done in quite some time.

SH: The city of Detroit hadn’t had a state champion in over 35 years, Everybody in the city was looking at me and saying, ‘This is the guy!’ We wound up winning a Class A state championship and I averaged 27 points and 26 rebounds per game. Then, I was on my way.

TSL: And one year later, you led the United States to a Gold Medal in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. 

SH: I was at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado and Will Robinson was telling me, ‘They want you right now for the Olympics!’ The great Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, boycotted those games, as did other great players like Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.

People were saying, ‘We got this 18-year-old kid that is going to lead America.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t get it.’ But I wound up setting a record that stood for 44 years, for the most points and rebounds in the history of an Olympic Games.

TSL: It’s amazing how good you were at such a young age, considering that you’d really only been playing organized ball for a couple of years. And you dominated at the Olympics before playing your first Division I college basketball game.

SH: I came back from the Olympics, went to the University of Detroit and set NCAA records for the most points and rebounds in a season. I averaged 33 points and 21 rebounds during my one college season.

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(Photo Credit: USA Today)

TSL: How did you come to decide to leave early and challenge the NBA’s rule that a player had to be four years removed from high school in order to play in the league?

SH: The two pro leagues were in a bidding war at the time. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks drafted Kareem, who many thought was the best college player, with the #1 overall picks. The ABA was fighting for their lives. They came to me and said, ‘Leave college. We’ll break the rule and you can play here until your class graduates from college.’

And I’m thinking, ‘Hey, my mom’s picking cotton in Mississippi. So, yeah, I wanna play basketball for some money!’ And I went to the ABA and played for the Denver Rockets. I thought it would take me a while to adjust to the pros. But I averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds and wound up being the Rookie of the Year, the leading scorer, leading rebounder and the Player of the Year. 

TSL: So how did you jump that next year to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics?

SH: The NBA had a rebel owner in Seattle who said, ‘We can’t let the ABA steal all of the underclassmen, so let’s go get the original underclassman and bring him to Seattle.’ He told me that I might have to sit out for a year, but that he would put up the money for me to legally bring a case against the NBA and challenge their four-year rule.

TSL: This wasn’t going on in some vacuum. That was a time of some revolutionary thought and changes here in America.

SH: You had John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics and Dr. Harry Edwards leading a movement of athlete activism. I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is where I’m supposed to be.’ I threw myself into it and we filed suit against the NBA.  

And they filed a suit and an injunction to not let me play. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, but in between there was so much drama. The movie sheds light on the drama and realities of stuff that happened during that period.

TSL: The NCAA was not a bunch of innocent bystanders in this either.

SH: The NCAA was part of the NBA suit because they didn’t want to lose their talent pool. Today, they want to sweep it all under the rug, the NBA and the NCAA, as if some of the stuff never happened. But the movie brings all of that to light. I’ve learned that it’s best to face up to our demons and move on.

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(Photo Credit: nba.com)

TSL: Why is this film so important?

SH: Because today’s players need to be re-educated on who I am and the importance of what I did. I was 18, 19 years old when this was going on. I went before the Supreme Court, not only fighting for my right to play, but many others who were coming behind me who would benefit.

The great Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall pulled me aside and said, ‘Son, what you have done is monumental. You will never get your due in American history. But you made a stand for many people and did something that was right, like Curt Flood and Muhammad Ali.’ 

TSL: When you think about that today, what comes into your mind.

SH: I knew I’d done something monumental, but I didn’t realize that it would take 45 years to be recognized. Look at the players that my actions impacted: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, George Gervin, Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, LeBron James. The list goes on and on.

TSL: What are you most proud of?

SH: To see the wealth that I helped to create for African-American athletes. Before my case, that wealth was not accessible to us as players. My actions were the beginning steps in creating billions of dollars for the players that came after me. I didn’t financially benefit, but sometimes you have to step out on faith in order for others to benefit. 


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