With a reinvigorated focus on the people who have been pioneers in championing human and social rights for Black Americans in sports, business, entertainment, politics and education, the atmosphere was perfect for long-time NBA writer Marc J. Spears and his brother in journalism, Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe to share the story of basketball legend Spencer Haywood in a new book “The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast.”
The Shadow League spoke with Spears, who has always been considered a gifted story-teller and a strong communicator and has spent the last three months covering the NBA from inside the Disney Bubble.
San Jose Mercury sports columnist Mark Purdy, one of Spears’ inspirations in the business, said that Marc “writes about athletes as people, and the world loves to hear stories about who these guys and these women really are, to get to know them beyond the jersey.”
The Shadow League: How did you hook up with Spencer Haywood to write “The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast?”
“Well, Spencer came to me,” said Spears, who hustled his way to covering pro basketball for The Boston Globe and The Denver Post before becoming senior NBA writer for ESPN’s bible on the intersection of race, sports and culture. “We have a good relationship with past stories I’ve written about him in The Undefeated, so when he approached me through his agent Bill Duffy and asked if I was interested in writing a book about his life, I agreed.”
From picking cotton in rural Mississippi to the historic 1968 Olympics to ABA MVP to the battle with the NBA that would go all the way to the Supreme Court and change the league forever, Spencer Haywood’s life has been a microcosm of 20th century sports and culture.
One of the most dominant big men of his era, Haywood burst onto the international scene with a revelatory performance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Yet, while his basketball career was just beginning back in that summer of ’68, it was only one notable moment in the extraordinary and fateful life of the big man from Silver City, Mississippi. It’s the remarkable story of a man who was born into indentured servitude and all of the unbelievable trials, tribulations, successes, failures, and redemptions that followed.
Growing Up Picking Cotton In Mississippi
Of the many jewels dropped in his book, the “details of Spencer’s pain, struggle and the racism he endured,” had the deepest effect on Spears.
Spears tells The Shadow League: “To get the details of his early life, being Black in the rural south is certainly stunning to me. I can visualize what it was like to be an infant or a young kid being in the cotton fields. Seeing elderly Black people who basically have spent their entire lives working in the cotton fields. He knows that first hand. He’s seen that first hand.”
That vivid imagery is something that will immediately draw readers in and makes them think they know Spencer.
“Yeah, he played in the NBA.,” Spears continued. “The ‘68 Olympic stories are amazing to me. Having to overcome drug addictions and being sober for so long now, all that stuff is so amazing but being able to survive rural, racist Mississippi and become a celebrity known globally…To me, that’s motivation and proof that you can find a way out of the darkness. He found a way out and the road wasn’t easy. There were bad turns, crashes. Spencer’s story offers hope for anybody in a dire situation.”
Haywood would go on to be the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, but his triumphs on the court are only part of the legend. His winding journey off the court saw him challenge the NBA’s draft-entry rules and win at the Supreme Court level; run in New York City high-fashion circles in the mid-1970s with his then-wife, supermodel Iman; and bottom out with alcohol and drug addiction during the infancy of the Showtime Lakers dynasty.
Spears and Washburn explore how Haywood’s impact was felt throughout the NBA and in society at large—and still is to this day—culminating in Haywood’s inspiring second act as an advocate for current and retired NBA players alike.
“What (Spencer) has done in terms of being one of the first guys who fought for free agency in the NBA and the judgement that went all the way to the Supreme Court,” Spears tells The Shadow League. He probably should be cherished more by the players and they should know his story.
Spence is a guy that should be talking to the NBA rookies every year and making sure that they know the struggle that was being fought long before they arrived, and know their history.”
Making The Masterpiece
Spears was elated about securing his first major book opportunity, but he also had the challenge of fitting that arduous creative process into an already hectic schedule with The Undefeated. When such opportunity knocks you can’t refuse. Besides, Spears was almost obligated to the task considering how few Black writers are offered opportunities by publishing companies to write impactful books of this magnitude.
And at such a watershed moment in our history.
“To be honest with you man, one disappointment with a lot of Black writers is that we don’t get book opportunities,” Spears admits.” So lots of books are being written about African-Americans, but they’re not by African-Americans. There’s certainly a lot of frustration from Black writers who are like “dang man, why can’t I get (to author) that book? How come I can’t write a book?”
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work.
Spears broke bread and called on a lifelong brother in journalism for the assist on writing the book.
“It was going to be hard for me to do it myself,” Spears tells The Shadow League. “So Gary Washburn, one of my best friends… we used to work together in the late 90s at the LA Daily News…he was the first person that came to mind. He was the perfect person that I could join forces with and would also be excited about this project.”
The cultural dynamics of two Black authors conducting interviews for the book immediately led to what Spears described as “some comfort level (for Haywood) while telling these stories.”
“Maybe when he started dealing with the racism issues in the book, it might have been easier for him to talk more freely about it not having to worry about how the person interviewing him would be affected by it or take it,” Spears pondered with no sure certainty. “With us all being Black, I think maybe his guard was down more. He could just talk.”
Last year’s NBA Summer League was where both authors conducted in depth interviews with Haywood.
“Spencer was extremely gracious with his time and more honest than I expected him to be. We definitely didn’t have to pull no teeth with him” Spears chuckled. “He’s honest to a fault, so the experience of writing a book with him was a great one.”
Spears wrote the opening chapter through Chapter 7 and Washburn closed the 17-chapter banger like Mariano Rivera coming out of the pen for the Yankees Dynasty
Spencer Haywood’s story is multidimensional and is a reflection of the incredible resilience and will power of Black people, as well as the oppressive socioeconomic conditions and history of systemic destruction that they must overcome.
Spears and Washburn captured that and more in an impactful and revealing 173 pages.