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New biography tells how Spencer Haywood remade the NBA

A new biography by Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn tells the story of Spencer Haywood, one of the most important players in NBA history

Spencer Haywood may be one of the most consequential NBA stars that aren’t known by most casual fans. While his on-court achievements speak for themselves — Haywood won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics and an NBA championship in 1980, was both the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1970, and was named to the All-Star and All-NBA teams four times each — he was a true trailblazer off the court as well, being the first NBA player to leave college early for a professional career.

After spending the first year of his professional career with the ABA’s Denver Rockets, he signed with the Seattle Supersonics, launching an antitrust suit against the league so that he could play in the NBA despite not being four years removed from his high school graduation. Haywood v. the National Basketball Association went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld an earlier ruling that Haywood should be allowed to play. This decision not only allowed Haywood to take the floor for the Sonics without the league interfering, but also paved the way for every player who left college early to declare for the draft, or skipped college altogether. In a new biography by Marc J. Spears of the Undefeated and Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, the story of Spencer Haywood is told in full, highlighting his on-court achievements as well as his off-court struggles and eventual triumph over them.

While many athletes co-write autobiographies in collaboration with a professional writer or simply have them ghostwritten, The Spencer Haywood Rule has the ease and openness of an autobiography without technically being one. Haywood is not listed as an author, though he clearly gave the authors extensive access as they wrote this biography. This method allows for Spears and Washburn to provide context and connective tissue, making it more cohesive than it may have been without their shaping the material. In a sense, it’s really an oral biography in light of the fact that likely half the book, if not more, consists of direct quotes from Haywood himself.

Appropriately, much is made of the revolutionary nature of Haywood’s decision to leave college early for the NBA. In many ways, it helped set the stage for greater athletic freedom, much as Curt Flood did when he fought for free agency with his own lawsuit against Major League Baseball. While it took some time for other players to start leaving college early in large numbers as they do today, it was a choice that fundamentally remade the NBA.

What led Spencer Haywood to challenge the NBA?

One interesting detail about Haywood’s decision told in this biography is that, in spite of it being called a ‘hardship case’ by the ABA, this was primarily done to make it more palatable from a public relations perspective. While his family certainly benefited financially from his entering the professional ranks, they would also have been fine if he hadn’t. The ‘hardship case’ argument was simply another marketing tactic by the ABA as they tried to gain a leg up on the established NBA.

Also, Haywood did not join the ABA simply out of ambition and a desire for the money that a contract would bring. Rather, he felt betrayed when his school, the University of Detroit, did not hire his high school coach, Will Robinson, after assuring him that they would. In light of that, he had no desire to remain at UD and with the ABA making him a strong offer, his mind was made up. Small revelations like that make this book worth checking out for NBA fans who already think they know the story of Haywood. There are numerous little anecdotes that fill out the general outlines of the already familiar tale.

While The Spencer Haywood Rule certainly celebrates his many achievements, it also does not shy from his struggles as well. Haywood speaks extensively about the ways racism has hounded him from his childhood picking cotton in Mississippi up through his adult life in the world of basketball. Also mentioned are his professional and personal struggles following his early years as a superstar in Denver and Seattle. After being traded from the Sonics to the Knicks in 1975, Haywood never again made an All-Star team though he did occasionally put up big numbers and show flashes of his previous greatness. He was never on a truly successful team until joining the Lakers in the first year of their Showtime era. However, these years were marred by a cocaine addiction that eventually culminated with Haywood falling asleep during practice and being suspended by the team in the midst of the Finals. Haywood expresses candor when writing about these times, showcasing a humanism that makes the book more emotionally gripping than it would be otherwise.

Haywood comes across as a man who is proud of his achievements while also being disheartened by the relative lack of recognition he has received historically. The book takes its title from Haywood’s wish that the bylaw that allows potential draftees to enter the NBA before using all four years of their college eligibility would be named after him. Thankfully, his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame will help secure his legacy for future generations and assures that his on-court achievements will be remembered in addition to the path he forged for future generations.

Though Spears and Washburn shaping the material are not enough to make this a great book, it will certainly be of interest to anyone interested in basketball history. The authors would have been better served by adding other voices alongside Haywood’s but without losing the distinctiveness of his own. A greater focus on historical context along with other people commenting on the world of basketball at this time and on Haywood himself would have elevated this book and potentially made it one of the best basketball biographies in recent memory. As it is, it is still a book worth reading for those who are curious about Haywood’s life or are interested in a story of a great athlete’s rise, fall, and recovery.