Spencer Haywood in his prime was such a devastating force on the basketball floor that rival coaches used to sit up nights trying to find a player who could stop him.
Spencer Haywood saved them a lot of trouble. Spencer Haywood found one who could turn Spencer Haywood from a 25-point-average-a-night into a three-point-average-a-night player, who could cut down his average rebounds a night from 12 to two. And they didn't need to spend a draft choice to get him.
As you might imagine, it was a pretty imposing character who could do this. The man-who-stopped-Spencer-Haywood was, like Spencer Haywood, a pretty dominating presence, 6-feet-9, 230 pounds, the wing span of a prehistoric bird. In fact, he looked a little like Spencer Haywood. In point of fact, he was Spencer Haywood. The only guy in the NBA who could turn Spencer Haywood into an ordinary player, not to say a disaster, was Spencer Haywood. The only thing he had to fear was Spencer himself. He did what the league hatchetmen, the pressing forwards, the double-teams couldn't do--turn the great player into a shadow of his former self.
The Spencer Haywood who stopped the real Spencer Haywood was 20 pounds lighter than his alter ego, he snuffled a lot and wiped his nose with his arm. His eyes were watery and he sometimes seemed to have great difficulty realizing--or remembering--where he was.
Few players could do things with a basketball Spencer Haywood could. He could sink it, pass it, shoot it, free-throw it, dribble it, block it. He was like one of those guys born to go through life on the shoulders of his teammates--or the adoring public.
Raised in segregation in Mississippi, he was brought north to Detroit for one thing--to play basketball. He carried his high school team to the state championships. When about 20 of the nation's top college basketball players, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, elected to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games, the 19-year-old schoolboy, Spencer Haywood, was drafted onto the team. He routed the Yugoslavs, who had nipped the Soviets, and saved the gold for the United States.
At the University of Detroit, he averaged an unbelievable 22 rebounds--and 30 points--a game. Haywood had two basketball leagues--and several federal courtrooms--fighting over him. He was the first "hardship" case in pro basketball (an undergraduate who plays professionally before his class graduates). He pioneered the tactic commonplace today.
In the ABA, where he signed with the Denver Rockets, he was All-Everything. He was leading scorer, leading rebounder, MVP and rookie of the year. He swished in 30 points and pulled down 19 rebounds a night.
He signed for $1.9 million for six years, pretty heady stuff for a young man who had been horsewhipped for stepping on a white man's lawn in Mississippi only six years before.
When he jumped to the NBA, lights were burning in half the law offices in the league. He had become such a cause celebre that teams would be known to walk off the court rather than play this outlaw. Haywood got the law changed for the likes of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas to join the NBA early in later years.
It all began to fade to black when he got sent--for $2 million--from Seattle to the New York Knicks. New York looked like the world's biggest box of candy to the young Haywood. He married a glamorous model, got himself a fur coat, a home on Park Avenue and a Rolls-Royce.
And a few lines of cocaine. The great leveler. The ultimate point guard. The ball stealer. "I became a Lincoln Center, ballet, opera, literary guy," he recalls today with a wince.
At first, he sloughed off the cocaine as easily as he did any other power forwards, but it is a cunning, patient, persistent adversary. It has all the moves. It wore down Haywood. Not even this great player could cope with this sixth man.
Haywood began to drift down through the league. The Knicks dealt him to the New Orleans Jazz for something named Joe C. Merriweather, which should give you an idea.
Then, he got what seemed to be a break. He got traded to the Lakers and found himself on the team in the glory season 1979-80, when the magical rookie, Earvin Johnson, came into the league and Kareem was in the pivot.
It wasn't such a break. Spencer discovered the joys of free-basing in Hollywood. "It puts the madness directly into your system, no middleman," he recalls ruefully. "I thought it was the thing to do. I was going to become Spencer Hollywood."
The baskets stopped dropping. The rebounds went untaken. Spencer Haywood was neutralizing Spencer Haywood. "I went from 25 points and 10 rebounds at the start of the season to 17 points and five rebounds in the middle to three points and no rebounds at the end," he admits.
The end came when the Lakers were in the championship series and Haywood awoke one morning late for practice. He drove to the Forum literally through parking lots and gas stations and sidewalks to make up time. He took some pills to stop the inner screaming.
In the middle of stretching exercises, the Lakers heard this loud thump. Their star forward had just passed out.
Trying to win a championship, the Lakers were in no mood to humor their fading forward. Right in the middle of the championship finals, with the series tied, 1-1, with Philadelphia, they kicked him off the team. They voted him no share in the playoff money. "I was blaming everybody: Magic Johnson was putting too much spin on the passes. I needed some stickum to hold them. The coach didn't know how to use me. It was everybody else's fault. Paranoia had a field day with me."
Finally, Spencer Haywood decided to kill the guy responsible for all his troubles. He parked his Rolls on a bridge over the Detroit River one night. He got ready to throw his worst enemy into the water--himself.
He spared Spencer Haywood, but not till after he had extracted a promise from him to stop abusing Spencer Haywood.
Today, Spencer Haywood is a man on a mission. He is trying to keep other youngsters from self-destructing. At his own expense, he has formed the Haywood Foundation, which among other things, distributes a 45-minute anti-drug cassette to school districts. Titled, "Choice of a Lifetime," it sets forth in hair-raising detail what a relentless foe drugs can be. Haywood has his own (Detroit-based) firms, Haywood Technologies and a real estate development firm to help foot the bills, and his autobiography, with Scott Ostler, will be out in the fall.
"You have to help people; it's part of your own recovery," he explains. "If you can live with others' suffering, you're not a whole man yourself."
Spencer Haywood is a whole man. But first, he had to get rid of that other half that was pouring in 100 points a night right over his head and in his face.