The Lowdown: Spencer Haywood

Regular Season: 20.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 46.9% FG, 79.6% FT
Playoffs: 19.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 47.9% FG, 80.6% FT
Accolades (ABA): MVP (1970), Rookie of the Year (1970), All-ABA 1st Team (1970), All-Star (1970)
Accolades (NBA): 2x All-NBA 1st Team (1972-73), 2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1974-75), 4x All-Star (1972-75)

Spencer Haywood was an offensive terror on the court as an agile, explosive power forward who could also fill in at center for a spell. In his lone season at the University of Detroit, Haywood delivered an astonishing 32 points and 22 rebounds per game on 56.7% shooting from the field on his way to the AP All-America 1st Team. The next year in his lone ABA season he nearly replicated his collegiate performance with 30 points and 19.5 rebounds per game. His phenomenal one-and-done stints in college and the ABA were a result of his on-court talent and courtroom legal battles.

Haywood challenged the NBA’s rule that draft entrants needed to be four years removed from their high school graduating class. The ABA provided a nice stopgap for Haywood where his stellar performance for the Denver Rockets garnered him both, the MVP and Rookie of the Year, awards. However, Haywood’s ABA contract turned out to be a byzantine affair and is best summed up by David Friedman.

In the meantime, the NBA acquiesced to Haywood’s suit (which eventually went to the Supreme Court) and allowed “underclassmen with financial hardship” to enter the league. Haywood was off to the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle SuperSonics. In his abbreviated first season (33 games), Haywood managed 20 PPG and 12 RPG. The following four seasons, Haywood would hit his stride and produce the best seasons of his NBA career peaking in 1973 with 29 PPG and 13 RPG. During this run, he made the all-star team each season (starting three times) and would be selected to the All-NBA 1st and 2nd teams (twice a piece).

But for all of his personal, statistical success, Haywood led the Sonics to the playoffs just once during this run. With Bill Russell at the helm (a much better player than coach), the 1975 Seattle team finished 2nd in the Pacific Division at 43-39 and beat the Detroit Pistons 2-games-to-1 in the first round. Next up was the Pacific Division champs and eventual NBA Champs, the Golden State Warriors. Although the series went 6 games, it wasn’t as close as it appeared with the Warriors winning their 4 games by an average of 17 points and with one of their losses being by just a point. Haywood only averaged 15.7 PPG and 9 RPG for the whole playoffs. Facing off against Bob Lanier for Detroit and the under-appreciated Clifford Ray for Golden State surely contributed to Haywood’s underwhelming playoff performance.

That 1975 off-season, Haywood was shipped off to the New York Knicks where he would join Bob McAdoo, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. Over the next 3.5 seasons, Haywood hovered around 16 PPG and 8 RPG and would receive no league-wide honors. And in a duplication of his Sonics days, Haywood only made the playoffs once (1978) with the Knicks in a 43-39 season with a legendary center as coach (Willis Reed).

And just like before, his team won a first round series before losing in the 2nd round, except this time in sweeping fashion to the 76ers. The presence of cocaine in Haywood’s life at this point no doubt contributed to his disappointing Big Apple showing and his general career decline.

The following year, 1979, the Knicks realized they were going nowhere fast and dumped Haywood on the New Orleans Jazz in a mid-season trade. Haywood’s half-season in New Orleans saw him drop 24 points and 9.5 rebounds, but New Orleans being New Orleans, they missed the playoffs.

Now a full-fledged vagabond, Haywood was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers to backup Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As a 30-year old sixth man, Haywood had serviceable bench production in the regular season, but vanished in the postseason. Or was banished, rather, and even made threats against Laker coach Paul Westhead.

Unfortunately for Haywood, the off-season brought yet more trouble. Following a drug binge he was banned from the NBA for a season. Upon his return to the league in the 1981-82 season, he signed with the Washington Bullets. Inserted into the Bullets’ starting lineup for the season, Haywood rebounded with a respectable comeback (13 points, 5.5 rebounds in 27 minutes). And for the third time in his career, he found himself on a 43-39 team that made the playoffs. The Bullets dismissed the New Jersey Nets 2-0 in the 1st round before being trounced by the Boston Celtics 4-1 in the semi-finals. Haywood, for once, upped his postseason play averaging 20 points on 50% shooting. The next year Washington missed the playoffs and subsequently cut Haywood from the team thus ending his NBA career.

What a career it was for Spencer. He was an outstanding college player but only for a year. He was Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season but it was in the unfairly disrespected ABA. The first decade of his career he averaged 20 and 10 but his teams hardly ever made the playoffs and he seemed to wilt when they did.

And it’s truly hard to untangle Haywood’s play and desire at this time from the drug abuse, or whether they can be at all. In the end, the on-court production during his pro career (along with a 1968 Olympic Gold medal) should get him just across the Hall of Fame finish line. His legal contributions to free agency and the draft should get him well beyond that line.

Unfortunately, trouble makers don’t always get the just due they deserve. Even when they make trouble for worthy cause.

(PS – check out this fine article which helps untangle the enigma of Haywood)

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