Spencer Haywood, aka Weedie, aka Driftwood, had one of the most significant and controversial careers in professional basketball history, with a landmark Supreme Court victory at one end and a druggy, nearly violent washout at the other. His legacy is still very much in dispute. Last year, Haywood was told he had been named to the Basketball Hall of Fame, only to find out, after flying to Atlanta for the press conference announcing the inductees, that he had not actually made the cut. He is once again a finalist for election this year, one of 10.
Haywood grew up in Silver City, Miss., moved to Detroit for his last two years of high school, and played just one year of junior college basketball in Colorado before leading the United States to a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Haywood played his sophomore year at Detroit Mercy, where he was a consensus All-American, averaging 32 points and 22 rebounds a game.
In 1969 Haywood joined the ABA's Denver Rockets (later the Nuggets) and, as a 20-year-old rookie, dominated, leading the league in minutes played, field goals, field goal attempts, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds and total points. At season's end he was named both Rookie of the Year and league MVP.
However, Haywood had signed the Denver contract while underage and without a lawyer, so the following year the 6-foot-8 forward skipped to Seattle in the NBA. At the time, the league didn't admit players whose college class had yet to graduate. Haywood and the SuperSonics and the NBA effected a kind of three-man weave of lawsuits in various state and federal courts while Haywood alternately played and sat according to the prevailing court order of the day. On occasion he was even barred from the arena completely. The case eventually hit the U.S. Supreme Court, where Haywood prevailed, 7-2, opening the league's doors to underclassmen and freshly graduated high schoolers. The NBA is still wrestling with the effects of this decision.
Haywood played for six different franchises over 13 professional seasons in the States. He spent one season in Italy after the Los Angeles Lakers kicked him off the team during the 1980 NBA Finals. The pretext was a locker-room shouting match with teammates, but in Haywood's telling that was only the culmination of a season-long unraveling caused in part by his cocaine abuse. At the time, his dismissal led Haywood to contemplate killing his coach, Paul Westhead.
He lives in Las Vegas, where he runs construction and flooring businesses. Here he is in his own words, from an interview with Rob Trucks.
When I was a kid I mowed the complete golf course. I cut all of the grass on the golf course, and I never got a chance to do it again. It was a real treat, but I never got to do it again. That was a job that my older brothers had—I was relegated to cutting small bushes—but I finally got my big shot.
My first love in sports was golf, because we were the caretakers for the Humphreys County golf course. And so you got a chance to play golf [laughs]. Illegally, of course. You played every other day or every day, and then we also made a golf course in one of the cow pastures down the street from our home. We built three holes, you know, and we had welded clubs. That was my first real true love in sports: golf.
And then we played a lot of baseball, because that's what you played down South, was baseball. Basketball was really a sport that I fell in love with, but, you know, our ball didn't bounce so it wasn't really that exciting because we didn't have enough money to buy that basketball that we always wanted, that big Voit basketball. We played with a sack that my mother had made, a brown ball out of cotton. She made this ball out of that, and we were supposed to take two bounces and make the pass or take the shot.
There was tons of kids in the neighborhood. We were day workers. And, you know, day workers, picking cotton and chopping cotton and taking care of the golf course, I mean, families had to have, well, didn't have to have, but it was looked upon as wealth or whatever if you had a lot of children, so everybody had eight, nine children.
We took care of all the cotton picking, all the cotton chopping. That was our main job. The luxury job was over at the golf course, working on the greens and doing all the work there.
We finally got one of those Voit balls. Somebody threw it out at the garbage dump and we put a patch on it, and we kept right on playing. And then we bought a basketball hoop. We didn't have the nets, but we put the hoop up in our yard and we played and played until our mother ran us away from it because we wasn't doing our field chores and all the things that we should be doing. So then we had to move our court to different locations, and we would challenge other people in the next towns like Louise and Midnight. Most of the time we'd play at this guy's place named Pee Wee. His name was Leonard Doss, but we used to call him Pee Wee because his head was small. His father's name was Birdhead. And the next son was Sonny Birdhead, and then there was Pee Wee. So you get the feel of the story.
We played most of our times there in that yard, and, boy, wasn't it some basketball! It was serious. When I made the elementary school team we went down to Louise to the big gym. Before that I hadn't played inside of a gym. Our courts were basically outdoor courts, but it was dust bowls, not, you know, concrete or anything. So when I went to Louise and played in that big gym, that was when the bug really hit me.
I was good, but then I had a growth spurt. I grew about five inches during the summer, and then everything went to shit [laughs]. I wasn't good anymore because my coordination didn't match my body.
I was in the ninth grade, and I was playing with the high school team. And I just couldn't walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. I was terrible. I didn't go on away trips. I only stayed at home games, and I wore the away uniform which was gold and green, because we only had 12 uniforms. I wore the gold and green while everyone else wore the white uniform.
By the time I came back the next year, in the 10th grade, it had hit. And one night I was in the starting lineup because our center had got in some trouble, and my first play I was so excited I got the ball and I went the wrong way and made the basket in the wrong basket, so everybody looked at me like, "Whoa, he is so stupid."
I kind of snapped out of it and I just started playing, because I knew how to play and I knew I could play. All of a sudden it hit. And lo and behold, we took the young guys to the state championship tournament, which was a real big deal. We were on the campus of Alcorn A&M. That's where the tournament was. And we got knocked out in the semi-finals by Lanier High School in Jackson.
Then my brother Roy was saying that maybe I should come up and play up North, and that's where I met Will Robinson. He said, "We've got two years left. We're going to win the Class A state championship for the city of Detroit," which hadn't been done in 35 years. And that was my mission and goal in life. And we did win it in my senior year.
Will Robinson, by the way, he was the first black coach to coach in the NCAA. At Illinois State. Doug Collins was his number one player there, and Doug is like a little brother to me.
I was supposed to have been whatever it was at that time. I had no choice in the matter. That was the journey that was given to me. I mean, if I'd have chosen it, I would've just stayed in Michigan. But that was not the journey. I mean, I didn't know Kareem and Unseld and Hayes were not going to go to the Olympics, and they didn't allow freshmen to try out for the Olympic team. So there I was [laughs]. Out of high school I signed with the University of Tennessee. I didn't realize at the time that I was the first black. I mean, I just didn't think like that. I wanted my mother to see me play in Mississippi, my family to see me play in Mississippi, and my folks in Michigan to see me play in Michigan. So Tennessee was the logical place, but it didn't work out.
It was predestination. When you go through it and look at it, it was predestination, pre-ordained. If you're a spiritual person you know it's just preordained by God. I mean, I'm just walking the course. It's when I don't walk my course is when I get into trouble.
It was the course at the time because I was brought up as a strong Christian in a strong Baptist background in Mississippi. You know that God is guiding you, so all you've got to do is just eat and play basketball and read books.
I like the simplicity of it all. I don't like the complications of it all.
The ABA, you know, there was a freedom in that year. The ABA was known to let you have some freedom in play. It wasn't much structure, but I was building something. Like when I went to the Olympics I was supposed to be the so-called savior for America, saving us, you know, from the Russians, the commie Russian bastards that were going to take our gold medal away from these United States. So I was doing something, you know. You were doing your destiny.
If I didn't have deferred payment and it was a legitimate contract I would've gladly stayed because I loved playing in the ABA. And the thing that I loved most was that ball. I loved that red, white, and blue ball.
I don't know why it happened. I don't even know, when I look back on it, why it happened. I mean, in hindsight I think we could've worked it out, but I was underage, and I signed the contract because they said they wanted to do good by me. So I just signed it. I was underage when I signed it. I had no legal representation.
So when I came to them to try to explain that and say, "Look, this is what the situation is. I'm a little bit wiser today. We need to just correct this and move on," they said, "No. We've got you."
Man, I just won everything. I just saved the ABA. Because they were closing doors when I came in there. They were going to close all that shit, shut that thing down. They needed a prince. Kareem was the MVP that year and I was like, so-called, the No. 2 player, and I came and did what I was supposed to do.
New York was where I met my first wife, Iman. We had a good time. In New York I expanded upon my horizons and I saw a lot of live artists. I saw the plays. I mean, it was so culturally enriching, and I read so much there. My first baby was born at Lenox Hill Hospital. All these wonderful things, you know. New York and Seattle was like a very fruitful period for me, with fruitful growth.
We go through Seattle. We go through the Knicks. And when I got to Los Angeles … I fell. I wanted to be in charge. You know, God's path was boring. I didn't do nothing. I was just playing basketball and eating right, doing the right thing. I wanted to see what the devil was like.
The whole thing started off wrong.
That whole process was wrong. I mean, I got there and it was supposed to be the best of times. We've got this young guard from Michigan State. I played with Kareem, my longtime best friend, and I'm playing with Jamaal Wilkes. We've got Norm Nixon. I mean, I've got Jack McKinney who really, really wanted me to be a Laker. They did a lot of things to get me to be a Laker. And lo and behold, I wanted to get in charge. And it's the only time I really wanted to be in charge. For some reason I wanted to be different than Weedie. You know, Weedie is this country boy that did everything by the book, right up, straight up, and just righteous and never would do something that.
If it wasn't from the ground, if it wasn't from the earth, I would never use it. You know, so here I was using an extreme chemical, then I would redo the chemical to make it more of a chemical.
You know, cocaine is a very fast, demonic ... I mean, I was always uncomfortable. I was always very uncomfortable with the idea, because I was paranoid. And paranoia is like an uncomfortableness. It was like just the weirdest thing. I mean, I never was like ... if I took a puff of coke ... I mean, it would be like, all of a sudden I'm paranoid. I'm looking for somebody coming out of a light bulb. I'm crawling on the floor looking around for other coke and shit. It was just never ... whatever people felt, I didn't feel it. But after the first time I did it, I wanted to do it the second time. And after I did it the second time I wanted to do it the third time. So basically I was hooked on the devil's juice.
It was hard. It was not like a passing fancy. It was really hard. And I was running with some hard people who didn't know any better either.
You know I was listening to rock music in 1980? There ain't nothing wrong with rock, but I had been a jazz man all my life, so what was I doing? I'm talking about the Doors, like "This is the end." I loved that song. "This is the end, my friend." I'm like, What the hell?
[In 1988, Haywood, with writer Scott Ostler, revealed in People magazine that he'd considered killing Lakers coach Paul Westhead, who had suspended Haywood indefinitely after Game 3 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Haywood had gotten into a shouting match with teammates Brad Holland and Jim Chones after the game. As a result of his suspension, he explained in People, "I turned all my anger toward Westhead," who had taken over as interim coach after Jack McKinney was nearly killed in a bike accident. Haywood goes on to write: "I left the Forum and drove off in my Rolls that night thinking one thought—that Westhead must die. I drove through the streets plotting the man's murder. In the heat of anger and the daze of coke, I phoned an old friend of mine in Detroit, a guy named Gregory, a genuine certified gangster. I said, ''C'mon out here, buddy. I got someone I want you to take care of.' He said, 'No problem, Wood. Love to do that for you.' The next day Greg and his partner flew to L.A., ready to go to work. We sat down and figured it out. Westhead lived in Palos Verdes, and we got his street address. We would sabotage his car, mess with his brake lining."]
What happened was this: I had hooked up with people who was spurring on this talk. "They can't do that shit to you, blah blah blah blah. You've got to take charge. You've got to do what you need to do." So, of course, I get the idea that, well, yeah, this is the last guy that pulled the string right here, because I went to the team with three games to go and said, "Look, I've got a problem, man. You know, I'll sit the bench or whatever. I don't want to be a disturbance or anything, but this is what has happened."
I mean, there was a thought about this. It was not a plot per se that you went and sat outside his house waiting for him to come out. They're more like, you know, "Spike his drink" or "Spike his car" or something. We did drive down to Palos Verdes and we looked around, and when I came back I got high. My mother called and she said, "Hey boy, what the hell are you up to?" And my paranoia, as I was explaining before about the drug, is that everybody knew what I was doing, including my mother. So what was going in my mind was unholy, ungodly and not clear at all, so I knew my mother was onto it.
When I got back, I did some more coke, and that's when I hit rock bottom, when I realized what the hell I was thinking about. It wasn't an act. I didn't attempt to do anything. But it was an evil intent. I know my God is watching me at this time. And I really went off my rocker.
I don't even know where he lived [laughs]. I mean, that's the drugs. You know, they talk. They had me willing to, you know ...
Everything was kind of coming to a head right there. And so what the Lakers did do is they gave me the opportunity to get out of the mess and get my sanity and get my holiness back. So that's what the Italy trip was about.
The Lakers really were trying to help. I mean, at that time Dr. Buss and Bill Sharman— I really think they were trying to help me. It was like, "What do we do?" I mean, there were no recovery programs in 1980. There were no recovery programs, so they suggested that I should go to Italy. The only way they're going to honor the contract—I was still under contract with the Lakers—is if I go out of the country, and that way they could reserve the right to bring me back if they wanted to. So I ended up in Venice, Italy, where I was angry, hurt. I mean, at that time I didn't see the disease part of what had happened. I felt that I was betrayed by my teammates. I was betrayed by my owners. I mean, that's what I thought. But I got to Italy and all that mean and all that hate and anger that I had was loved right out of me by the Italians.
I didn't have a passport. My passport had expired [laughs]. I had to go get a passport to go to Italy. I was just using my passport for Paris and other things, and it had expired. I had to go get another passport.
That was part of the bottom, when I was on that flight going to Rome. My flight was L.A. to Boston, then from Boston to Rome. So I caught hell in that airport in Boston. That was the journey. And then when I got to Italy I was like, "What the hell am I doing over here?" I'm going over here to a foreign country and, you know, "What the hell?" I flew into Venice, and the Venice airport is on the mainland, and the city is out in the ocean, so it was like, "Shit."
I have seen redemption in my life. I mean, I've experienced it. I was walking the path. I know about God. But it was just leaving that baggage, leaving your luggage alone. You know, you're dropping your bags right there and saying, "Hey, I know what I need to do. I know who's waiting for me."
Through the Lakers, through Jerry Buss, through Bill Sharman, God intervened and sent me off to Italy in order for me to get my sanity. Italy was the best thing that ever happened to me.
When I got to Washington, we had all of those young players, and I fell into the hands of another great coach. My guy was Gene Shue, and still is Gene Shue, who had the faith in me to say, "Take this team, and let's go." And that was like, "Oh, wow." And then they would give me like a day off on Sundays when we didn't have games and practice, and I would run up—at that time Eastern Airlines had the commuter service from Washington D.C. to New York—to be with my family, to be with Iman and my daughters who lived there, and then I'd zip back to Washington. And so it wasn't just basketball. It was just a beautiful time.
Spencer Haywood vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, circa 1982. Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images.
I like things very simple. So Washington was a simple time. I was at the seat of the government and all of these things going on around me, but I was just not there with it. It was just simple. On my way to practice every day I went to the health club and worked out on weights. It was just a simple, basic routine. What is better than that?
Iman was in a very bad automobile accident in New York. She was in a cab and was struck, and it was very bad. I had a young daughter, Zulekha, then I also had Iman's sister, Nadia, who was living with us from Somalia, so, you know, I had young people and I had Iman. I had serious responsibilities. So I took the time off to do that, and then I wanted to go back to basketball, but basketball was not available when I wanted to come back. I mean, I left to take care of my family.
She was going for a shoot and whatever in New York, and it was a very, very bad automobile accident. Her face had to be reconstructed. Not as cosmetic surgery but the bones in her head were like just crushed. My gut instinct was that I've got to take care of my wife and my family.
I thought there would always be a place. I had made such a great contribution to basketball that I thought that, Hey, wherever I walked on the court and want to get a tryout or want to get myself together or play, let's get it on and I'll show you what I can do.
What happened was: I left to go home. They released me after I was at home, when I was at home with my family, because at that time I couldn't come back to the team. I just said, "Well, you know, I don't think I can come back. I mean, this situation is ..." And the Washington Bullets, Bob Ferry and everybody was very open and very clear with me. We need you this year because we're on our way to a playoff again. We had just took Boston to the brink that year before. I thought I would be gone until at least the playoff time, or close to it. But the Bullets didn't see it that way and I understood it.
I actually wanted to go back to Washington. I definitely wanted to go back to Washington. But Washington felt betrayed because I had left, so my next stop was going home, going back to Detroit to be with my family and Mr. Will Robinson, who was the assistant general manager and the head scout for the Pistons. So I got there and I should've taken the job in broadcasting they offered me, but I wanted to play and that only happened one day in practice, so I didn't even get a chance to show my stuff. So then I knew. Then I knew that the NBA was not where I'm going to play anymore.
That is a very big shock. It's hard, you know. It's hard but it's fair. I mean, basketball had given me everything, so I couldn't be that mad at basketball. I mean, basketball is king to me, always.
It was very painful. When I look at what I went through, I mean, from the Lakers to Washington to Italy and all that, I look through it all and, you know, it was very painful but it was acceptable.
I still had tennis [laughs]. Because at that time I thought maybe I could do the John Lucas thing because I always played tennis from the time I was a kid in Mississippi, so I thought maybe I could get on the senior tour.
I was definitely mad but, you know, I accepted the madness. I accepted what was going on. Because I had brought all of this upon myself. I mean, I have to accept responsibility. I didn't go to games. I didn't watch basketball. But boy, did I miss it.
It took me maybe two years. I was looking at it out of the corner of my eye. I didn't go out to any of the games and I was right there, the Pistons games was right there, and I had tickets to games and I was welcome there, but I just refused to go. And I was, at that time, telling my daughters, "Whatever you do, don't play basketball." I went and bought them a lot of tennis lessons. I was going to change their whole concept about basketball. I taught my kids to play tennis. Whatever you do, rely upon your skill. One person, one skill set, and you're in charge of your own destiny. No team. You're in control of it all. Until they told me, "This is all fine, Dad, but we like basketball." And boy was I disgusted with them [laughs].
I did become a serious tennis player. I traveled. I played in leagues. And at Franklin Racquet Club in Farmington Hills, Michigan, no one, either my age bracket or below, they could not take me. So that was my real true love, and my profession at that time was tennis. I just loved the sport.
I play a lot of golf, but, you know, there are two sides to Vegas. And most people don't get that, because they see the Strip and they see all of the tourism. But we have over two million people live in this valley. I do work on the Strip in the hotel industry—putting in floors, carpet, tile, marble, etc.—but I don't live that lifestyle, you know. And then we have the shows here. We have the plays, we have all the shows, and they're coming through here, all of the musicians coming through so, you know, I have substantive life, but I just don't gamble. I gambled when I was with the Lakers. That was what gambling did for me. I mean, that was the big gamble.
I always loved basketball. I would play for nothing.
It's my life. I'm giving it to you. Uninhibited. No smokescreen. Nothing. Here it is.
Be true to yourself and be godly.
Rob Trucks interviews people for Deadspin. He was last seen on this site interviewing plaintiffs of the NFL concussion lawsuit. Before that, he spoke with former athletes about the end of their careers. His oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and his latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album. Follow him on Twitter, @eyeglassesofky.