The little known story of Spencer Haywood

Photo courtesy of Triumph Books Spencer Haywood with Kobe Bryant

First in a multi-part series

I know both Marc Spears and Gary Washburn, as we all are National Association of Black Journalists [NABJ] Sports Task Force members. Both are veteran journalists who Spencer Haywood wanted to pen his life story.

Black journalists don’t often get a chance to help write a legend’s autobiography, the co-authors told fellow Black journalists Michael Holley and Michael Smith on their “Brother from Another” podcast on the Peacock channel.  

 “As Black journalists we don’t get to do those types of things,” noted Washburn, the national NBA writer for the Boston Globe and NABJ Sports Task Force VP. “We don’t get a lot of book deals, a lot of opportunities to write about athletes which we cover for whatever reason.”

“Neither one of us has written a book before,” added Spears, ESPN’s The Undefeated’s senior NBA writer. They have now: “The Spencer Haywood Rule” (Triumph Books) was published in October.

 “I do think Spencer Haywood had a comfort level in talking about a lot of things in terms of racism, growing up in cotton fields and things like that,” explained Spears. “He felt he was more comfortable talking” about those experiences to the two Black writers.

Haywood’s story “is historic stuff. It is a pleasure to tell it,” said Washburn. “Someone who has been so impactful in the last 50 years [and] people doesn’t know his story. He’s been underappreciated.”

I know Haywood’s legacy from growing up in Detroit, where his basketball exploits took off. I was in seventh grade at the time. We first met by phone decades later in the summer of 2018, then later at the 2018 NABJ convention in Detroit where he was honored. 

Earlier this month, with Spears’ help, our third meeting took place, again by phone. Now in his 70s, Haywood talked about his life, sometimes humorously, sometimes deadly serious, but always interesting and unapologetic. We talked for nearly an hour—a chat with a legend I’ll relate below and in next week’s “View.”

Photo courtesy of Triumph Books Spencer Haywood (r) with Michael Jordan

Part one: A big kid in town

Spencer Haywood was born in 1949 in a very small Mississippi town. “I was on a farm in the Delta, in this town called Silver City, Mississippi. Silver City didn’t have any silver, and it ain’t a city,” chuckled Haywood recalling his birthplace, population 375. The ninth of 11 children, he was born prematurely, delivered at home by a midwife three months after his father died suddenly of a heart attack.

Silver City basically was a throwback to the old South. Its Black citizenry worked as sharecroppers, making slave wages for a White farmer complete with an overseer. “We worked from sunup to sundown in the cotton fields picking, planting, and chopping cotton,” recalled Haywood. 

 When he wasn’t in school Haywood worked the fields. But as he grew to six feet tall and more, he found success in basketball, making the varsity team as a youngster barely out of grade school. 

But his height would soon make him a target off the court as well as on. “When a big kid starts to grow in my neck of the woods, they end up putting you in jail on some false charge, which they did when I was 14,” he told me. Haywood was accused of threatening to kill a White man. “They put me in jail for one night.”

After he was released and the charges dropped, Haywood’s mother saw it necessary to get her son out of town as quickly as possible. He had wanted for a long time to leave Silver City for good.

“You could not leave the farm just like that, so I had to go to the next town and escape,” continued Haywood. “I escaped from Silver City to Chicago where my brother [lived].”

Next week: From the Windy City to Motown