Second in a multi-part series
Spencer Haywood quietly blew into Chicago, the Windy City, finally escaping his native Mississippi as his mother and others had hoped. But his new surroundings weren’t what the steadily-growing-taller youngster had hoped for.
Chicago in the mid-1960s was just as segregated as his Silver City hometown. He would live with his brother Joe and other family members in a crowded dwelling, in a crowded neighborhood that failed to match the image falsely created in Spencer’s mind growing up.
Related Story: The little known story of Spencer Haywood
“I thought they were rich but they were just faking,” he noted. “When [relatives] would come down South, they had rented cars and [flashed] a big roll of money. You as a kid, you are looking at that and saying, ‘I can’t wait to get to Chicago.’
Although the living situation wasn’t appealing, the neighborhood’s blacktops were where Haywood found instant freedom as he hooped from daybreak to dusk, holding more than his own against the best hoopsters. This impressed all, especially Leroy, another brother then attending and playing basketball at Bowling Green State (OH) University. He was losing one-on-one matchups with his younger but taller brother.
This led Leroy to contact Will Robinson, a famed Detroit high school coach, and get him to see Spencer, now well over six feet tall. Robinson followed through and helped Haywood make yet another move, this time to Detroit, the Motor City. “With the help of Will Robinson, that’s where my new life started,” said Haywood.
Like Chicago, Detroit was also segregated. Unlike Chicago, Michigan’s largest city and then the nation’s fourth-largest was sitting on a racial time bomb ready to blow up sky high almost three years after Haywood moved there.
The coach found two host families where Haywood stayed when he enrolled at Detroit Pershing High School as an 11th-grader to finish his last two high school years. Robinson would assemble an educational support group that would accelerate Haywood’s learning growth.
“At Pershing High School I got the chance to study, because in Mississippi when you start sharecropping they shut down the schools, so you couldn’t get properly educated,” continued Haywood.
“When I got to Detroit, I had to be re-educated, reacquainted with how to speak [properly]. My math and my English were lacking, and my reading was lacking, so I had to catch up in the two years I’m at Pershing High School. I knew how to read and write, but I was behind and had to get my basics.”
Pershing, located in Detroit’s Conant Gardens on the city’s east side where the Black communities were torn apart by urban renewal and freeways, was one of the city’s largest public high schools. Among its notable alumni is Abdul “Duke” Fakir, the last surviving original member of the Four Tops. Spencer Haywood later would join that impressive alumni group.
Coach Robinson was a task master who didn’t regard basketball as the end-all-be-all. He also was a teacher at Pershing, dedicated to honing Haywood’s on-court talents as well as molding him into a well-rounded student. Robinson would later become the nation’s first Black head coach at a Division I school.
Several of Pershing teachers “put me under their wing, not just while I was in school but after school,” said Haywood. Among his tutors was Dr. Wayne Dyer, then a school guidance counselor, who would later leave his native Detroit and become an internationally renowned motivational speaker and author of self-help books.
Next week: Haywood’s steps to legendary fame
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.