The Spencer Haywood story continues: The 1968 Olympics showdown

Courtesy of Triumph Books Spencer Haywood, member of the United States basketball team which has reached the finals in the Mexico City Olympic games, shows his father, Will Robinson, the sights in the Olympic Village in Mexico City Oct. 23, 1968.

Third in a multi-part series

The year 1967 was a transformative year in America, three years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Tensions simmered in many urban areas, including Detroit, that would eventually boil over that summer.

Despite being a senior at Detroit Pershing High School, Spencer Haywood’s Mississippi accent continued to draw teasing from the school populace. “The Black kids were really hard on me,” he recalled. “The White kids didn’t really understand why the Black kids were putting down this Black kid from the South.

“I wanted to prove them wrong,” said Haywood, who was on a fast track academically with the extra help of teachers and others. “I had a B average. I got the last laugh.”

On the basketball court, Haywood proved a dominant force in city hoops. Coached by Will Robinson and with such teammates as Ralph Simpson, the father of famed singer India.Arie, Pershing became the first city school in over 30 years to win the state Class A crown. 

“When I first got there,” remembered Haywood, “[Coach Robinson] introduced me to the team. He said, ‘Listen, we have been playing like mules. Now we got a horse, and we are going to ride this horse into the championship.”

[Related Story: The Spencer Haywood story continues: Back to basics in Detroit]

Will Robinson was both coach and father figure to Haywood, whose father died just before he was born. “He would ride me around town showing me all the great sights of Detroit,” said Haywood.

Now 6’-8”, Haywood was a big target of big-time school recruiters from coast to coast. He first chose to go back south: “I signed with the University of Tennessee,” he noted, choosing the school on the hopes that his mother would finally be able to see him play basketball. “I wanted her to see me play when I’d go to Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi.”

He would have been the Southeastern Conference’s first Black player, but Haywood felt uncomfortable at Tennessee. With Robinson’s advice and help, he left there and enrolled at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado. “That [freshman] year I became Junior College Player of the Year,” averaging nearly 30 points and over 22 rebounds a game.

 After his first college year, Haywood tried out for the 1968 U.S. Olympics basketball team because many older Black college stars boycotted the Mexico City games. “It was the first time the Olympic team allowed a freshman to try out,” said Haywood, who at age 19 was the team’s youngest player. 

“I led them all the way to the gold medal,” he said proudly. “I set the record for the most points [scored] that stood for 44 years until Kevin Durant broke it. I still have the record for highest field goal percentage, 72% from the field, and second in rebounding to this day.”

Haywood also was part of the growing Black athlete activism in this country. “[We] had a meeting before we got to the Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Lee Evans were being pushed by [Dr.] Harry Edwards to make a stand and be vocal about it. Me and [boxer] George Foreman were 19 years old [and] weren’t going to say anything.”

  Smith and Carlos would later make their stand after their Olympic event during the medal ceremony, wearing black gloves and holding their arms in the air during the national anthem.  “The U.S. Olympic Association marched them out of the Olympic Village, and then they threatened us” not to protest in any way, Haywood said. 

But the young man did a silent protest of his own: “I didn’t go to the closing ceremonies, and I gave away my [Olympic] jersey.”

Next week: Haywood is lured back to Motown.