The Spencer Haywood story continues: The rise to stardom

Courtesy of Triumph Books Spencer Haywood in his year with the Rockets

Fourth in a multi-part series

Fresh off his 1968 Olympics performance, Spencer Haywood resumed his college playing, this time back home in Motown at the city’s only Division I school.

The 6’-8” Haywood became one of college basketball’s dominating big men after his freshman season in junior college, which drew recruiters from big-time four-year colleges. “Instead of me going to UCLA or some other place…I chose to come back to the University of Detroit,” he told me, “because [then Michigan] Gov. Romney recruited me along with [then Detroit] Mayor Cavanagh,” who ironically was a U-D alumnus.

However, Haywood would later learn that an empty promise helped lure him to the Northwest Detroit campus. “They [school officials] said, ‘We promise you we will give this job to Will Robinson… [He] will be here your second year.” Haywood recalled getting assurance that his high school coach would be hired to replace the retiring Titans coach after his sophomore season.

Related Story: The Spencer Haywood story continues: The 1968 Olympics showdown

Reunited with Robinson to play college ball for his adopted father in his adopted hometown would be hoop heaven for Haywood, who had not yet turned 20. “He would be a great coach here,” Haywood was convinced, “and be able to recruit George Gervin and all the great [high school] players that were coming out of Detroit.”

Haywood’s first U-D season (1968-69), “I became Outstanding College Player [of the year], averaging 31 points and 23 boards, first team All American,” he continued. 

But after that season, instead of Robinson being hired as Division I’s first Black head coach, U-D officials hired a former pro coach. “Will was so hurt… I saw the pain in him,” recalled Haywood. Robinson later achieved that historic feat when Illinois State hired him in 1970.

Haywood as a result looked to leave school and go pro. He had shown his dominant self in college and more than held his own in pickup games against local NBAers. But there was a catch keeping him from moving on.

The NBA at the time didn’t allow college players in unless they completed four years in school or their high school class has graduated four years earlier. But the upstart rival ABA didn’t have such rules and, according to Haywood, were in “a bidding war for top talent.” The league opened its doors for Haywood.

“I went out to Denver and became the MVP of the league, rookie of the year, MVP of the All-Star game, leading scorer, leading rebounder—I averaged 30 [points] and 20 [rebounds],” noted Haywood of his first pro season.

As burgeoning as was the ABA, a league that brought to pro hoops the three-point shot and a slewful of young talent such as Gervin and the then-unheard-of Julius Erving, later known as Dr. J, it also became known for questionable contracts and bounced checks.

“The ABA decided to give me a bullcrap contract,” said Haywood on the multi-million-dollar pact that was so back-loaded that he wouldn’t get his promised millions until he reached age 50, and only if he worked for the team owner’s company after he retired from pro ball until age 70.

Again Haywood looked to move on, and Seattle in the NBA signed him in 1970. He and the team owner sued the NBA on anti-trust grounds—Haywood v. National Basketball Association, a case that would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court before the league settled out of court.

Barely voting age, Haywood made history, but at a price.

Next: Haywood‘s NBA years and post-athletic career