DALLAS – There was a time when professional sports owners ruled their respective sports like feudal dictators. The lock and chain of one-sided contract negotiations left NBA, MLB and NFL players like a parachute jumper leaping out a plane without a parachute – hopeless.
Then along came Spencer Haywood (NBA) and Curt Flood (MLB). For this narrative I’d like to focus on Haywood, because the entity that he sued finally acknowledged his — at times — painful legal pursue that culminated with a favorable judgment from the United Stated Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruling in the landmark Haywood vs. NBA in favor of the working class is simply rooted in the fact that the position he presented was just and correct.
“People have told me that Haywood vs. NBA ranks up there with Roe vs. Wade and Brown vs. Board of Education,” Haywood explained. “What I had to endure was not like a Detroit City Court case. Thurgood Marshall and the United States Supreme Court decided my case. It paved the way for over 40 years of player opportunity, movement and choice.”
So it was a special occurrence that Commissioner Dave Stern, who fought against Haywood as its lawyer during his legal battle with the NBA, decided to acknowledge him on the national stage for challenging the owners that he represents almost 40 years later.
As I went to various NBA All-Star events during the snow filled weekend. Most of the NBA men that I interviewed recounted how important Haywood’s litigation was, there were many — especial the youngest ones — of the current players on the 24 person 2010 All-Star rosters who did not know his name or what he did for them.
What he did is pretty obvious. All one has to do is look at the current All-Stars, 21 out of 24 players came into the league under the rule that Haywood changed. Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard came directly from high school. Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Chris Bosh gave the NCAA one year and Dwyane Wade put in two seasons at Marquette.
“I understand and recognize the battle that Spencer had to endure,” Bryant told me. “That was a tremendous personal sacrifice he went thought, and people like me are benefiting from his resolve to ride the case all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Concurred Wade: “He was a ground breaker. I cannot imagine what he went through to change the early-entry rule. I left early and I appreciated him doing what he did.”
It’s been a long and arduous journey for Haywood in his quest to be in the Hall of Fame and receive positive recognition for the landmark legislation that 40-years-ago changed the NBA rule barring teams from using a player whose college class had not yet graduated.
Haywood left Detroit Pershing High to attend Trinidad State (Col) Junior College for one season, where he averaged 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds. Then became the first freshman to play for the United Stated Olympic team, leading the US to a gold medal. Next it was off to the University of Detroit where he made All-American, averaging 32.1 points and 22.1 rebounds.
Whenever one challenges the NCAA, NBA and parochial and narrow-minded fans, it surely evoked a lot of hot-blooded emotions involved in the critique of the value of the Supreme Court judgment.
“Seattle owner Sam Schulman encouraged and financed the case,” Haywood recalled. “I knew it was going to be tough, but it was crazy to be getting sued by the ABA for breaking my contract and U of D was suing me for leaving school early.
“Other players and my friends were worried that something physical would happen to me. The ABA and NCAA did not want to disrupt the status quo and there were many people who felt I was breaking up their college teams. People were following me and trying to intimidate me. Will (Robinson) was more afraid than I was, although I did have my moments.”
It did not stop there for Haywood; he had to battle the NBA to play that first year in Seattle. In fact, he was only allowed to play in 33 games during that 1970-71 season with Seattle.
“I would travel to games with my team,” he recalled, “and I’d wait for the announcer to say, ‘I’m glad to inform all that Haywood is not going to play’ or others would announce that Seattle is using an ‘illegal player.’ I would play one game, get put out the arena in the next. I would get dressed and warm up with may teammates, and, the next thing I knew I was sitting out in the cold on the team bus waiting for the game to be over. That’s what I had to go through while waiting for my case to move through the court system.”
Just maybe as Haywood noted, the NBA and the players have benefited from his brave leap out on faith, now maybe it is his time to benefit, too!