Remembering how the youngest MVP in professional basketball history paved the way

“Wood! Wood, wake up!”, his rookie teammate Michael Cooper said while shaking him.

In a matter of months one of the most influential players in NBA history went from being a superstar to a cocaine addict whose teammates no longer wanted around.

Once upon a time, in Silver City, Mississippi, a woman picked cotton for $2 a day. She had 10 children, who slept three to a bed in a shack with no gas or electricity. Her five-year-old son, Spencer, would often help her pick. His father, a carpenter, died a month before his birth.

By 1964, Spencer had grown to 6’9” and his brother Leroy decided to bring him up north where he hoped his brother’s basketball skills could open doors for the family. In 1967, while attending Pershing High School in Detroit, Spencer led the basketball team to the state championship.

One year of college ball followed in Colorado and an Olympic gold medal, as part of the 1968 US Team for which he averaged 16.1 points a game. That performance earned him a scholarship to the University of Detroit where, as a sophomore, he averaged 32.1 points and 21.5 rebounds.

His dream was to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA), a league which did not allow entry to players until the college class they would be in had graduated. With a large family back home and the talent to make significant money, he turned his sights to the recently formed American Basketball Association (ABA) who were more than happy to welcome him. As a rookie for the Denver Rockets (Nuggets) he averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds.

He became the league MVP, ABA Rookie of the Year, and MVP of the All-Star game.

At the age of 21, Spencer Haywood became the youngest player ever to win an MVP award (D-Rose included).

After that season he signed a six-year contract with the Rockets for $1.9 million only to learn later from his attorney that he would be getting $400,000 up front, with the rest being paid out as an annuity until age 50. Feeling like he had been taken advantage of, Haywood backed out of the deal.

With stars like Julius Erving, George Gervin, and Moses Malone making noise in the ABA, NBA owners started getting nervous that they were losing the best young talent to their competitive league.

Sam Shulman, owner of the Seattle Supersonics, decided to take a gamble that would change professional basketball in America.

Going against NBA league rules, he signed Haywood for the 1970-71 season and filed an anti-trust suit against the NBA. Haywood now had defied both ABA and NBA rules.

What followed was reminiscent of that day and age. He was booed and spit upon during away games and teams issued court injunctions barring him from playing in their town. In one arena, the P.A. announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor and the game cannot proceed with this illegal player on the floor!” In the 33 games he played that season, Haywood averaged 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds.

Eventually, in March of 1971, the case of Haywood v. National Basketball Association went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Haywood’s favor. The NBA implemented the “hardship rule” allowing players coming from financially stressed backgrounds to enter the NBA early.

It was around this time that sports apparel companies started approaching star athletes to endorse their products. A small shoe company offered Haywood $100,000 or 10% of the company. Since the company was a small player in the market, his agent convinced him to take the sorely needed money. That company was Nike and today Spencer Haywood would be worth $3 billion.

Haywood continued to shine in Seattle making four straight all-star appearances. In five years with the Sonics, Haywood averaged 24.9 points, including a franchise record 29.2 points in the 1972-73 season. He became the first superstar athlete to represent the city of Seattle.

On October 24, 1975 he was traded by the Sonics to the New York Knicks for Gene Short and a 1979 1st round draft pick. Four years later he was traded by the Knicks to the New Orleans Jazz, where he still put up 24.0 points and 9.6 rebounds a game during the 1978-79 season.

Then on September 13, 1979, Spencer was traded from the Jazz to the Los Angeles Lakers for Adrian Dantley. He finally had his first shot at an NBA championship. There he joined a loaded roster with Cooper, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a rookie named Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Spencer came to LA with his fashion model wife, Iman, ready to enjoy a healthy life in the sunshine. He had been a vegetarian and practiced yoga.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold.

The NBA at that time had a serious cocaine problem. His friend and teammate from the Sonics, Bud Stallworth, lived in LA and quickly invited him to parties where an unlimited supply was always available. Wood fell into bad company.

After games, coke was being stuffed in his bag for free. He and Iman started attending social events where silver plates of different drugs were presented right on the center table, like fancy hors d’oeuvres.

The Lakers made it to the NBA finals against Philadelphia when everything went south. After freebasing all night with Bud, he arrived at practice the next morning where he suddenly laid on the floor not moving. The team thought he was dead. When they finally shook him out of it, head coach Paul Westhead sent him home.

After the game that night, Haywood got into a shouting match in the locker room with teammates. They had finally reached the end of the rope with his poor play and his off-court behavior.

Thinking it would be best to reach out for help, Haywood told Westhead what had been going on. Within two hours, he was no longer a Los Angeles Laker. He was not part of the championship celebration only a few days later.

Pissed as hell, Haywood contacted an old gangster friend of his and offered to pay him to kill Westhead. His friend came to LA, but Spencer was put in place by his worried mom who kept calling and telling him not to be a fool. His buddy went back to Detroit.

Thankfully, a few weeks later, two of his good friends practically forced him to live with them until he got clean. Bill Sharman, the Lakers general manager, hooked him up to play for a team in Italy, where he could get back to himself.

On October 24, 1981 Haywood signed with the Washington Bullets where he ended his career in 1983, a shell of the former star he once was. It was during that time that he relapsed and checked himself into a rehab facility for 56 days, finally getting clean.

By 1986, after starting a real estate company, he established the Spencer Haywood Foundation. They held 22 summer basketball camps in Detroit, involving 3,500 children. He lured them with basketball so he could give them a hard-core education in the dangers of drug addiction.

Haywood’s no. 24 jersey was retired by the SuperSonics during a halftime ceremony on February 26, 2007. He has also made his peace with the Lakers who presented him with the 1980 championship ring he never received.

Despite the impact of his monumental victory in court against the NBA, Haywood said that only one current player has ever contacted him, Kevin Garnett, who thanked him for paving the road for others during his remarks upon accepting the 2004 MVP trophy.

In 2015, Haywood was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame remaining true to his mantra “It’s going to happen on God’s time — because I’m a true believer — and not on my time.”