- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The deadline to find out last week if he had finally been voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame was fast approaching and 1970's star Spencer Haywood, one of this year's finalists, says, "I assumed I was in. Of course. If you look at what I've done, you have to think positive, right?" So he called Al Ross, the attorney and agent who had helped him win his landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case, which won the sort of freedom of movement for basketball players that Curt Flood famously accomplished for baseball players. He told Ross, "Get your suit pressed, get your tuxedo ready! When I get the word I'm going in, you will be right there next to me. I'd like you to present me."
Then Haywood flew to Atlanta last Thursday, where the inductees would be announced during the Final Four festivities, because he had another appearance scheduled anyway. And all hell broke loose.
The fact that somebody is still lying about what happened next is almost beside the point. That's a misdemeanor compared to the real crime against the truth here: Haywood should have sailed into the Basketball Hall of Fame long before now, instead of floating along on this two-decade wait that hasn't been easy or uncomplicated for Haywood. But for him, little ever is.
Haywood's exclusion for another year looks even more assailable when his groundbreaker past and superior playing accomplishments are cast against the Hall's non-transparent selection process, one of the most secretive in American sports. Neither the voters nor even vote totals are announced.
"Is it a mystery? A conspiracy? Ahh, I don't know," the 63-year-old Haywood said Tuesday, shortly after his flight from Atlanta touched down in his current hometown of Las Vegas. "I've been told not to talk to the press or anything, it will mess up my future Hall of Fame chances, blah, blah, blah. But I don't believe in muzzling myself I'm just tired of being the person that fights battles." Laughing a little resignedly, he added, "I just want to be like a hippie in the Sixties now. Peace and love."
But Ross, his former attorney, is among those who has enough outrage for both of them. Ross says: "You know what your headline should be? 'Shame on you, Hall of Fame committee. You're a disgrace to the profession!' "
It was Ross alone who was quoted by a Foxsports.com reporter Friday in the story that first broke the news saying Haywood had been told he was in the Hall -- only to email the same reporter back Saturday to say Haywood was not voted in after all. (The initial article has now been removed.) Later the same day, Haywood told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that, "Someone in the NBA told me I was in This isn't a punch in the stomach. It's below the stomach."
But the NBA doesn't administer or announce the voting. The Hall, which is based in Springfield, Mass., does, and two sources familiar with the process told me this week that the league usually doesn't get a heads up regarding the final results before all the candidates are personally informed in phone calls from Hall of Fame president John Doleva, whether they made it or not.
This year, 12 of those calls were made by Doleva on Wednesday afternoon, or two days before the first reports that Haywood was in and then not in the Class of 2013 that included Bernard King, Gary Payton, Rick Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian.
So how could there still be confusion on Haywood's part by Friday when he should've gotten the bad news Wednesday?
"Ask him," says Ross.
"I don't know -- I can't be a private eye, running my mouth or running around, trying to figure out what happened," Haywood says. "I don't think the Hall needs banged on the head anymore For a while last week, I was on top of the world, and the next day my pockets were dragging on the ground. It was embarrassing. Then I ran into Gary Payton and some of the guys at Friedman's Shoes in Atlanta [a longtime destination for basketball players], and I felt that all this controversy took something away from their journey. I felt like a heel in a way, you know?"
Haywood has been called worse to his face. He's mellowed from even a few years ago, when he was still lobbing accusations that perhaps the Hall was overlooking him in part because current NBA commissioner David Stern was one of the league's lawyers that argued the Supreme Court case against him. ("I'm OK with Stern. We communicate," Haywood now says.)
The league has employed Haywood for the past eight years at Olympic-related gatherings and to speak to incoming players as part of its rookie transition program, and Haywood says, "I tell them the players the whole story, straight up."
The working title of his speech could be, "Anything you might go through, I went through worse."
Haywood came of age during the racial upheaval and Civil Rights fights of the '60s, remember, and he went from being born into a family of 10 children in Jim Crow Mississippi -- "My mother used to pick cotton in the fields," he says -- to moving in with an uncle in Detroit. Once there, he became a high-school sensation at Detroit Pershing High School and then spent a year dominating at Trinidad State (Colo.) Junior College. He was chosen for the '68 U.S. Olympic team that was coached by the legendary Hank Iba and competed in the tumult at Mexico City without college stars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes. They had heeded a call by sociologist Harry Edwards to boycott the Games.
"Those were the Games where Tommie Smith and John Carlos did their black-fist salute," Haywood recalls. "I was an 19-year-old boy what did I know? When Hank first picked me for the team, I said 'Me?' He said, 'You're going to save America from those commie Russian bastards. You can't let those bleepin' commies win, can you?' Then, while everyone was still talking about the boycott and all that, Jesse Owens came in and said, 'How would all of you have felt if you had run before Hitler [as Owens had]?' And that was that. A lot of us said, 'Man, it's time to go play basketball now.'"
Haywood, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward, led the team in scoring (16.1 ppg) and shot a ridiculously good .719 from the field. Once back in the States, he dominated in his one season at the University of Detroit, scoring 32.1 points a game and leading the nation with an average of 21.5 rebounds. As a player, he was clearly ready to move on. He also needed and wanted to earn a living. But NBA rules prevented him from playing there until four years after his high school class graduated, so he accepted an offer to play for the Denver Rockets of the upstart ABA and his numbers there -- a league-leading 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds per game -- were nearly identical to his monstrous college stats. Denver made the playoffs. Haywood won the league MVP award.
He was still only 21 years old.
But here's where things got complicated. Haywood fell into a contract dispute after that season with Denver ownership, which Ross says tried to hoodwink Haywood with a six-year contract that was not guaranteed to pay him the $1.6 million he was told it would. That led Haywood to sign in 1970 with the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics over howls of protest. And that's how, along with Sonics owner Sam Schulman, he and Ross launched an antitrust suit against the league (Haywood v. National Basketball Association) that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Haywood was told to stay strong and be patient then, too. But it wasn't easy. He played only 33 of Seattle's 82 games that year. He was sometimes served court papers just as he took the court for warmups with the Sonics that prevented him from playing. Sometimes arena announcers would introduce him by saying, "We have an illegal player with Seattle tonight." He remembers another evening when he was served with an injunction and had to leave Cincinnati Gardens and stand outside in the snow, waiting hours for the game to end.
Ross says, "At one point we were fighting everybody. It was a situation where the ABA wanted to keep him in their league, the NBA wanted to keep him out, and the NCAA doesn't want him in either so they can enforce the four-year standard too."
Haywood says, "For me, it was like a holy hell. Even now, it's painful for me to go through those memories. I've tamped them down I got heckled. Punched. I'd not just have to leave the team or game -- to not even be allowed on the arena grounds? I was treated no different than I was in my hometown in Mississippi. It felt like the only difference was during that period I could use the same bathrooms, the same water fountains. That's about it."
The Supreme Court ruled in March of 1971 that the NBA's reserve clause and attempts to prevent him from earning a living were unconstitutional. Haywood claims that Thurgood Marshall, one of the Supreme Court justices who ruled on his case, later warned him to expect more mistreatment in years to come, same as Flood or baseball union boss Marvin Miller eventually received. (Like Haywood, neither of them is in their Hall of Fame, either.)
"Thurgood Marshall explained to me it was because pioneers are usually ostracized -- history told you that," Haywood says. "And, I mean, look at Curt Flood. He died in poverty. People didn't give a damn. Look at Jackie Robinson. He died of a broken heart."
Haywood's victory opened the way for players from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to bypass college completely or leave early for the pros. But Haywood has complained -- shrilly at times -- that the so-called "hardship rule" should be called the Spencer Haywood rule, same as the epochal ruling on baseball's reserve clause is named for Flood. He's sometimes lamented that today's players -- who operate under a more recent, collectively bargained rule that they can't enter the NBA before age 19 -- don't know who he is. "But it is what it is," he says now.
Haywood still has a healthy ego about how terrific a player he was, too. And he has a point. His is one case where the stats don't lie. But he is also realistic that the cocaine addiction he eventually had to overcome may still haunt him. It had a direct link to the well-publicized nadir of his career: Lakers coach Paul Westhead summarily dismissed Haywood from the team during the 1980 Finals because Haywood fell asleep at a practice.
The Lakers went on to win without him. And as former ABA and NBA coach Hubie Brown told the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News 10 years ago, or two-thirds into Haywood's continuing wait to get into the Hall, "The guy was an incredible player. You should have seen him on the Olympic team. He was something else. But, unfortunately, his career ended on a sour note, so there are a lot of people that don't have compassion for him.''
Haywood says he conveys the Lakers' part of his story, too, during his rookie transition program talks to the NBA's incoming players. He's said he's been sober for more than two decades. And while he's not as abstaining about calmly making his own case for the Hall by rattling off his accomplishments -- "I think I've done enough" he insists -- he does sound sincere when he quickly adds, "But I have a lot to be grateful for even without the Hall," citing other details in his life now like his wife, four daughters, and a marble and tile business he owns in Las Vegas that handles commercial development contracts.
But here's the thing. Haywood doesn't just have the credentials. The Basketball Hall's selection process should be questioned. It has remained stubbornly opaque when the trend everywhere else is toward more transparency, more accountability.
The Hall's Doleva said in a phone interview this week that the rationale is to spare candidates themselves "embellishment or embarrassment" that might come if their vote totals were announced. He also said it's to prevent voters from unfair scrutiny or backlash that might persuade "the best and the brightest" not to participate.
But both arguments sound absurd. Voters for the baseball or football halls, the Heisman Trophy, and college coaches voting for the Top 25 polls in basketball and football, are made public and those endeavors have no trouble assembling experts to vote. They go on to lead perfectly unscarred lives. And anyway, as Haywood's case underlined, the Basketball Hall's policy doesn't save it from controversy or leaks. Other omissions or past head-scratching selections have also provided fodder for charges that the basketball Hall's process is often a log-rolling exercise among pals and people of influence in the "right" crowd.
And as for Haywood's imperfect past? What of it?
Tarkanian was voted into the Hall despite his many battles and transgressions in the eyes of the NCAA. So was King, another player who struggled with substance abuse, plus legal troubles and run-ins with coaches by the end of his career (including the dubious distinction of being the first Washington player to think of bringing a gun to practice long before Jarvaris Crittenton or Gilbert Arenas did.)
"Spencer is a good guy," Doleva says, adding that when he spoke to Haywood last week, "He was understandably disappointed he didn't make it this year. But I told him to be patient. The cream rises to the top."
That may be true. It should be true. But you can't blame Haywood for his rejoinder to that.
"John Doleva and I spoke a little after it was all said and done, and he was consoling me pretty good," Haywood says. "It will happen. I have faith in the Hall that they will do the right thing. I really do. It's just that "
Just that what?
"When they say 'You gotta wait, you gotta wait' -- hell, I have waited. Since 1988," Haywood says. "And the pain is a mother. I don't want to give anyone an excuse to say, 'Hey, let's really [work] him over now.' But how long do I wait? How long?"
Spencer Haywood should have sailed into the Basketball Hall of Fame long before now, instead of floating along on this two-decade wait that hasn't been easy or uncomplicated for Haywood. But for him, little ever is.