Spencer Haywood – ABA/NBA great that beat the NBA in Supreme Court
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(2014) As the NBA discusses raising the age limit for players entering the NBA, we celebrate the underrated basketball great who, for better or worse, is the reason why players were allowed to enter the NBA without finishing college in the first place.
The first major challenge to the NBA’s eligibility rules came from Spencer Haywood. He graduated from high school in 1967, at a time when college freshmen were not allowed to play varsity sports for NCAA member schools. He played one year at a Colorado junior college, followed by a season at the University of Detroit. After the 1968-69 season, he left college for the NBA’s rival at the time, the ABA, which had no rule restricting college underclassmen from entering the league, and had a spectacularly successful rookie season with the Denver Rockets (the predecessor to today’s Denver Nuggets), being named the ABA’s Rookie of the Year and MVP. Near the end of the season, he turned 21; shortly after its end, he repudiated his contract with the Rockets, claiming he had been defrauded. Haywood then signed a contract with the Seattle SuperSonics, which put him and the Sonics on a collision course with the NBA, as he was only three years removed from his high school graduation.
The NBA threatened to disallow the contract and impose sanctions against the Sonics. Haywood responded by filing an antitrust suit against the league, seeking an injunction to prevent the NBA from disallowing the contract or punishing the Sonics. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a 7–2 decision in Haywood’s favor in 1971.
After the decision, the NBA allowed players to leave college early as “hardship cases”, which essentially meant that the player had to prove financial hardship. This rule quickly developed into one that was observed in the breach, with Sport magazine writer Jackie Lapin commenting in the 1970s that “Almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify [as a hardship case] — with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker’s son.”
You can read more about Haywood and his landmark case here, but I don’t want you thinking Spencer’s mark on the NBA was just in court. On the court, the 5 x All-Star once led the ABA in scoring and rebounding in the same season with an insane 30 & 20 average and averaged over 20 & 10 during his first four seasons in the NBA. His best statistical season came in 1973, when he averaged 29 and 13.
Late in his career, he picked up a NBA championship in 1980 as a member of the LA Lakers.
Sadly, Haywood was once again passed on in April, when the latest Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers were announced.
Via USA Today
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of other reactions from other people and everything else, but I’m personally in a better place spiritually so I accept it,” Haywood, who averaged 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds during his one ABA season and 12 NBA seasons, said by phone. “Hey, I know it’s not right. It is (expletive) up. It is terrible and all those other bad things, but I’ve got to accept it…What is God setting me up for? Something far greater and something bigger, so I accept it.”