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NBA to honor man responsible for changing their rule on players graduating before moving to the league

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Spencer Haywood will walk into a Dallas hotel ballroom filled with the 24 NBA All-Stars next weekend, and not a head will turn. Hardly anyone will know the face. Several may know his name — if they get close enough to read the name tag he is wearing.

And that’s a shame. They should be giving him a standing ovation, or parade him around the room on their shoulders like a conquering hero. For most of them, Haywood is the one who made this all possible.

It was Haywood 40 years ago who forced his way into the league by boldly challenging the NBA establishment, taking his demand all the way to the United States Supreme Court. He changed the rule prohibiting teams from using a player whose college class had not yet graduated.

His case sent a shockwave through every city in the league, forever changing the face of the NBA. And depending upon your view, he was either a trail blazing pioneer or the devil who was trying to wreck both college basketball and professional sports

For the first time, the NBA officially will honor him — the guy who once sued the league — during All-Star Weekend in Dallas.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Haywood told FanHouse recently. “For so many years, people were afraid to say thank you for what I did. It’s why so many of these young guys today don’t even know who I am.”

Of the 24 All-Stars this year, 21 of them came into the league under the rule that Haywood changed. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard came directly from high school. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh spent one year in college. Dwyane Wade played two seasons at Marquette.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not Darryl Dawkins or Moses Malone — two of the earliest who came directly from high school — who paved the way. It was Haywood, who spent two years in college and one season in the ABA, blazing the trail.

He was the NBA’s original early-entry player. He didn’t just set an example. He set legal precedence, like Curt Flood did for Major League Baseball free agency.

“For the most part, Spencer has just been taken for granted by many of us,” said Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who came into the NBA as a player after his junior season at Marquette in 1983. “But what he did was huge for everyone. We should all be thanking him.”

It was Haywood in 1970 — a young and naive country boy from rural Mississippi — who endured the taunts and scorn from both casual and rabid basketball people, patrons and management, for daring to challenge the status quo.

“He caused just an unbelievable ruckus around the league at the time. He had everyone scared to death, over what it meant, and where it might lead,” said Pat Williams, a vice-president for the Orlando Magic today but the young general manager of the Chicago Bulls in 1970. “Nobody knew how it would play out. It was viewed as a very threatening situation for the entire league.”

Haywood came out of high school as a phenomenal athlete — a LeBron James before his time. He averaged 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds at Trinidad State (Col) Junior College for one season. He played at the University of Detroit and averaged 32.1 points and 22.1 rebounds the next season. Between those stops, he led the United States Olympic team to the 1968 gold medal in Mexico City.

He joined the upstart American Basketball Association instead of returning to Detroit and became both the league’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year when he averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds in Denver.

Then he became part pariah, doing what legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson never did before him — he knocked down NBA doors.

“Not only was he intimidated by the whole thing, he was petrified,” recalled Al Ross, the California attorney who handled the case 40 years ago. “It was a very hostile environment for him, but he stood up and challenged the league. We knew all along we could win. The rule clearly was archaic and unconstitutional.”

Haywood played only 33 games during that 1970-71 season with Seattle, starting, stopping and starting again with each temporary injuction as the case moved through the court system.

There were times he played only after an announcement was made that the game was being played under protest because the Sonics were using an illegal player.

Other times, he would arrive at opposing arenas with his teammates, only to be prohibited from entering. He spent more than one game sitting outside on the team bus after being told he had to leave the locker room.

“People made it out like it was life and death. Fans thought I was trying to destroy the college game. I had bottles thrown at me. I had people spit on me. There was so much name calling, it was unbelievable,” Haywood recalled. “I remember Wilt (Chamberlain) telling me once, `I’m glad it was you, and not me.”’

Maverick Seattle owner Sam Schulman encouraged and aided Haywood by launching his own anti-trust suit against the league. And while Haywood was suing the NBA, he was being sued by the ABA for breaking his earlier contract. Even the University of Detroit was suing him for leaving school early.

“Never once did I not think I was ready for the NBA. I was a man-child long before LeBron,” Haywood said. “I was wearing a man’s cap all my life. I was picking cotton since I was five years old. And I didn’t want my mother picking cotton anymore for $2 a day. So going through the courts wasn’t that tough.”

Haywood turned into a fantastic NBA player — for a period. In 1972 and 1973, he was on the All-NBA first team, one of the five best in the league. He was an athletic power forward and a four-time All-Star, both dazzling and powerful.

Unfortunately, he tailed off quickly, sucked in by the NBA’s high-flying lifestyle and the cocaine craze of the mid-to-late ’70s. The trade to the high-profile Knicks in New York made it worse. So did a knee injury.

He hit bottom at the end of the 1979-80 season when the Los Angeles Lakers suspended him in the midst of the NBA Finals because of his blatant drug use. He didn’t see the deciding game in the Finals because he was getting high.

He played in Italy for a year, then returned to the NBA to play in Washington from 1981 to 1983, but he was only a shell of the player he once was. Many still remember him for the way he left the league instead of the way he entered the league, which explains years of reluctance to honor him. He arrived as a visionary pioneer. He left as a failure.

It took the league years to gradually warm to Haywood after what he had done. He has been sober now for 24 years. He has spent the last 15 years as a league ambassador, traveling the world to promote the NBA. He served as a board member for the NBA Retired Players Association. He speaks often to young players about the pitfalls that once swallowed him.

Although he and his family spend much of their time in the Detroit area, he has a construction company in Las Vegas that is helping to build a drug-treatment facility there. It is a project close to his heart.

“Spencer’s case was like the Indiana Jones rock rolling down the hill. Once it started, there was no stopping it,” said former NBA player Danny Schayes, whose father Dolph played before him in the league. “It marked the beginning of the modern era from the business side.”

Haywood lobbied the league for years to name the NBA early-entry rule after him, like the Supreme Court ruling that still bears his name, but that effort wilted. The rule has been altered a few times through collective bargaining with the union, yet the premise has remained the same.

“I have two daughters who play basketball, but even they don’t know who I am in regard to what I did once,” he said. “There were times when I was beaten down so badly, I felt almost ashamed of what I did. And now, I look back and it was pretty courageous.”

Dwight Howard in Orlando is one young player who knows the significance of the Haywood case. Howard was part of the 2004 draft class, one of the last to enter the league before the league and union agreed changed the rule again in 2005, forcing players to wait until they turned 19.

And that may be challenged soon by the next Spencer Haywood who wants into the league. Howard and Haywood are slowly forming a friendship that may grow at All-Star Weekend.

“I guess, all I really want is to walk down the aisle and get a pat on the back, to have someone say `a job well done,”’ Haywood said. “I just want to get the feeling that I did something good.”

via nba fanhouse dot com