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A conversation with Spencer Haywood

by Darnell Mayberry Published: February 16, 2014

NEW ORLEANS — Spencer Haywood spent 13 seasons in the NBA and ABA, enjoying his best years with the Seattle SuperSonics before winning a championship in 1980 with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Haywood was the ABA Rookie of the year and Most Valuable Player in 1970, a four-time NBA All-Star, a two-time All-NBA First Team selection and a two-time All-NBA Second Team selection. He set the Olympic record for total points with 145 in 1968 before Kevin Durant in the 2012 London Games tallied 153 points.

Haywood’s No. 24 is retired by the Sonics.

In 1970, Haywood challenged the NBA’s eligibility rules with an anti-trust suit against the league. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the NBA agreed to a settlement.

Haywood was announced Friday as a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In a Q&A with The Oklahoman, Haywood talked about Durant’s record-breaking feats, the NBA’s eligibility rules and his desire for the Thunder to recognize the Sonics’ history.

Q: What are your thoughts about what Kevin Durant has done this season?
A: It’s just so incredible. He’s my guy. Being a Seattle SuperSonic, him being in OKC, it’s even more special. He’s been leaving me behind because with all of his records he has to come through and break mine in order to get to those next ones. Everybody was all shocked, including him, saying ‘Hey, man, you’re breaking the Olympic record for the first time in 44 years.’ They were like ‘Jordan’s got it. Oscar’s got it.’ But then they said Spencer Haywood. And he was like, ‘What? Him again?” (Laughs). So it’s been a beautiful thing to see him play the way he’s been playing this year. I know winning the MVP is secondary to him. But I think they’re going to get the championship when (Russell) Westbrook comes back. The team has gotten so much stronger. They’re playing good, strong basketball. I mean, Serge (Ibaka) has stepped up. You’ve got guys who are stepping up now. It’s pretty serious stuff. They got a good shot at winning it.

What’s it like to watch Durant break your records?
Because he’s breaking a lot of my records that I had with the Seattle SuperSonics and with the Olympics and also records that I set in the NBA, I love seeing him break the records. It’s no better person to do it than him. He’s having a phenomenal year. But this year has been phenomenal in the sense of scoring and doing all of the other stuff, rebounding and passing. I think he’s averaging seven rebounds and, maybe, six assists, along with the 38 points here lately. That’s powerful stuff. That’s old-school ball there, man. He’s doing it all.

As competitive as professional athletes are, why don’t we hear more guys say they want to hold onto those records?
It’s the gratitude of seeing someone coming along better than you and breaking them. And letting it go. Because to be honest about it, most people had forgotten all about me until they start mentioning me on ESPN. It’s kind of fun because we are from the same team, and to see someone step over that threshold and do what he’s doing it’s just incredible. And it’s no better person in the NBA. My two favorite guys personality-wise as well as humans and ballplayers are he and LeBron James. Those are my two guys. And I was with him when he was drafted in Seattle. I was the one showing him around in Seattle. So it’s kind of a fun thing. These are all my babies. These are my sons that I thought I was fighting for back in 1970 so that they would be on the scene today.

Of all your records, which one are you most proud of?
The records with the Sonics were outstanding and pretty strong. But the Olympic record, that was kind of hard to let go because I held onto it for 44 years.

Can you talk about the Hall of Fame? What does that achievement mean to you?
That is the icing on the cake. I do go in as a Seattle SuperSonic/OKC. I’m y’all first, too.

People in Seattle might not like to hear that.
It is what it is. We were close to grabbing the team from Sacramento, and that was not selling right. But you can’t separate it. That team is from Seattle. You just can’t say ‘I’m all Seattle, it’s one way or the other.’ No, it’s OKC/Seattle. We are the same family. We’re the kids. We are this child. The child grew up a little bit and went away from home. So I can’t say I’m not OKC. And I know Seattle people, my sisters, my brothers, all of them live there, and everybody wants to have that wall up. But we have broke down the wall with Russia, with everybody. How can we have an NBA team and we don’t embrace it. I’m always pulling for OKC. That’s my own team.

Do you see a team going back to Seattle?
There is some talk about Milwaukee moving to Seattle. But I don’t like the idea of uprooting another team because then we’re doing what we’re accusing y’all of doing. I have some good fond memories of what Clay (Bennett) did for me. Because he came into town — with the former owners, Howard Schultz and all those guys, they never put my jersey in the ceiling. It was like, ‘He’s radical. Blah, blah, blah — and Clay said ‘Before I leave town, before I move the team, I’ve got to put Haywood’s jersey in the ceiling. He had the ceremony and put it in the ceiling.

What made you want to challenge the league’s eligibility rule?
My mother was picking cotton in Silver City, Mississippi for $2 a day. And everybody was making money off of me, but I wanted to save my mother. So I just said ‘Hey, this is what it is and this is the way it goes.’ And at that time, in 1970, we had Curt Flood at the Supreme Court for Major League Baseball. We had Muhammad Ali there for boxing. So why not for basketball?

What did that mean to your mother that you were so active in fighting a fight and really doing it for her?
Yeah, well I was doing it for her, but I was also doing it for the future of the game, for basketball. Because if I hadn’t fought that fight against the NBA, the NBA would be the ABA today. Because the ABA accepted me as an early entry person. The NBA did not. And so I had to fight them. And from that, we grew fro 16 teams to 32 because we had a pool of players to pull from without guys waiting for four years before they could play a professional game.

After fighting for early eligibility, how do you feel now about the one-and-done culture?
I was just talking to Adam Silver about this. I’m not a fan of the one and done. I’m just not. I think it is difficult on the veterans that are being pushed out, and also it’s difficult on the universities that have those kinds of players. And it’s also going to be difficult for the players in the long run because you got to be able to execute the plays, you got to be mature body-wise. So it’s going to be best that I think you give them at least two to three years. That would be ideal.

Who’s the greatest competition you faced? Best player? Toughest cover, however you want to put it. Who is that guy?
That guy is here with me now. Rick Barry. We had some battles.

What made him so tough?
He could do it all. And I had to go out on the floor and guard him. Usually, they would switch up or double because I could take him down low and use him down low. But he was savvy. He had all of the skill set and everything else. It was always a battle. We started out in the ABA because he left the Warriors and jumped to the ABA.

LeBron made headlines when he came out with his Mount Rushmore list. And now everybody is asking everybody else for their opinion. Who’s on your Mount Rushmore?
I would go with Kareem. And you got to have Wilt there. And then I would go with two of the younger guys. I would go with LeBron and Michael.

Interesting. You’d put LeBron in that category? Already?
Yeah. For now. Because I love the young guys, and I love the play of the young players. Maybe I’m just drunk on the idea that I love these young guys. I love Durant and LeBron. I played from ’69 until ’85, so I saw all of (the older guys). And I’m watching the game now and I’m like ‘These boys are the deal.”

Sounds like you’ve got a very healthy respect for what these young guys are doing?
Oh, please. I respect them big time. And all the old guys are always telling me, ‘You’re giving them too much love. You can’t do that.’

A lot of players from the previous generation say ‘Well, they don’t do it like we did it.’
(Expletive). Hey, man. Who? This young boys are serious. So what I’m saying is, somebody is lying. Leave it at that. Somebody is lying. Because it hasn’t been played this way like they’re doing it right now.

Special thanks to Spencer Haywood for his time. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerHaywood.

by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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