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The makings of an American hero

From picking cotton to the pick-and-roll, Spencer Haywood’s story is truly astounding

Long before “The Dream Team” — the collapse and rise of USA Basketball with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant leading Team USA into the 2016 Rio Olympics — there was Spencer Haywood.

Haywood was a relatively unknown member of the USA Basketball team that lacked lots of black talent during the civil rights movement at the renowned 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The Silver City, Mississippi, native went from picking cotton in his youth to leading the United States to an unexpected gold medal. Haywood scored a USA Olympic record of 145 total points that wasn’t surpassed until Durant scored 156 in 2012.

Haywood was most known for winning a lawsuit against the NBA in 1971 as a 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned an old requirement stating that a player can’t be drafted by an NBA team unless he waited four years after graduating from high school. In the next NBA collective bargaining agreement, the Las Vegas resident is hopeful that the rule allowing kids to leave school early to the NBA will be called “The Spencer Haywood Rule.” The four-time NBA All-Star was also the 1970 ABA MVP, won an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980, had his No. 24 jersey retired by the Seattle SuperSonics and overcame serious drug issues.

With the arrival of the Rio Olympics, Haywood talked to The Undefeated about his amazing rise from picking cotton in Mississippi to being terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan while working at an all-white country club to growing into a little-known teenager who starred in the 1968 Olympics highlighted by Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ “Black Power salute.”


What do you remember about picking cotton in Mississippi?

I grew up competing with the idea that I’m going to be the greatest cotton picker ever. So my brothers and I would get up in the morning — we were young, like 7, 8, 9 — get the cotton when it was wet, put it in the sack and then drag it. Cotton-picking is kind of brutal stuff. You’re that young. You put 100 pounds of cotton in a sack. You’re like maybe a half a mile away. So you put the sack back on your shoulder and you learn how to walk with 100 pounds on your shoulder. And you get back to the trailer and dump it out.

leaf graphicI didn’t know I was building a basketball player. You’re picking two rows. You’re picking with your hands. You’re getting your coordination. I didn’t know what I was training for, but I was picking cotton. I did it all the way up until 15. I did it from the time I was born. You’re born by a midwife on the bed in which you were conceived on. That’s where they put the babies out, pull them out and cut the cord and everything. And my mother would get maybe one day or two days off and then we were back out into the cotton field, strapped on my mother’s back.

I remember looking up at cotton as a baby, pulling from the bottom. What you learn is you got to pull it from the bottom because they can’t get it up there, they down there and you riding on the sack while they’re picking and you riding. And you’re like a little baby and you’re picking that cotton. I started at maybe 3 years old.

How do you look back on cotton-picking?

I look back on it like it was the best thing that ever happened to me. We were dirt poor. We had no food. So that was salvation. Basketball and training and stuff, like later on, I mean practice for two hours, three hours, I’m like, ‘That’s all?’ I always worked from sun up to sun down. I never worked like other people worked. And as a young kid, you learn work ethic.

Did you feel like you were a slave picking cotton in Mississippi?

When I was down in Mississippi? I knew I was. But I knew I was in indentured slavery. I didn’t have no rights — I couldn’t. I had to go to different bathrooms, I had to go to different water fountains. Oh, I lived my whole life like that.

And then you see the men who own the cotton field, sitting on the porch with big straw hats on looking like Colonel Sanders or something, and drinking julep, talking, ‘Boy! Y’all sho’ can work hard!’ We made $2 a day, he sitting on his ass making $2,000.

How did you go to school as a child?

You didn’t go to school. You went to school, but the Mississippi law was they would shut down the school during harvest time. Planting, picking and chopping. So you only went to school a third of the time. Slavery, but you know, it’s after reconstruction so it’s still slavery. I was growing up in that system. We didn’t go to school that much.

When I got to Detroit, I did this test. They were going to find out where I was, what grade level we got to work on. I get there and I got everybody around me like, ‘Wait a minute. Your education is very lacking. How? What?’

Could you read?

I could read. But I remember going up to the chalkboard and writing, ‘s-p-e-n.’ I was introducing myself to the class and I put a small ‘s’ for Spencer and a small ‘h’ for Haywood. And everybody cracked up. I was like, ‘What’s the joke?’ But I hadn’t been taught.

So then I figured what I need to do is apply my cotton field work ethic to academics while I’m here at [Detroit’s] Pershing High School. I had Dr. Wayne Dyer, the noted author, he was there at the school and he took me under his arm and we buckled down three and four hours a day. I caught up. And when I left high school I was carrying a B average. I had such horrible grades up until that point.

“I knew I was in indentured slavery. I didn’t have no rights — I couldn’t. I had to go to different bathrooms, I had to go to different water fountains.”

How did you start playing basketball?

I started playing basketball because my brothers played and I wanted to fit in with them. My brother Andrew was like this, ‘I’m the man of the house … ’ And he was just determined to make a man out of me. He was four years older so I started playing basketball with him. I just remember all my time I was playing with him I always was bloody with a black eye or something because he always popped me really good, getting the ball or something.

One night, we were playing over this boy’s house named ‘Pee Wee.’ And my brother is talking about me like, ‘You’re the worst. I’ve never seen such a horrible player.’ So the ball came off the basket and something came over me. I grabbed it. I went back up and I dunked it. And they were like, ‘What the f—?’ So we played until deep into the night by the moonlight.

With his eye on the basket, Spencer Haywood (8) of the U.S. Olympic basketball team gets off a shot as a player from the Yugoslavian team vainly tries to interfere in final Olympic action in Mexico City on Oct. 26, 1968.

AP Photo

I was 13. I never walked with my brother side by side because he would keep me back behind him. ‘Don’t you walk beside me, boy.’ Because he only learned from the whites down there in Mississippi. He didn’t know better. I was always walking behind him because he didn’t want to lose his ground to me of all people. And that night he said, ‘Let’s walk together.’ That was my right of passage. In basketball, that was the one. That’s like bringing up some real cool stuff now. That was like, almost like, winning a gold medal.

I was tall. I had to be 6-foot-5, so I grew so fast. I grew 5 inches in a summer. So coach told me, ‘You got to be in the gym!’ [I said,] ‘What about Andrew?’ [Coach replied,] ‘Aw, he’s uncoachable. He’s a renegade. We want you.’ And, I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’

How did you end up in Detroit for high school?

They call you a ‘Big Buck’ in Mississippi, and they have all of that farm work you have to do. What happens is they take the Big Buck and they put him in jail on false charges. I was put in jail for one night for false charges and my mother said, ‘I don’t want my baby to go down like this.’ Willie Harris said I was disturbing the peace over at the country club. I was a caddy. Harris welded a quarter to a nail and nailed it down. So then I’m trying to get this quarter off because I’m thinking in my head, ‘Man I got some [crackers] and a Coca-Cola.’ I’m thinking I found me a quarter. So I’m trying to get the damn thing off and it was like stuck to the thing. So he’s like, ‘Aw, you trying to steal my quarter!’ And, I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ And I didn’t get the joke until he sat down. Then he came out and he was beating me.

So he’s whooping my ass and I decide to fight back. And they say, ‘Well, you know you going to jail … ’ So when I got in jail for that one night, which is like horrible.

Then my mother said, ‘It’s time for you to go,’ because all of these old women had seen all of this. They had seen this s— for years and years and years. All of my brothers had to leave my hometown at a certain age. And mine just came a little bit earlier because they were going to get me.

What was the most degrading thing you heard and happened while working at the all-white country club?

The worst thing that happened was the day that [President John F.] Kennedy got shot. And some members were with the [Ku Klux] Klan. They lined us up as kids and on the fairway and drove golf balls at our head. And they wanted to explain to us, ‘We got your n—– loving Kennedy and we going to make an example out of you guys.’ It was a hell of day around there.

Did you get hit by a golf ball?

Nah, I didn’t get hit. But another kid got hit and we saw the golf ball hit him in his head and his head just blew up. It was just really horrible. They hit golf balls at us, and we just duck them. I would think, ‘Hell, for an hour?’

If the ball comes in after you, you duck your head, then let it hit you, and you roll over with it. If it hits you in the spine, you’re f—–. But if it got all the other parts, you’re all right. So that’s the anger we had to deal with while caddying in Silver City, Mississippi, being in that environment.

Can you talk about when Jesse Owens addressed the black athletes on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team?

Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans, George Foreman, all of us were sitting there and he was addressing us. George wanted to knock the Russian out and be rich. I don’t want to go back to whatever we were going back to [in America]. So Jesse came in talking about all of this stuff about what a great thing for us to be Americans and do this. Tommy and John were rough. John Carlos was really rough.

So Carlos and Smith were not listening to Owens?

No. Hell no. So the killing point was when [Owens] got angry and he said, ‘What the hell would any of you SOB’s feel like running in front of [Adolph] Hitler?’ [Owens] warned us not to do the protest, not to do any stance or anything because you are fighting against the world. ‘You’re not fighting just for the black cause.’

Spencer Haywood, member of the United States basketball team which has reached the finals in the Mexico City Olympic games, shows his father, Will Robinson, the sights in the Olympic Village in Mexico City Oct. 23, 1968. (AP Photo)

Spencer Haywood, member of the United States basketball team, which reached the finals in the Mexico City Olympic games, shows his father, Will Robinson, the sights in the Olympic Village in Mexico City on Oct. 23, 1968. (AP Photo)

Tommy was saying, ‘When you get back, you going to get us jobs?’ And, Tommy was like, ‘Man, I can’t get no job now. Ain’t nobody getting no damn jobs now.’ So [Smith] was like confrontational. It was beautiful, just beautiful. Then of course [U.S. sprinter] Wilma Rudolph came in and she spoke her nice words and stuff.

So you were hanging out with George Foreman during the 1968 Olympics?

Yeah. We just had turned 19 so we were the youngest guys there. We were like, ‘Man, you want to go to the commissary?’ That’s all we did was eat. We’re growing and all that food. And all of the Russians come into the commissary. They eating like all the stuff up. And we were like, ‘We got to get this food.’

So [USA Basketball coach] Hank Iba would always say, ‘If you’re looking for those two sons of b——, go to the food line.’ So that was our thing. Just trying to enjoy it.

“So I had a birth certificate and a gold medal. And three years before I was a slave. And now I’m an American hero.”

What was it like being on a USA Basketball team that a lot of young black stars decided not to play for during the civil rights movement, and you still won gold?

Harry [Edwards] had did such a phenomenal thing. Then Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was boycotting. And Elvin Hayes and Westley Unseld didn’t boycott, but they were supposed to sign the contract to go with their team and become pro. They did. And we didn’t have Bob Lanier. Guys got cut from the team. Pete Maravich got cut. And Calvin Murphy got cut. Rick Mount got cut. Tom Boerwinkle. I mean all of the big dogs he cut.

Did you face any criticism for playing for USA Basketball from black athletes, media or people?

No. I didn’t because I was an unexpected selection. I was not a superstar when I went to the Olympics. I came back a megastar. But when I went people in Michigan and junior college knew about me and what I could do, but the vast public had no idea. That was the first time America had seen me play and they fell in love with me because I set the record as the youngest player in the history of America in the Olympics. And I broke the record in rebounding, points and in blocked shots.

How did you hear about Carlos and Smith’s Black Power protest?

When they did the protest, I remember because we were all living in the same compound. After the protest, Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott and Joe King, we’re coming in from practice and they were escorting Tommie and John out of everything. And we were like, ‘What the f— is this all about?’ So they were escorting them out, off the grounds.

And [International Olympic Committee president] Avery Brundage was like cursing and going on. And he was just being obnoxious. You know [telling the black athletes], ‘This is going to be a great example for y’all! We don’t want to see no more of this s— around here!’ So they kicked them out of the Olympics.

They were disappointed. They were hurt because they had gone to the Olympics. They didn’t boycott. They came there, did all of the right things. Wanted to just put on the glove and show solidarity back home.

What are your fondest memories of the 1968 Olympics?

That Olympics was something else, man. We saw that boy jump backward over the [high jump] bar: [American] Dick Fosbury. You’re used to a scissor kick, a dive, but he came to thing and jumped over backward.

And George [Foreman] was like, ‘I’m telling y’all, I’m going to put that Russian down.’ We were like, ‘George, man, come on. That Russian going to beat your ass.’ So George was like, ‘And it ain’t going to be no protest either.’

George Foreman of Houston, TX, waves a small American flag after he won the Olympics heavyweight boxing gold medal to climax America's greatest effort at an Olympics. The US walked away with 45 gold medals, 27 silvers and 34 bronze. Foreman scored a second-round technical knockout over Ionas Chepulis of the Soviet Union.

George Foreman of Houston waves a small American flag after he won the Olympics heavyweight boxing gold medal to climax America’s greatest effort at an Olympics. The U.S. walked away with 45 gold medals, 27 silvers and 34 bronze. Foreman scored a second-round technical knockout over Jonas Chepulis of the Soviet Union.

So when George put the Russian down I was looking at it because we had circuits and all the stuff in the village. So George came out and whipped out that American flag. I said, ‘Go ahead, big George.’ It was turmoil man. It’s like, what side are you going to come out of on this thing, you know? That was the ’68 Olympics.

How did you feel when you got your gold medal?

I was so happy, crying and was just overjoyed with all of the ecstasy in life. I’m accepted in America? And we’ve won this gold medal, when everybody said we were going to lose? And the announcers and everybody were talking loud. I could hear the announcement saying, ‘This young man saved America!’ And my chest was out. I couldn’t wait to get up on that stand and put that gold on my neck, man. I was like, ‘Wow,’ that was for my mom, everybody.

What did you think was the reaction in Detroit after winning a gold medal?

I was scared to come back to Detroit after I won my gold. I thought the brothers were going to hang me for representing the U.S. So when I arrived in Detroit, I had my medal around my neck, so … I’m thinking I’m going to get in that car and I’m going to get on over to the campus. I had signed with the University of Detroit as a sophomore [after junior college]. I get to Detroit and we land at Metro [International Airport] and the whole town, the whole city is there cheering me on because I just won the gold and brought it back home. All of the fear that I was having on the plane, what played out, and here it was the opposite.

What was the reaction in Silver City, Mississippi, when you won the gold medal?

When they finished with the gold medal, Mississippi says, ‘Oh, we got to throw a big parade for him at home.’ I wouldn’t go. But it was a big mistake by me not going. On my mother’s death bed, I asked, ‘What have I done that you were sad about, mama?’ And I’m thinking you know, she’s going to say, ‘That Laker year, son. You shouldn’t have never messed around with that coke.’

She said, ‘The day that you didn’t show up for the big parade, because that was my day.’ It hit me hard. I didn’t realize she was that deep into it. That was the struggle of all the Haywoods before her and until her. That was our day to shine. So I took it away. She told me on her deathbed.

So where is your Olympic gold medal now?

In Michigan. We have a house in Michigan. It’s in a vault there. So we’re moving all of our stuff [to Las Vegas] now.

Can you talk about the difficulties of getting a passport for the Olympics?

I didn’t even have a passport. I didn’t have a birth certificate. We were getting ready to get our passport because we had to go to Russia and Yugoslavia on a tour before we came to the Olympics. They said, ‘Where’s your birth certificate? You bring your birth certificate?’ I said, ‘I don’t have no birth certificate. I got an affidavit.’ [They said,] ‘You can’t get no passport on no affidavit. So we got to get a passport for you.’ So that’s when the drama broke out. And the team was all nervous like, ‘What are we going to do? He doesn’t exist.’

I didn’t have a birth certificate because I was born by a midwife. In Silver City, Mississippi, she just wrote the name down in the bible under John 21. And that was my birthday. So how we were going to get that Bible out of my mother’s hands? She wasn’t going to release it. So they had to fly somebody into Jackson, [Mississippi,] and then go all the way down to Silver City, take a picture of my name in my mom’s Bible because she said, ‘I’m not sending my Bible to up North no place. You crazy. That’s stupid.’

They had the birthdate written. The time of birth, everything, in the Bible. They take the picture back to Jackson to Vital Statistics and they issue me a birth certificate. So I get ready, we are in New York getting ready to go to Russia. So I look at my name, I’m like, ‘What?’ My name was Spencie. The midwife couldn’t spell well, so she just put what she knew close to it.

So your actual name on your birth certificate is “Spencie”?

Spencie. So all of a sudden, all of them, Jo Jo, Charlie, Scott, all of them, they just ragged me like, ‘What kind of backwoods s— is that?’ So we changed it to Spencer because it had to be the same with the program. Then we went to Russia, Yugoslavia and all that stuff and came back. That’s how I got my birth certificate. So I had a birth certificate and a gold medal. And three years before I was a slave. And now I’m an American hero.

If you were to address this year’s USA Basketball Olympic team, which is all-black, what would you say?

Most important thing is that you’re not playing for self. You’re not playing for your jersey. You’re not playing for anything but America. And you’re going up against the world.

Inductee Spencer Haywood speaks during the 2015 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on September 11, 2015 at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Inductee Spencer Haywood speaks during the 2015 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on Sept. 11, 2015, at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The most important thing is to come back victoriously and just remember that you are amplifying your voice 1,000 fold because all of the world sees these wonderful black athletes. And what they see in America in media is like they’re setting a whole other pathway and example that uplift the people. So they are uplifting America, first and foremost, their families and more importantly when we play ball we always note that we’re doing it for our race.

Tell me about your documentary Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story?

The film is coming at a great time in my life because it tells the story of Spencer Haywood. A poor kid coming up from Mississippi … Yeah, we just been running around at film festivals all over the country. We basically won the Seattle Film Festival.

I’m not about the money. I just want people to be educated. And this is seriously black history. So it’s that important to me.

When was the last time you went to Mississippi?

I was down there shooting the film. It felt great. I was at home. I picked cotton for the film. I show you what it was like. What the whole thing is about.

How do you feel about Mississippi now?

I feel like Nina Simone, I guess. Mississippi Goddam! Or like Oscar Brown Jr., you know? Straighten Up and Fly Right. The buzzard flew over Mississippi said, ‘Oh! Don’t you drop me!’

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.