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Spencer Haywood recalls the fear that others would follow Smith and Carlos in protesting at the ’68 Olympics

Jesse Owens told athletes not to risk being unemployed after the Mexico City Games

The opening ceremony of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games was held at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City. It was the start of the first Olympics ever to be held in Latin America. Mexican track and field athlete Enriqueta Basilio was the last torchbearer and lit the Olympic cauldron, becoming the first woman to do so.

Spencer Haywood, one of the youngest members of the U.S. basketball team, recalls African athletes wearing colorful clothes during the opening ceremony, Mexicans wearing sombreros and Europeans dressed to the nines. But the Mississippi kid thought USA looked great too. It was also the first time Spencer noticed the biggest stars of the USA Olympic team: Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans.

“We had on our jackets, our slacks. I was sharp,” Spencer said. “When you are walking into that stadium that place is going nuts. You hear them say ‘United States’ and you perk up. Then I’m looking up in the front and see that we have to follow the track guys — Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans — the track team. We had kind of established ourselves before we got there so we were hot s— too, kind of like the focal point. So I was feeling like I was kind of up there with Tommie and John.”

Smith and Carlos were also quietly working on a protest behind the scenes if they were on the medal stand as winners in the 200 meters. Spencer said that the USA Olympic committee had legendary track star Jesse Owens speak to the athletes before the 1968 Olympic Games. Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler, thus crushing Hitler’s hopes of using the Games to demonstrate Aryan superiority.

Despite his victory over Hitler, Owens preached to the athletes not to protest, according to Spencer, with the African Americans in mind. With all due respect to Owens, John Carlos vocalized his disdain for that mind frame, to the surprise of Spencer.

“Jesse was telling us not to protest, speaking primarily to the Black athletes,” Spencer said. “When he walked in that door we knew it was some important s—. He was a little bit ‘Uncle Tom-ish,’ but he was explaining how we had to get jobs when we got back and John tells him, ‘We ain’t gonna get s—!’ I was sitting like, ‘Wow, he said that to Jesse Owens.’ Tommie’s like me, he’s country. But John isn’t.

“It was interesting, because how could he say something to Jesse Owens, man? But you knew where John was coming from. He had some balls, man — some bull balls. Wilma Rudolph was mad at John. She was in his ear going off and I was like, ‘Whoa, I ain’t gonna do nothing.’ ”

Spencer said that there was some fear behind the scenes from USA Basketball that Smith and Carlos were revolutionaries who could fire up Black athletes. Spencer and his Black teammates were warned by his Black and white coaches — and even their coaches back home — not to do anything political during the Olympics.

“I just knew they were some people that we were supposed to stay away from. Will Robinson [his high school coach in Detroit] was like, ‘Those boys are revolutionaries, and I don’t want you getting no god damn ideas.’ [North Carolina men’s basketball coach] Dean Smith was all in Charlie [Scott]’s ear telling him not to mess up. Same thing with the coach at Kansas with Jo Jo [White].

“They didn’t tell us to stay away from Tommie and John. They just said to be careful. They were with the track guys. And we knew it was going to be something, we just didn’t know what.”

Racism back in America did not dissuade Spencer from playing for the United States, but it did keep college basketball’s biggest star at the time, UCLA center Lew Alcindor (who would change his name soon after to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) from wearing the red, white and blue. With all due respect to Spencer or anyone else playing for USA Basketball, none came close to being as good as Alcindor.

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

AP Photo

Alcindor led the Bruins to a national championship under legendary coach John Wooden in each of his three years from 1967 to ’69. The 7-foot-2 center respectfully boycotted the Olympics to protest what he believed was injustices against African Americans. Alcindor’s preference was to instead use his platform to be a social justice voice for Black people. Before going on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and playing alongside Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers, Alcindor received criticism, racial epithets and death threats for his decision not to play in the Olympics. There were several other standout college basketball players who skipped the Olympics for various reasons, but none bigger than Alcindor.

Without Alcindor, Spencer believed the Black players on USA’s basketball team were viewed poorly by the Black community back in the States. But Spencer added that no one tried to convince him not to play, because they had no clue who he was and how good he was as the only player on the roster from a junior college.

“I thought his stance was commendable,” Spencer said. “Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld signing their pro contracts also opened the doors for me. No, I didn’t think about the civil rights movement at the time. I just wanted a passport. …

“The Black players on our team were looked at as Uncle Toms for going to the Olympics. We were sellouts.”

So instead of Alcindor, USA was led by White, Scott and this diamond-in-the-rough Mississippi kid in Spencer. Without Alcindor, USA Basketball wasn’t even the favorite entering the Olympics. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union actually defeated the Americans in two out of three exhibition games played, respectively, prior to the Olympics in Europe.

The most racially charged moment of the Games came on Oct. 16, 1968, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith offered a Black power salute to the world.

Smith finished with the gold medal in the men’s 200-meter race, Australian Peter Norman finished second and Carlos finished third. While on the medal podium, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared in the Olympic stadium in Mexico City, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads down and each raised a fist with a black glove to the sky. All three medalists also wore human-rights badges on their jackets.

While the entire world bore witness to this Black power salute, a stunned Spencer was watching it on television at the Olympic Village.

“My reaction to them being on the podium was, ‘What the hell?’ ” Spencer said. “I was in the lounge eating by myself, but other people were around in the lounge. So I’m looking at that and saying to myself, ‘These guys came down here, won this s— for this country, and do this?’ Now everybody is coming to our dorms and telling us, ‘Don’t you think of doing no s— like that.’ Making sure we didn’t do anything like that because we were the next big attraction. You had track, then basketball, then boxing.

“Then Hank Iba had been drinking some gin and is all concerned and s—. And Will told me, ‘If you even think of trying it, I’m going to kill you. You won’t even get back to Detroit. I’m going to kill you right here.’ ”

Spencer did not truly understand the impact of what Smith and Carlos had done until he saw them being rushed into the Olympic Village to get their belongings before being sent home. Spencer was stunned, describing how Smith and Carlos got treated as “horrible”— and this was by United States of America officials after winning medals for their country. Spencer also remembers president of the International Olympic Committee Avery Brundage screaming at Smith and Carlos.

“I remember the aftermath, and when they came to get their stuff out of the dorm they had all of this security,” Spencer said. “I didn’t see the big deal of them just putting the glove up. It didn’t register to me that they had done something so earth-shattering. But everybody — the Olympic committee, the broadcasters — were just going crazy and shook up about this thing. And here these guys are, moving out after they won the s—, and everybody is treating them like s—.

Spencer Haywood (right) realized that winning medals was not bigger than civil or human rights, and ultimately he was going to still return home as a Black man.

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

“We were in the same area because we were the male athletes. It was so horrible. They were being treated like pieces of s—. It was so horrible — and it reminded me so much of when I was 13 and 14 in Mississippi. It was the same s—.”

Suddenly, Spencer’s naivete was gone. While Olympic stardom was mind-blowing for this young Black man, his mind raced back to when he and his family picked cotton in Mississippi. He recalled that nothing his family did was good enough for their white cotton-farm owners.

And Spencer realized that winning medals was not bigger than civil or human rights, and ultimately he was going to still return home as a Black man.

“I just felt so bad for them,” Spencer said. “To me, it just seemed like these guys didn’t boycott, came and performed for America, did their deed, did all of that training up in the mountains before the Olympics, and then they do it for America, pushing us over the top in the medal race. We’re all looking over as a team trying to win medals and see how many we have.

“This was a team sport — it’s not just track and basketball and s— like that — we’re trying to beat the medal count. That was the whole purpose of the U.S. team. So seeing that — how they were treated — that was a big blow to me. And the way Avery Brundage was behaving — he was behaving like a Nazi. Then I find out later that he was. [Brundage fought against the U.S. boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, refused to cancel the 1972 Munich Games when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists, and eventually retired to Germany after stepping down as IOC president.]

“They kicked [Smith and Carlos] out of the Olympic Village; they had to get out of there. Then they were being used as an example for the rest of us.”

Liner Notes

This excerpt of The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast, by Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy please visit Triumph BooksBookshop.org or Barnes & Noble.

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.

Gary Washburn is the national NBA writer for the Boston Globe. He also serves as the vice president, print, for the NABJ Sports Task Force.