Spencer Haywood: How Drug Addiction Destroyed His Basketball Career

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If you watched Spencer Haywood, you probably wonder what more he could have been. At the height of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, the team released the power forward because of his drug addiction. These events were captured in the film ‘Winning Time’. Haywood is grateful for the film as it allows him to be candid about overcoming his addiction. Why did he descend into it? 

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Spencer Haywood’s Early Days

Haywood was born in Mississippi in 1949. He was one of 10 children and was raised by a single mother. His father died when he was born, so he never met him. Haywood’s mum picked up cotton to provide for the family, and he, aged four, joined her. 

At the time, it was difficult for him to envision a bigger and better life. Things changed, and technology began replacing workers. This saw him move to Chicago and Detroit, where he went to school.

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Beginning of Basketball Career

Spencer Haywood’s mum made him his first basketball. He used a barrel as his target, but it never occurred to them that he would make anything out of it. In 1967, when he joined Pershing High School, he led them to a Michigan Class A Championship. 

The budding basketballer then attended Trinidad State College and was the standout player in the basketball team. He notched 22.1 rebounds and 28.2 points, scores that justified his inclusion to the Olympic basketball team of 1968. At 19, this made him the youngest member of the team.

America won the gold medal on home soil, and Haywood was the team’s star, scoring 16.1 points and a record field goal percentage of .719 per game. Post his Olympic success, the power forward joined the University of Detroit. His dominance continued, and Haywood was destined for the National Basketball Association (NBA).

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Professional Career

Turning professional shouldn’t be a problem for someone who has demonstrated his abilities. However, Spencer Haywood faced a lot of challenges. At the time, an NBA clause allowed players to be drafted four years after their high school class graduated from college. This denied Haywood entry into the league.

Nonetheless, the American Basketball Association (ABA) didn’t have such stringent rules, and he was signed by the Denver Rockets. He scored the most points in the league and won the Most Valuable Player. However, a contract dispute between him and the team necessitated his departure.

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Joining the NBA and Legal Battle

Spencer Haywood: How Drug Addiction Destroyed His Basketball Career
Spencer Haywood signing a basketball. Source: Wikimedia Commons public domain 

In 1970, Spencer signed for the Seattle Supersonics, a move that wasn’t welcomed and led to a legal battle. He was openly rejected. Haywood wasn’t allowed to warm up. He received court papers before matches, and fans heckled him.

In 1971, the Supreme Court declared that the clause that prevented the player from competing was unconstitutional and opened the door for him. Today’s players can play in the NBA before college graduation.

Although the ruling cleared the way for him to play freely, Spencer Haywood still faced backlash. Nonetheless, he produced amazing performances and was part of the All-NBA First in 1972 and 1973 and Second Teams in 1974 and 1975. The basketballer played for the New York Knicks, New Orleans, and the Los Angeles Lakers. 

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Drug Addiction

In the 1970s, Spencer Haywood entered into the dark world of drug addiction. His use of cocaine cost him his place in the Los Angeles Lakers team. During the 1980 NBA Finals, he fell asleep during practice after a 24-hour cocaine binge. His former coach, Paul Westhead, dismissed him from the team during the NBA Finals.

The former star began abusing cocaine when he went to New York. This affected his performances and subsequent dismissal from the Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA banned him from the league the following season.

In an interview with People Magazine, Spencer admitted to hiring a ‘certified gangster’ to kill his coach. He drove to his place, damaged his car and somehow, reality dawned on him. He called his mother, who urged him to go home, a phone call that saved his life.   

During his one year away from the NBA, he joined an Italian team, Reyer Venezia, and later rejoined the NBA via the Washington Bullets. In 1983, Spencer Haywood retired from pro basketball. 

Life After Basketball

He went to rehab for his addiction and has been sober for more than two decades. The former player is thankful that the league has a structure in place to help players work through personal matters. 

Spencer Haywood didn’t go out on a high, but his achievements were finally recognized in 2015 when he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame

Perhaps there’s so much only one person can do to justify his place in the world. Haywood’s fighting spirit led to one of the biggest changes in the NBA. However, having to constantly battle for his place led him down a path of destruction and an unceremonious ending to what was a magnificent career.  

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