For longtime Sonics fans, a fine moment came to pass Jan. 26 at the Star of the Year event when Spencer Haywood, one of the NBA’s greatest players of the 1970s, showed up to present The Paul Allen Award for community service to Lenny Wilkens, a former Seattle teammate who coached the Sonics to the city’s only major pro championship in 1979.
The highlight of Haywood’s five years in Seattle — and of his 15-year NBA career — was 1972-73, when the 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward averaged 29 points and 13 rebounds and was named first-team All-NBA. For perspective, Shawn Kemp’s best year, 1995-96, was when he topped out at 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds.
Haywood, 6-8 and 225 pounds with hands seemingly as large as train wheels, was Seattle’s first prime-time superstar in the pro sports era; Wilkens was the expansion Sonics’ first star, but he was nearing the end of his 15-year playing career when the two were teammates in 1970-71 and 1971-72 seasons.
Haywood was the key figure in a landmark event in NBA history. After a year of college, he signed with Denver of the old American Basketball Association, a then-intense rival of the NBA. Sonics owner Sam Schulman pirated him away from Denver, signing him to a deal that violated the NBA’s four-year rule, which mandated that no player could be signed until four years after his high school graduation.
The NBA sued the Sonics, and Schulman fought it hard. He played Haywood, who made his Seattle debut Jan. 5, 1971. But it was not until March 8 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Schulman’s favor, saying the NBA could not deny employment to Haywood. The ruling opened the doors for high school players to go pro without college or the mandatory sit-out. Until the ruling, Haywood on the road was subject to much verbal abuse, and even introduced as “the illegal player.”
Before the Benaroya event, Haywood, 63, a Las Vegas resident with four daughters, stopped by Sportspress Northwest’s booth at Benaroya Hall for a video chat with Art Thiel.
Always good to hear from Seattle’s first professional athlete superstar. I’ve always wondered if he ever had a chance to connect with Shawn Kemp when he played for the Sonics? Assuming the Sonics are playing next season would love to see him around more.
Watching the video you can see how big Spencer’s hands are and that his fingers are double jointed. Helped him a lot as a player.
Those hands are amazing. We shook hands and he ended up shaking my forearm.
Don’t think he was a mentor for Kemp, who wasn’t listening very much when he was a Sonic.
Woody looks good, doesn’t he? I know he had his demons to deal with over the second half of his career, so I hope he’s pulled it together.
I remember staying overnight at a friend’s house while we were in fifth grade and watching the 1970 ABA All-Star Game from Indianapolis on KIRO. Haywood just toyed with his opponents in an awesome performance. Then when it was announced Haywood had signed with the Sonics, WOO-HOO! It’s true that a lot of time was spent in courtrooms, but he was worth it (can’t say the same for Jim McDaniels or John Brisker, two other ex-Sonics and former clients of a dirtbag agent named Al Ross..read Tom Meschery’s book “Caught in the Pivot” for more on that guy).
Lenny Wilkens was already a star when he came to Seattle and Bob Rule became one until he tore his achilles tendon (twice), but Spencer Haywood was the first player to really put the Sonics on the national stage and was considered by many the best forward in the league by 1972 (would’ve made the playoffs that year if we hadn’t lost Woody, Don Smith and Dick Snyder down the stretch to injuries).
Those were great days when the NBA was a lot easier to relate to than it is now, but at least I have some very fond memories.
A fine reminiscence, Radio. Those who never saw him play can’t know what a stud he was. Yeah, he messed up on the usual — drugs, women and money. But it seems as if he’s pulled it together. Really fun to see him.
To win 47 games and not make the playoffs still makes me shake my head. That was a solid team that year and one of the better backcourts in the league with Lenny, Dick and Lee Winfield plus bringing Gar Heard, Pete Cross and Barry Clemens off the bench. Good times.