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.