MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If it had been Pete Maravich challenging the NBA’s early-entry rule, things would have been much different than they were for Spencer Haywood, who was the one who did so.
At least that’s the view of Haywood, whose successful lawsuit against the league was recognized here Monday when he was one of three recipients of the National Civil Rights Museum’s Sports Legacy Award given in connection the with Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremonies before the Pelicans’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum.
Jalen Rose and Tamika Catchings were the other recipients of the award, which goes to those who make significant contributions to civil and human rights through sports.
“It would have been looked upon as a white athlete telling the world he was ready to play,” Haywood said of the idea of Maravich challenging the rule instead of himself. “But I was looked on as just another black man doing revolutionary stuff.”
Indeed, it was an era when black athletes were in the forefront for change and often paid the price, such as Curt Flood challenging baseball’s reserve clause and Muhammad Ali fighting induction into the Army because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Haywood’s lawsuit, which came about after the Seattle SuperSonics signed him in 1970 after the future Basketball Hall of Famer already played one season with the Denver Rockets of the ABA, is less remembered today.
But it did open the door for players to choose when to begin their pro careers, even though there is still a one-year-after-high-school requirement by the NBA — and Haywood, in large part because of his involvement with the National Basketball Retired Players Association, actually favors players staying in school for two years.
No matter, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.
Haywood, with the help of maverick Sonics owner Sam Schulman, had the courage to go to court to fight both the NBA and NCAA, enduring opposition during games that included booing and actually being banned as an “illegal player” on some 20 occasions that season, a condition that seems almost unimaginable today.
“It would be nice if more of our players knew the history of the game, and just history in general,” said Gentry, who encourages his players to visit the museum, which is at the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968, whenever the team plays in Memphis. “Grant Hill did. LeBron and Kobe do. Players today need to know what the players who came before them went through and thank them for helping pave the way.”
Reserve center Kendrick Perkins agreed. As one of the dwindling number of players who were able to go to the NBA straight out of high school, Perkins said he knew little of Haywood’s story before Monday, but he now greatly appreciates his role in changing sports.
“Guys like Mr. Haywood fought for us to be where we are today,” he said. “It’s definitely a blessing to meet him. We take for granted what we’re able to do now.”
It’s probably also hard for today’s players to appreciate the worlds Haywood — and for that matter Gentry — grew up in. Neither, perhaps, do they see the relationship between the things Dr. King fought for and the things taken for granted in the 21st century.
Haywood was born in 1949 in Silver City, Mississippi, a small Delta community where his single mother earned $2 a day picking cotton.
Haywood, the eighth of 10 children, joined her in the fields when he was 5.
When Haywood was 14, his mother, fearful of potential danger during the Civil Rights struggles in the state, sent him north to live with an older brother, first in Chicago and then in Detroit.
He became a surprise Olympian after one season at Trinidad Valley (Colorado) Community College, an All-American in his one season at the University of Detroit and Rookie of the Year in the ABA in his one season at Denver before the move to Seattle.
“There I was, 20 years old, going against the NBA and NCAA in court,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Haywood’s eventual court victory established the hardship rule. He would like to see it called the Haywood Rule.
Gentry, born five years after Haywood, grew up in less severe circumstances in Shelby, North Carolina. His parents, G.H. and Beulah Mae, were uneducated, but they worked in a textile mill and school cafeteria and, as Gentry said, “We had food on the table every night.”
Still, Gentry’s world was a segregated one, at least until he reached junior high, when schools were integrated at Shelby. In a high school that was 80 percent white, Gentry’s basketball skills — plus his own gregarious personality — made him the most popular student in the school.
“Sports made it an easy transition,” he said. “Everybody was much more accepting, and I made friends that I still have today.
“I have two teenage sons now, and they have a million questions about what it was like back then. I can tell them about what Dr. King and others accomplished, but I also want them to know how their grandparents believed in the American dream and how there were thousands of others like them who just worked hard every day.”
The Sports Legacy Award has been given every year since 2002, when the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver.
Memphis and Atlanta, King’s home, are the only cities that are permanently at home for MLK Day, which has become a league-wide event.
This year in Memphis, activities were expanded to include the entire weekend, in which Haywood, Rose and Catchings were enthusiastic participants.
“This has been an awesome time for me,” Haywood said. “It’s overwhelming to wait so long to be able to tell my story.
“And to do it here on this day is a special honor.”