LYNNWOOD — Spencer Haywood was an athlete activist far before today’s wave of sports involvement in social causes.
The former Seattle SuperSonics star opened the NBA door for young basketball players through a U.S. Supreme Court case. He’s continued his involvement in causes, both in his role as chairman of the board of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, as well as through the Spencer Haywood Foundation.
And on Thursday afternoon Haywood shared his experiences as an athlete activist at Edmonds Community College, serving as the speaker for Edmonds CC’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in a talk about Athletes and Activism.
Before a packed crowd at Edmonds CC’s Black Box Theatre, Haywood recounted his history as an athlete activist, which reached its pinnacle in 1971 when he won a U.S. Supreme Court case against the NBA, thus eliminating the rule that prevented players from entering the league until their college class graduated.
“I love it, because it opened up the game,” Haywood told the crowd about the court case.
“Over a thousand players have used this ruling to come out and advance their career and their family wealth.”
Haywood was one of the first true stars to play for the Sonics. The 6-foot-8 power forward played for Seattle from 1970-75, averaging 24.9 points and 12.1 rebounds per game during his Sonics career. He was named an NBA All-Star every year from 1972-75, and in 2015 was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But it was the manner in which Haywood arrived in Seattle that sparked Haywood’s activism. Haywood was the star of the U.S. men’s basketball team which claimed the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, at which time he had just finished his freshman year at Trinidad State Junior College. Then after one dominating season at the University of Detroit he decided to turn professional, but was denied entry into the NBA. He played one season in the ABA with the Denver Rockets, leading the league in scoring and rebounding while being named the league’s MVP. After that season he joined the Sonics, and the lawsuit was filed to challenge the NBA’s eligibility rules. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Haywood’s favor.
While Haywood was allowed to play in the NBA, he suffered backlash in the form of injunctions filed by the league, anger from spectators and snubs in award voting.
“It was bittersweet, but that’s what happens when you stand up for something,” Haywood said.
“In sports, you always have to have some activism because we have a way of amplifying our voice a thousand-fold,” Haywood added following his talk. “So we should do some good, not just sit there taking the money and being happy and settled in your own self.”
It was a message that resonated with the crowd, particularly Edmonds CC men’s basketball player Devin Price, who served as the moderator of the event.
“When you’re a viewer at home watching ESPN and all these other athletes, you always wonder what it’s like to be in their shoes,” Price said. “So to have the opportunity to ask first-hand a Hall of Famer what they would do in that situation, it was cool to really put in perspective as an athlete at the community college level what it’s like to have that power in your voice. It’s amazing the good things you can do when put in a position of power.”
This year’s theme of Athletes and Activism was chosen because of its relevance to current events in the sports world, particularly in the NFL, where kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against social injustice, a movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and joined by members of the Seattle Seahawks, became a hot-button topic.
“We thought it would be relevant and also fun,” Edmonds CC dean for student life and development Jorge de la Torre said. “We all pitched in names and somebody came up with Spencer Haywood. We did the research, we knew there was a film, we watched the clips, and we thought he would be a perfect person for this. Then it ties it in really great with what’s going on with athletes and activism today.”
Haywood noted how being an athlete activist today is different than it was during his playing days.
“It’s totally different,” Haywood said after the talk. “Now you can’t be blackballed unless you’re one athlete — I think Colin Kaepernick is to some degree, but I don’t know if he’s selling himself as a player anymore. I think (Seahawks) Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor are activists, but they’re doing it the right way. I like the way they’re doing it, they’re just helping out. I’ve been to some of the events with the Bennett Foundation and I know what it’s all about. He’s doing good stuff, so that’s what I like.”
And Haywood added one non-activist comment that everyone in the crowd liked:
“Ths Sonics are forever,” Haywood said. “Trust me, we’re coming back. Soon.
“When I spoke to Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, he said the one thing we have to do to make it right for the league is we have to put this team back in Seattle first and foremost, because my case gave the league thousands of players. So everything that happened in the NBA with growth is through Seattle. Not through the Lakers, not through the Celtics, but through Seattle. That’s Seattle pride.”