We know the provision by nondescript names: Early entry. One and done.
I call it the Spencer Haywood rule.
The 29 underclassmen who walked across the stage during the NBA Draft last week at Barclays Center and shook hands with Commissioner Adam Silver should have also shaken hands with Spencer Haywood and said, “Thank you.”
From LeBron James to Kobe Bryant, every player who went from high school to the pros, who left college before completing a four-year tour of duty, owes a debt of gratitude to Haywood. At 20, he took on the NBA and forced open the doors for generations of young players, including Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, the top two overall picks this year.
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Haywood’s 1971 lawsuit, Haywood v. National Basketball Association, invalidated NBA rules that said a player was ineligible for the draft until four years after his high school graduation, or the graduation of his class in the case of a dropout.
Haywood challenged the cozy arrangement between the NCAA and the NBA that essentially compelled college-age athletes to play four years in college. It was an arrangement that benefited colleges and the NBA, but not necessarily the players.
I visited with Haywood over the last few days. He was in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the draft, and the National Basketball Players Association this week screened the powerful new documentary about his life, “Full Court.”
Haywood, 67, said he had never attended the draft before.
“I’m walking through the hallways looking at players, their agents are saying, ‘That’s, that’s that old Spencer Haywood guy.’ They say ‘early entry,' but they really don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Haywood is pushing for the union to make the Spencer Haywood rule the official name of the provision that allows underclassmen into the NBA. He wants the Haywood rule elevated to the Mount Rushmore of fights against the system.
“There is Roe v. Wade, Brown versus the Board of Education and there is Spencer Haywood v. the NBA,” he said.
“It would make a world of difference to all of the players, because they'll know that there’s a person who made that sacrifice,” he said. “They have got to know that somebody did this. You can’t leave it out in space.”
The problem with continuing to refer to this game-changing provision as early entry or one and done is that the label fails to assign ownership to the rule and leaves questions unanswered: How did it begin? Who pushed for it? Was it always like this? Was it easy to accomplish?
Early entry implies easy entry, that the right for young players to enter the league without waiting four years was bequeathed by the NBA out of a sense of benevolence. In fact, the NBA fought Haywood tooth and nail, as if the league’s survival depended on it. Caretakers of the league felt it did.
The NBA argued that the influx of young players would destroy the league, that the siphoning of talent from college basketball teams would destroy college basketball and would ruin the NBA’s pool of talent.
The documentary illustrates the extent to which the NBA used its muscle to keep Haywood off the court, and even out of arenas. It fought him and Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman, who broke ranks in March 1970 when he signed Haywood.
The commissioner of the NBA at the time, Walter Kennedy, invalidated that contract — arguing that Haywood was not eligible because he was not yet four years out of high school. Haywood would have been eligible to play that June.
Haywood, joined by the SuperSonics, sued the NBA, claiming that the league’s threatened sanctions against him and Schulman for not following the draft rules violated antitrust law.
At the time, Haywood had been playing in the rival American Basketball Association for the Denver Rockets, who had drafted Haywood under a hardship exemption after his second year at the University of Detroit.
In 1971, after a blizzard of appeals and injunctions, the Supreme Court ruled by 7-2 in Haywood’s favor. Haywood was a Sonic — and in the NBA.
The NBA and Schulman settled out of court. Schulman paid a fine and legal costs. But Haywood won.
Haywood’s move for an official name change might be misinterpreted as the egotism of a former player who wants to remain relevant. In fact, Haywood’s stance is the legitimate argument of a Hall of Fame player whose legacy changed the course of a league and many of its players — for the better.
Haywood’s triumph was a victory for the NBA as well. The league’s argument about the potential harm arising from a flood of young players was laughable.
The Spencer Haywood rule allowed the NBA to expand. The league gained access to an ever deepening pool of supple young bodies. During the next 15 years, some of the greatest players in history would leave college early — thanks to Haywood:
Bernard King, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Allen Iverson, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone.
“They won, even though they lost,” Haywood said of the league.
A result of the Haywood lawsuit was that the NBA instituted an exception for players who could demonstrate economic hardship if they were made to wait four years after high school. In 1976, the hardship requirement was scrapped in favor of what appears to be a completely noneconomic standard, which was early entry in exchange for noneligibility to play college basketball.
But the age of the league’s labor pool remains an issue.
The league may push a proposal that would compel players who accept scholarships to play two seasons in college before being eligible for the draft.
When we spoke after Sunday’s screening, Haywood said he was disappointed that none of the players had stayed to watch the film.
“I was really hurt,” he said.
After the screening, the union’s executive director, Michele Roberts, perhaps sensing Haywood’s disappointment, assured Haywood that the players do appreciate what he did, even if none of them stayed to watch the film.
In any event, if I were Haywood, I would not care whether the players watched the movie. I’d rather they showed their gratitude by voting to change the name of the rule under which many of them gained entry into the NBA.
Haywood took on the NBA — and won.
Call it what it is: the Spencer Haywood rule.