Spencer Haywood's Rise, Fall, Recoveryby Spencer Haywood, Scott Ostler
Spencer Haywood was still a teenager when he drew worldwide attention and created controversy by not only joining the U.S. Olympic basketball team, but leading it to win a gold medal, when many of his fellow Black athletes had boycotted the Olympics and staged acts of protest. He earned a reputation for his outstanding talent on the basketball court, and for his… See more details below
Spencer Haywood was still a teenager when he drew worldwide attention and created controversy by not only joining the U.S. Olympic basketball team, but leading it to win a gold medal, when many of his fellow Black athletes had boycotted the Olympics and staged acts of protest. He earned a reputation for his outstanding talent on the basketball court, and for his willingness to go against the grain, off of it. After one great season with the University of Detroit, he signed with the Denver Rockets, of the American Basketball Association. In the process, he broke a rule heretofore followed by basketball and football players - that they remain in school and on a college team for four years before signing with a professional-league team. Haywood took his case against the rule to court - the Supreme Court - won, and became professional basketball's first so-called hardship case. His victory in the courts made him a troublemaker in the eyes of team management, but opened the way for players like Isiah Thomas, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and Michael Jordan to enter the pro draft when they thought they were ready, rather than after four years of college. Haywood reached for the stars on the court and was the American Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1970 with Denver. He led the league in scoring and rebounding and was the All-Star Game's MVP. He jumped from the ABA to the National Basketball Association, playing for the New York Knicks and then the L.A. Lakers. He played hard on the court and off, where he partied with the stars of fashion, society, and entertainment. He married one of the world's most glamorous, and fashion's most photographed, women - Iman. In public and private they shared the idealistic dream of linking Africa to African American through their own romantic union. But the idealism turned into a celebrity fast lane of self-indulgence and drug abuse that caused the dream to explode. He nearly lost it all, but this is
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Christmas always trickled down to the Haywood family along about February, by way of the Humphreys County Dump. Santa Claus drove a dump truck.
By February the other kids in Silver City, Mississippi the White children, and the Black children whose families were better off financially than ours started throwing away the toys that had broken or fallen apart. We were waiting.
Every Christmas, Mom borrowed a little money from the company that owned the cotton fields so she could buy the fixings to make us a big Christmas dinner. It would take her all year to pay back the loan, so spending money on presents was out of the question. That was all right; we had the dump.
The dump was right behind our house, which sat on a bluff overlooking the Yazoo River. The dump, like the river, was our backyard. We didn't feel deprived; we felt lucky to be so close to this land of hidden treasures, our private department store, our own personal mall. We knew every pile, and every new item on every pile.
My older brother Andrew was king of the dump. He was a fix-up wizard. No toy was too busted for Andrew to salvage and bring back to life with his hands. He'd take a broken doll or a wrecked bicycle and work with it until it was better than new.
That's how I got my first bicycle. We found a bent rim one day, a rusted and twisted chassis another day. We rummaged around and discovered some ball bearings and a piece of pipe to be bent into handlebars. After we accumulated a pile of mangled and mismatched parts, Andrew pounded, welded, sanded, and improvised them into a beautiful bicycle. I don't mean anadequate bike, I mean a show bike a beautiful custom job, a unique creation.
A few weeks later Andrew found an abandoned lawn mower engine. He rebuilt it, bolted it to the frame of the bike, and had himself a motorcycle, built from scratch. As always, Andrew quickly got bored with his new toy, and eventually he passed it along to me.
That's the way I came to own John Quinn's boots, the prize possessions of my boyhood.
We admired those boots for a long time, Andrew and I. Out in the cotton fields Quinn would put one foot up on the bumper of his pickup truck and wipe the dust off his shiny black boots. I'd watch him out of the corner of my eye, never saying anything but knowing that those boots would be Andrew's someday, then mine. He would wear them out and throw them in the trash, they'd be hauled off to the dump, and we would be there waiting.
We could have asked Quinn to give us his work boots when he was ready to throw them out, but Mama would never have let us bring them into the house if we'd gotten them that way. She would have whipped us first.
"We are not beggars," Mama always reminded us.
So we didn't beg. We recycled.
Quinn was the field foreman, the boss that my mother and all her children worked under. The cotton-field work is mostly mechanized now, but in the fifties and sixties, we were the machine and Quinn was the driver. He was a Black man who was almost white-skinned, and his coloring had a lot to do with his position of high authority. Most of us had skin of a general hue known as Mississippi blue-black, which is our natural color darkened a few shades by heavy exposure to the Mississippi Delta sun.
The prevailing wisdom among White people in Humphreys County and therefore a wisdom mostly accepted by the Blacks was that the lighter a Black man's skin, the closer he was to a White man in intelligence and ability to reason, lead, and command respect.
Quinn was about 6-foot-3 and muscular, maybe sixty years old. He always dressed neatly, his shirt and pants pressed just so, and he carried himself proudly, like a man of great power and prestige. He walked with a strut and his favorite pose was one foot up on the truck bumper, leaning on one knee, surveying his kingdom.
Quinn wasn't exactly cruel, but it was always clear that he was management and we were labor, and that he would do whatever had to be done to keep our lazy butts moving down those rows of cotton. I never had to look over my shoulder to know he was there. He was like the sun; you could feel him.
We were chopping the cotton one day, using short-handle hoes to clean out the grass and weeds, and we were near the end of one long, long row. My back was aching from bending over that hoe, my hands were burning and blistered, I was dripping sweat, and I heard Quinn call out my name in his big, deep, drill-sergeant voice. I knew he wasn't complimenting me on my work.
"Hey, boy! C'mon back here. You missed some weeds. How you expect the cotton to grow through these here weeds?"
I turned and stared at him, fifty yards behind me, his arms folded. I thought, "You got to be kidding. You could kick that bitty clump of weeds out of the ground with your toe." But there was no arguing with Quinn. He could have fired me on the spot, so in this labor dispute my bargaining position was weak.
He stood there glaring as I dragged myself back down the row, chopped out the clump of weeds with one swipe, then hustled back to catch up with the line of workers.
If someone lagged behind the line, or if Quinn was in that kind of mood, he took off his belt and gave the laggard a good, sharp snap across the ass "C'mon there, boy, get movin'!"
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