Spencer Haywood is having a moment. Just last year, the legendary power forward was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and while his accomplishments on the court were numerous — a record points per game average at the 1968 Olympics that stood for over 40 years, an ABA MVP award and four All-Star appearances in the NBA with the Seattle Supersonics, only a few days before the world premiere of “Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story” at the Seattle Film Festival, he could be reminded of his contribution off the court that changed the league forever as he watched the ping pong balls that could decide the future for your favorite basketball team bounce around before the NBA Draft Lottery, having paved the way for underclassmen to enter professional sports.
“It is something very special that’s taking place and going on,” says Haywood of the past year. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Haywood should know since he reached heights that few ever achieve, made all the more remarkable since depths few ever know, born into a family of impoverished cotton pickers in Mississippi. “Full Court” charts this upbringing where his mother encouraged him by making a basketball out of a burlap sack and how it gave the 6’8” star a steely reserve that made Haywood not only an unstoppable force on the hardwood, but as he says in the film, during the times when he spent “more time in court than on the court” during the early 1970s when the Sonics brought an anti-trust suit on his behalf against the NBA to allow him to play two years removed from high school.
Even without the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Haywood’s favor that opened the door to generations of talented sports prospects to turn pro early, a ruling that began to turn the tide towards players having more power in the league they were a part of, Haywood’s story would be incredible and told in “Full Court” with the same energy the player brought to the game. Whether detailing his formative time in Detroit, where the inspirational speaker Wayne Dyer was actually a teacher at his high school, the politically charged 1968 Olympics in Mexico City where he led the U.S. team to gold, or his solid NBA career that was derailed by drug use, Haywood’s story is extraordinary, brought into even more vivid terms with narration in “Full Court” provided by Public Enemy’s Chuck D, a lifelong fan. Shortly before the film’s debut in the Emerald City, the 67-year-old who still hasn’t lost his zest for life spoke about finally seeing his story on the big screen, how he became a Forrest Gump of basketball and the delayed gratification of having his accomplishments appreciated well after his playing days were over.
I had been waiting for years and years to get it done, but I never pushed for it. I let it happen in the spirit of goodness. When it did come to us at Russell Wilson’s Golf Tournament last year, it all happened so organically with Dwayne Clark [the CEO of the Seattle-based Aegis Living], somebody from Seattle who could do the financing for it and the executive producer-ship. It was a godsend, I have to say the “G” word.
It happened right here in Seattle where most people have forgotten this rich, dynamic history and it gives people hope to say, “Look, we are the caretakers of all this history, so let’s do something about it.” We have to preserve this history [because] it is the history of the NBA, the history of the NFL… it is the history of pro sports as we know it because without the breaking of the four-year rule, you wouldn’t have Michael Jordan, you wouldn’t have Larry Bird, you wouldn’t have Magic Johnson, you wouldn’t have Dirk Nowitzki, any of these players at a given time, so it changed the whole dynamic. Not only that, but you wouldn’t have Cam Newton or any of those players in the NFL as well because they use the Spencer Haywood rule as well.
What was it like for you to reflect on your life and whole in this way. Did it cause you to think about things you hadn’t thought about in a while?
You think about those things, but bringing that history to the big screen, it just gives me a chance to reflect and how grateful I am because I’ve come so far. I came from out of the cotton fields of Silver City, Mississippi, sir, to the top of the heap — to the Supreme Court, to the Hall of Fame. I mean, come on! I didn’t hold anything back. I also gave a bit of an insight on what happened when things went wrong in 1980 when I got high and my life got turned upside down for that year. I tell the truth. Everything is just is beautifully done. It is honest. Emotionally, it takes you on this beautiful journey. It’s like a Forrest Gump documentary.
In the film, you’re seen visiting Silver City where you grew up and Detroit where you played high school ball. Do you occasionally go back to those places on your own or was this film a rare opportunity?
Oh yeah! I occasionally go back [to the places of my youth] because I have nephews and people there. I have to always touch base with my roots. So often in America, we tend to shun our own history and who we are, so I try to keep focus on it.
There’s a lot of great archival footage on display. Did you actually have a lot of stuff saved up?
I had all of it ready for when this day would come. [laughs] Preparation, you’re ready for that day and it happened at that time. The only thing I didn’t take care of [were] my jerseys and all of that stuff from my playing days. I didn’t have my MVP trophy. A lot of things that I should have kept, I didn’t do it back then. But I have my Hall of Fame jacket on and the ring from the Hall of Fame as we speak. I have my [Olympic] medals, so it’s pretty cool.
The film not only has Chuck D as a narrator, but you see artwork he drew of you as a kid. How did he come onboard? Did you know how much of a superfan he was?
I went to see him in his recent concert in Las Vegas and we were just talking and I was telling him that I had a film coming up pretty soon, so he said, “Hey, man, I will help you in any way. I think the players should be honoring you. I’ll hit you up with a nice song as well as if you need me for anything else.” Right away, my mind started clicking and we were thinking Chuck D for narration because we wanted to bridge the gap. We don’t want just older people [watching the] movie, we want to draw in the young people and he has done so much good work with Spike Lee on “Do the Right Thing” and “He Got Game,” so I thought, “Oh wow!” Now he’s bringing on Shaq and they’re going to do a different rap on the soundtrack [than the song that’s in the film]. It’s going to be hot stuff, son.
What was it like for you seeing the film for the first time?
It’s like your history’s unfolding right before your eyes. I was in on the process all the way through. It is life. It is my life. It’s a blessing really. Being a spiritual person, I always say that it’s not on my time, not on their time, but it’s coming on God’s time, which is right on time for me. I’m very happy with the final product and I couldn’t think of [the film] premiering elsewhere. It has to take place here in Seattle because that’s where I started, where the [legal] case started — everything took place right here.
With the Draft Lottery just a few days ago, do the memories of your own experience come back?
Every year because, you see, I’m the only player who was the number one player [available] that wasn’t drafted in the history of the NBA. I was never drafted because before I was drafted into the NBA, I fought that case to the Supreme Court. This is the first time in 45 years the NBA’s looking to bring me in town for that Draft Day.
Wow, right? Isn’t that weird? It’s like everything is just opening up.
“Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Seattle International Film Festival at the SIFF Uptown Theater on May 21st at 8 pm and May 22nd at 2 pm.