‘Right on time,’ Detroit retires Haywood’s number

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It’s been 47 years since Spencer Haywood starred on the court for the University of Detroit. But he doesn’t get caught up in the time it’s taken to retire his number.

He thinks back to the song his mother used to sing to him, back when they picked cotton together in Mississippi.

Heck, Haywood even sang a few bars.

“He may not come when you want him,” Haywood sang, in a soft, yet booming, tone. “But he’ll be there right on time.

“Which is my principle,” Haywood said. “Not on my time, not on their time, but on God’s time.”

That time has come, Friday night, at Calihan, before Detroit’s game against Northern Kentucky. Haywood’s No. 45 will be lifted to the rafters, to join the likes of his former coach, Bob Calihan; the man who played a huge role in recruiting him to Detroit, Dave DeBusschere; and John Long, Rashad Phillips and Terry Tyler.

Detroit will pay homage to a man who still owns the school’s scoring record (32.1 points) and made such a mammoth impact in just one season, before leaving to play professionally after just two years of college basketball — changing the rules of the game.

“When I first heard, I was just elated,” Haywood told The Detroit News over the phone on Thursday, ahead of the evening ceremony where he was to be honored at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where guests were scheduled to include Magic Johnson, Dave Bing, Derrick Coleman, Rick Mahorn and Jalen Rose.

“When I left Detroit early, it was so controversial.

“It’s just now come full circle, 40-some years later.”

Winning the gold

Haywood, 66, who grew up near Seven Mile and Ryan and attended Pershing High School, started his college career at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, before making the 1968 Olympic team.

It’s during that Olympics, in Mexico City, where Haywood’s star grew beyond his wildest dreams, as he led the United States to the gold medal, scoring 145 points — a record, until Kevin Durant beat it four years ago.

Having held a B average at junior college, Haywood was able to transfer just about anywhere he wanted — and just about anywhere wanted him. He received, by his count, 300 offers from colleges.

“It was huge. I hate to use that word nowadays, ‘Huuuuge,’ ” Haywood said, laughing at a Donald Trump barb. “Every university thought they had a shot.”

Really, only a few did.

There was UCLA, where he could have played a year with Lew Alcindor. Southern California was on the list. So was the University of Michigan, because, as kids, Haywood and Rudy Tomjanovich used to hang around a Buick dealership, dreaming of the day they could afford an Electra, or the “deuce and a quarter,” as it was known on the streets.

But Detroit always had the edge, because of its coach, Calihan, and the man who was expected to replace him after the 1968-69 season, Will Robinson.

DeBusschere, a former NBA player and pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, one day took Haywood to a White Sox-Tigers game at Tiger Stadium.

It was an interesting time in Detroit, the riots having torn the city apart in 1967, and the Tigers, with their world championship, helping the city heal in 1968.

Haywood, who was a big fan of Robinson and envisioned helping start a dynasty at the University of Detroit, decided he wanted to be a part of it all, and so he chose Detroit. And, boy, what a year that was. Haywood averaged 32.1 points and an unbelievable 22.1 rebounds. His 771 points, 530 rebounds and 195 free throws still rank second in Detroit history, and his 288 field goals are tied for second.

He’s proud of those numbers, to be sure, but it was one game, against little old Aquinas that stands out that season.

Dunking was outlawed that season by the NCAA — or just imagine how much more dominant the 6-foot-8 Haywood could have been — but Haywood caught himself in a point-of-no-return situation when he was flying through the air, and an Aquinas player was standing his ground to take a charge.

“So I jumped over his head. What the hell? Since I’m up here, it’s going to be a technical foul, I’m going to get a technical anyway, so I dunked it,” Haywood said. “And the backboard shattered, glass all over the floor. Calihan was going crazy. My coach was, ‘What the hell have you done?’ ”

There was more than five minutes left in the game, and Detroit didn’t have a reserve backboard.

Normally, it’d be a forfeit, but with Detroit already leading, 103-40, it was awarded the victory.

“But it scared the living daylights out of me,” Haywood said, laughing. “I had the rim in my hand. I looked up to Tommy and John (friends in the stands) looking at me like, ‘You idiot!’ Because in the Olympics, the two idiots on that whole squad were me and George Foreman, because we were the youngest guys.”

Haywood always planned on staying long term at Detroit, under the perceived new coach, Robinson, with whom he won a state championship at Pershing.

But at the end of the season, Detroit brass instead brought in Don Haskins, who had won the national championship at Texas Western in 1966. Haskins lasted less than a week on campus, feeling he couldn’t take the job, out of respect for Robinson.

Detroit then hired Jim Harding from La Salle. Robinson instead went to Illinois State, where he became the first black basketball coach in Division I. He never did coach at Detroit.

Right around this time, the NBA was coming hard after Alcindor, so the competing ABA decided to target the second-best college player, who was Haywood.

At that time, you couldn’t play in the NBA until you were four years out of high school, so the ABA proved a good fit.

“I could’ve waited, but my mother was still picking cotton in Silver City, Mississippi, for $2 a day,” Haywood said. “There ain’t no silver and it ain’t no city. The population in the county was 300.”

From 1969-70, he played with the Denver Rockets of the ABA. The next season, despite the NBA rules, he made the jump, to the Seattle SuperSonics. That kicked off a lawsuit between Haywood and the NBA that eventually reached the Supreme Court, which decided in Haywood’s favor in 1971.

He and the league had agreed to a settlement before that, and he went on to play 12 seasons in the NBA, with the SuperSonics, New York Knicks, New Orleans Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Bullets, sandwiched around a brief stint playing in Italy.

Haywood changed the game, and today, it’s almost unheard of for a player of his skills to stay more than two years in college before bolting for the NBA.

Wounds healed

It’s been a long, long time since Haywood bolted Detroit, ticking off not just the NBA, but many of the folks he grew up with in Detroit.

But the wounds have healed, if not quickly, eventually.

Current coach Ray McCallum Jr. was among those in attendance when Haywood was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last September, and he’s in touch with the new administration, including president Antoine M. Garibaldi and athletic director Robert C. Vowels Jr.

Haywood continues to spend much of his time in Metro Detroit, living part of the year in Plymouth with his wife of 25 years, Linda, an executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield. (The rest of the year, he spends in Las Vegas.)

Haywood even is in touch these days with some of his old teachers in Detroit.

“Everybody has come to forgive,” Haywood said. “Forgive their runaway child — ‘Come on back home.’ ”



Haywood’s night

What: Retirement of Spencer Haywood’s number.

When: 6:30 p.m. today at Calihan Hall, followed at 7 p.m. by the Northern Kentucky vs. Detroit basketball game.

TV: Game will be televised on WADL

Notable: He is the sixth player to have his jersey retired by Detroit. The other five are Bob Calihan, Dave DeBusschere, John Long, Rashad Phillips and Terry Tyler.