From Spencer Haywood (Silver City, Mississippi, 1949) dozens of stories can be told. He was, for example, the first basketball player who wanted to reach the NBA without finishing college. And he did it, beyond having to make a stopover in the extinct ABA for a season. It was just after winning Olympic gold with the hitherto unbeatable United States team in Mexico 1968. He was also the second husband of Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid, the Somaliland-born supermodel better known as Magnetwho later became the partner of David Bowie. He was also known for the myth, later confirmed, of having circumcised himself when he was a boy. He was a star. He finished his career with over 20 points and 10 rebounds on average. A bestiality. However, despite being one of the great figures in the league in the 1970s, he had a hard time getting his championship ring. He only arrived in 1980 from the hand of the first version of the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers in the downward curve of his career. The detail is that he was about to not be because he almost went down in the history of humanity as the intellectual author of the murder of Paul Westhead. Who was Westhead? His own trainer.
Some of these Haywood stories are part of the series’ story arc. “Lakers, time to win”, from HBO, which just finished its first season. The main characters are Earvin Magic Johnson Y jerry buss, the eccentric franchise owner who is a favorite of Hollywood stars. However, Haywood steals the limelight in the final chapters when, overwhelmed by problematic drug use, he is separated from the squad by the coach -and not by his teammates- in the finals against the Philadelphia 76ers of the great Julius Ervinthe fantastic Doctor J.
Act One: The Beginnings of the NBA
Haywood was a veteran of the league who had wandered from team to team. After getting the Supreme Court of the United States to rule against the rule that required players who reached the basketball mecca they must have graduated from university, the patrons of the great circus teams emptied him and should have signed for the Denver Rockets of the ABAthe league that then competed hand in hand with the NBA and whose story deserves to be told at another time.
He shone so much there that he became irresistible for the NBA and that’s how it was a season later and the lawsuits were left behind joined the Seattle Supersonics -franchise that in these years became the Oklahoma City Thunder-. There, on the Washington state team -which was champion in 1979-, Haywood delivered his best performance and even managed to have his number retired. But then he went to the New York Knicks, traded for Bob McAdoo, and his downward run began. The numbers began to falter, the physical also and cocaine and heroin addiction did the rest. He came through the New Orleans Jazz and when the franchise moved to Utah he found a place as a replacement for the Lakers.
At that time, as the series inspired by the book tells Showtime, by Jeff Pearlman, who has hundreds of seams to explore, Buss became the owner and started a revolution that, with many obstacles, ended up taking the franchise to another dimension and also the NBA. The thing is the duels between the Lakers of Magic and the Celtics of Larry Bird they allowed the league to begin to cross borders and gradually become an international consumer product until Michael Jordan came along and transformed it into a huge and successful global company.
But it was missing for that and the NBA was much more artisanal. And that’s how Buss, with Bill Sharman and Jerry West as sports brains, laid the first foundations of the Lakers. The coach they chose was key -the second option since the first was left out after his representative was killed by the mafia-: jack mckinney. He was the one who imposed a game based on immediate offense. However, the coach could not finish the season after an incredible accident while traveling by bicycle and was replaced by Westheadhis assistant, who in addition to playing and coaching basketball was an English literature teacher and passionate about William Shakespeare.
Westhead took charge of the team and took on as assistant Pat Riley, who at that time did not imagine that he could become the figure he is today and was only looking for how to earn an honest living after his interesting career as a player. They, to return to the original thread, were the ones who began to doubt the positive influence of Haywood, whose knees were beginning to take their toll. But the damaged menisci were nothing compared to his addictions.
Second act: Haywood against everyone
Spencer Haywood on the Lakers.
“I felt without hands, as if I no longer had fingers. Magic gave me good passes, and I couldn’t catch them. I refused to believe it was the drugs, even though I was using Quaalude, Valium, alcohol and other things to suppress the cocaine rush. I thought maybe Magic was spinning too many passes, maybe even making me look bad,” he told People magazine in 1988.
He added: “Everything fell apart during the 1980 Finals against the Sixers. After burning my brain out in a bar, I went to practice. In the warm-up, I lay down and they noticed that I wasn’t moving. My companions yelled at me: ‘Wood! Wake up!’. And nothing. They shook me and nothing. The entire team gathered around me, imagining that I was dead. They finally got me out of there and Westhead sent me home.”
Although he escaped being transferred, Haywood began to lose minutes and add problematic consumption. Ayes, it was that Westhead and Riley decided to definitively exclude him from the team after a fight with Jim Chones and Brad Holland. Buss and West informed him that he would not play for the remainder of the postseason.
It was then that the breakdown occurred. The player, out of his mind, contacted a gangster he knew from his teenage years in Detroit to ask him to kill Westhead. In the series, they talk about “kill the Lakers”. But in reality, Haywood wanted to take down his trainer. And he was convinced that this had to happen.
Third act: how to assassinate your trainer
“I directed all my anger at Westhead. I left the Forum and drove my Rolls Royce all night and my only thought was that westhead must die. I planned how to finish him off. In a rage and after doing cocaine, I called a friend in Detroit, a guy named Gregory, a real certified gangster, and said: ‘Come, I need you to take care of someone’. The next day we sat down to plan it. We went to his house and planned to sabotage the brakes on his car.”
Then the homicidal plan mutated and the idea was to poison the coach’s drink. “We went to Palos Verdes, where I lived. When I got back home I got high again. My mother called me. The paranoia I suffered from – I saw people coming out of the light fixtures – made me think that my mother knew what she was planning. I got high again and then I hit rock bottom. So I thought what the hell was she up to. I never tried but my intentions were diabolical. God was watching me. I don’t even know where I really lived, but the drugs spoke to me.”
Final act: a moment of clarity
Spencer Haywood and Paul Westhead, today.
But luckily, in an instant of clarity, he saw the light. “I called my mom back in Mississippi. She was dying of cancer at the time. I didn’t tell her what she was planning, just that she was angry. She told me: ‘You’re doing something that’s not good, right? If you do something wrong, I’ll hand you over myself. I did not raise a fool. She started calling me every 15 minutes, and we talked a lot. She talked some sense into me,” she revealed in the same interview with People. And she backed down.
The Lakers were finally champions. Haywood only got to play three minutes in Game 1 of the finals and another two minutes in Game 2 before he was suspended. He also got the ring from him thanks to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the team leader. And above all thanks to the superb performance of Magic Johnson in the sixth and final episode in which he played pivot to cover the loss due to injury to the captain.
Haywood’s following season saw him move to Italy, though he later returned to bid farewell to the NBA as a player for the Washington Bullets. Westhead, now 83, was unscathed by his player’s diabolical plans and he continued training although never again with such success, beyond that he maintained the application of the system of run and gun (runs and shoots) that characterized the Lakers in those years.
Haywood, meanwhile, moved on with her life and eventually won the battle against addiction. He is 73 years old and lives in Las Vegas with Linda, his second wife, with whom he had three other daughters -he already had one from the marriage with Iman-. Since 2015 he has been a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the same one that Manu Ginóbili has just entered. As you can see, the story has a happy ending. It could have ended in the worst way.