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Seduced and Betrayed by Cocaine, a Basketball Star Rebuilds His Life and Earns the Ring of a Champion

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“I was a gifted athlete,” says Spencer Haywood, “and I squandered everything.” Unquestionably, he had a great deal to squander, in money and talent. He was only 19 when he led the 1968 U.S. basketball team to an Olympic gold medal, and he went on to star in the NBA. But his athletic accomplishments, including four all-star years as a Seattle SuperSonic, were eventually consumed by his descent into a cocaine hell. While with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979, the graceful 6’8″ forward became a drug casualty. Things came to a head after the third game of the 1980 play-off finals, when Haywood got into a locker-room shouting match with teammates Brad Holland and Jim Chones. That night he was suspended indefinitely by coach Paul Westhead. He never played for the Lakers again.

Born in Silver City, Miss., Haywood was the eighth of 10 children. His father, a carpenter, died a month before Spencer’s birth. As a teenager, to help support his family, Haywood worked picking cotton and earned $3 a day. In 1964 his older brother Leroy brought Spencer to Detroit to show off his younger sibling’s raw basketball talent to local coaches. Haywood wound up graduating from Pershing High School and played’ one year for the University of Detroit. After a brief stint in the old American Basketball Association, he jumped to the Super Sonics in 1970 and later played for the New York Knicks, New Orleans Jazz, Lakers and finally the Washington Bullets.

Haywood retired from pro ball in 1983. Intent on kicking his cocaine habit, he entered rehabilitation the next year, then returned to Detroit to rebuild his life. Divorced last year from the fashion model Iman (they have one daughter, Zulekha, 9), Haywood, 39, is now the president of a company that renovates inner-city housing for rental to low-income families. He has become a respected community leader, devoting much of his time to lecturing on the perils of drugs.

Haywood has also made his peace with the Lakers. In this play-off season, his old team plans to present him with the 1980 championship ring he never received. Haywood discussed his drug odyssey and his remarkable turnaround with Los Angeles Times sports columnist Scott Ostler.

In 1979 Jerry Buss bought the Lakers and hired Jack McKinney as coach. McKinney convinced Buss that I could help the team. When the Lakers acquired me from the Jazz, I felt like I had rolled the clock back. I was so happy I could have cried.

It was my 10th season, and I finally had a real shot at a championship. I would be playing with Jamaal Wilkes, the game’s smoothest and sneakiest small forward, and Norm Nixon, so damn quick and such a tough, beautiful player. There was Michael Cooper, a skinny rookie who played such nasty, in-your-jock defense that he got into fights in nearly every game, and a sensational rookie guard named Magic Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was already like a brother to me.

To me, L.A. had always been a mystical land of sunshine, health and eternal optimism—my kind of place. I had been a vegetarian, a true health freak. I practiced yoga and even had some of the other Lakers standing on their heads in training camp. I would smoke a joint now and then, but I was a nondrinker and never used other drugs. Iman [who was modeling in New York] planned to join me whenever she could. The town would be ours.

I must have set a world speed record for tearing down a man and infecting a franchise. I remember the beginning of the end very clearly. I had a friend in L.A., Bud Stall worth, who was a teammate of mine on the Super Sonics. Bud [who is now drug free] had come into some money, and we got together as soon as I arrived. He needed a running mate, and I was it.

I had been in town maybe a week when we went to Bud’s place in Beverly Hills. A bunch of his friends were there, and these guys kept drifting into a back room. When they drifted back out, they would be in a real good mood. They were freebasing. Bud was cooking the stuff up, and it was the most potent that money could buy. The supply seemed unlimited. At first I told myself I would never put those chemicals into my system. But with freebasing, the impurities are removed. When I saw the gunk that had been taken out, I thought, hey, this is pure, organic stuff. What could happen?

You have to remember the state of the cocaine game then. Big-time ignorance. Nobody was dying, nobody was dropping out of the NBA strung out on coke. Drug education was in the dark ages. A lot of guys around the league were trying coke, and it was getting rave reviews. I was making about $500,000 a year, but I got most of my coke free. If you were an NBA player, leeches lined up to stuff coke into your gym bag after the game.

Iman and I quickly became one of Hollywood’s glamour couples. It seemed like all of L.A. was getting high. You were embarrassed to admit you didn’t do coke. In New York, Iman and I had been to all the parties, but the athletic set was more into beer; if people did coke, it was off in corners. In L.A., there would be silver plates of different drugs right on the center table, like fancy hors d’oeuvres.

I started the season solidly—16 to 17 points a game, strong rebounding, good defense. We were in wonderful sync. But by midseason I was Mr. Garbage Time. Basketball had always come easy to me, a gift from God, but my reflexes were shot. I felt handless, as if I didn’t have fingers anymore. Magic would drop me a sweet pass, and I would fumble it and kick it out of bounds. I refused to believe it was the drugs, even though I was using Quaaludes, Valium, alcohol—anything to suppress the cocaine rush. I thought that maybe Magic was putting too much spin on the passes, maybe even to make me look bad.

I started using “stick-um,” which is illegal in the NBA. But the ball would get so gunked up that Kareem couldn’t shoot his skyhook. Players on both teams complained about the stuff on the ball. Kareem pulled me aside and said, “Hey, man, you’re screwin’ up the ball.” The refs started searching me for my little package of “stick-um” and found it inside my wristband. I was fined $50; then I started hiding it in my sock. During one game the stuff melted through the sock and down over my shoe. It was embarrassing.

I was constantly balancing all these chemicals, walking a tightrope. I would have seizures, erratic heartbeats. Sometimes my nerves went crazy and I couldn’t stop my legs from shaking. I’d panic. I’d cry to Iman, “What am I gonna do? I can’t go to a doctor! I’m dying, I’m dying!” The drugs certainly didn’t help our marriage, which began to crumble during this time.

I blamed my poor play on everyone, including Westhead, who was hired after McKinney nearly died in a bicycle accident. I always felt that Westhead had moved in on McKinney’s job. My attitude was going downhill fast. My teammates had a pretty good idea I was messing with drugs. But guys then didn’t know how to help a guy in trouble. And I had become such a surly, insufferable bastard that they probably were hoping I’d just go away.

At the start of the season I was right in the middle of all the singing and laughing on the team bus rides; I’d pretend I was David Ruffin of the Temptations, telling stories, having a great time. By midseason I was sitting in the back of the bus, by the toilet, glaring, arms crossed, pissed off at being stuck with these uncouth lowlifes. It was tough trying to fit a game into my schedule. Remembering plays, defensive assignments, those kinds of things just didn’t seem important anymore.

Everything unraveled during the 1980 finals against Philadelphia. After smoking my brains out one night at Bud’s, I arrived for morning practice. The first thing they make you do is stretching. I lay down and everything started to drift, like those stories people tell about dying and how they’re floating away from their bodies. Everything was one big blur. Cooper noticed I wasn’t moving and whispered, “Wood! Wood, wake up!” I didn’t budge. Pretty soon the whole team gathered around me, figuring I was dead. Finally they shook me out of it, and Westhead sent me home. I told reporters I was tired out from too much weight lifting and wind sprints.

My career was slipping away, along with my friends, my self-respect, everything. At that point I decided to tell Westhead that I had a problem. I figured the worst he would do was sit my ass on the end of the bench until the finals were over. Then I’d skip off to Betty Ford for a couple of weeks and get myself straight. But the argument with Holland and Chones changed all that. Afterward I told Westhead I needed help. But the fight had given him the only excuse he needed to ship me out. He went to see Buss, and within two hours I was no longer a Laker.

I had been three games away from my life’s dream—an NBA championship, the ring, the parade, the glory—and I turned all my anger toward Westhead, who I felt had snatched it from me. I left the Forum and drove off in my Rolls that night thinking one thought—that Westhead must die. I drove through the streets plotting the man’s murder.

In the heat of anger and the daze of coke, I phoned an old friend of mine in Detroit, a guy named Gregory, a genuine certified gangster. I said, “C’mon out here, buddy. I got someone I want you to take care of.” He said, “No problem, Wood. Love to do that for you.” The next day Greg and his partner flew to L.A., ready to go to work. We sat down and figured it out. West-head lived in Palos Verdes, and we got his street address. We would sabotage his car, mess with his brake lining.

Before we got too much further, I started to see things a little more clearly. I was still a very angry man, but a killer? I called my mother in Mississippi. She was dying of cancer at the time. We had always been close, and she had a strong hold on me. I didn’t tell her what I was planning, just that I was angry. She told me, “You’re up to something no good, aren’t you? You do anything bad, I’ll turn you in myself. I didn’t raise no fool.” She started calling me every 15 minutes, and we talked and talked. She got me straight, and I sent my buddies back to Detroit.

I stayed high for about a week. Finally I was virtually kidnapped by two friends. Vern DeSilva, an old college buddy who was a professor of art history, and another friend stormed my house and dragged me away from my party pals. The two of them kept me off cocaine, and Vern took me to live with his family for two weeks. He got me to work out again, and that broke the cocaine cycle. Bill Sharman, who was the general manager of the Lakers, helped me hook up with a basketball team in Italy, where I played one full season. The team was based in Venice, and I had an apartment on the Grand Canal. It was a glorious time. I was off coke, and the Italians were so loving to me.

A year later I was signed by the Washington Bullets. I stayed clean until the summer of 1982, when I attended a big party in New York in honor of Iman. All the biggies from high fashion, show business and the music industry were there, and so was the cocaine. I started dabbling in it again, and even though I didn’t hit it hard, I didn’t let myself break free either. I decided it was time to see who was stronger, cocaine or Spencer Haywood.

I had heard about a clinic called Vista de la Vida, in Marin County, and another Bay Area clinic that does not want its name publicized. I spent 56 days in rehab. It was not easy, but I know the rules now. And I don’t trust myself at all. I joined Cocaine Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. To this day I go to meetings three times a week. After rehab I knew I couldn’t go back to New York, that I had to make a clean break from bad associations. Detroit was my home, there was a lot of work that needed to be done in the inner city.

In 1985 I started Haywood Real Estate. The next year I established the Spencer Haywood Foundation. This summer we will hold 22 basketball camps in Detroit, involving 3,500 girls and boys. We hook them with basketball, then hit them with a hard-core lecture series on drug education.

Somebody told me that by telling my story I was letting people know it’s okay to do drugs because you can eventually clean yourself up and everything is cool. Well, it’s never cool. I can never get back what I threw away, and I can never repair the damage drugs did to my personal life. But that doesn’t mean that I have to give up, that my life is over. I’m much more interested in what I can do now and how I can make a bigger impact than I ever made on the court.