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Former SuperSonics forward Spencer Haywood calls unflattering portrayal in HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ a ‘blessing’

Former Seattle SuperSonics forward Spencer Haywood in front of his basketball memorabilia at his Las Vegas home on Nov. 29, 2021.  (Associated Press)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

There hasn’t been any blood, but there’s been a whole lot of sweat and tears from Spencer Haywood over the past few months.

The former Seattle SuperSonic/Hall of Famer was portrayed rather unflatteringly in HBO’s “Winning Time” – a dramatization of the Magic Johnson-led Lakers’ rise to prominence.

Hey, it’s television – a medium that regularly exaggerates and embellishes for the public’s entertainment. But when you’re the subject of such exaggeration and embellishment, it can gnaw away at your insides.

Former Lakers superstar Jerry West, for example, has publicly called for a retraction and apology for his depiction in the show. Magic, meanwhile, said his portrayal is “not even close” to how things actually went down during his rookie season.

But Haywood – whose cocaine-addicted character in “Winning Time” put a hit on the Lakers after being kicked off the team before the NBA Finals – has a different perspective than the aforementioned greats. He’s actually happy the show came out.

“From episode 5 (when Haywood was introduced) and on, I was sick. I was crying. I couldn’t control my emotions,” Haywood said. “But it turned out to be a blessing. People were like, ‘I know you were crazy on that Lakers show, but let me look at your true story.’ ”

And that’s what happened. Folks – including NBA players – watched “Winning Time” and wanted to know just who this Spencer Haywood guy was. Here’s what they found out. He was a five-time All-Star who made two All-NBA first teams and two All-NBA second teams. He was the Rookie of the Year and MVP in his sole season in the ABA.

Most significantly, though, he won a Supreme Court case that prohibited the NBA from mandating players be at least four years removed from high school before they could play in the league. Next to Curt Flood’s lawsuit against former MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, which was the catalyst for modern-day free agency, Haywood’s win may have been the most important legal decision in regards to professional athletes’ rights in the past 60 years.

This came with a price, though. Haywood said he became a pariah who drew the ire of the NBA and NCAA. He said he’d have bottles thrown at him by fans and, in his first year in the NBA, was often disallowed from playing in games. This spawned a downward mental-health spiral that would plague him for the next decade. It also turned him on to a devastating coping mechanism: cocaine.

“It made me forget about everything that I was pushing down,” Haywood said of the drug.

But drug use rarely produces a happy ending. And in the 1979-80 season, when Haywood was freebasing regularly, he saw his scoring average drop from 24.0 points per game the previous year to 9.7. His presence on the Lakers eventually turned toxic, prompting players to vote him off the team before Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Haywood said it wasn’t just the drug use – it was also that his then supermodel wife, Iman, triggered jealousy among his teammates’ wives and girlfriends. The latter wasn’t mentioned in “Winning Time,” but the rest of the show’s portrayal of his excommunication?

“Very accurate,” Haywood said.

One could only imagine how Haywood might feel when these events are dramatized in front of the whole world more than 40 years after they occurred. The show has him asking a hit man to murder the team after he was kicked off. That didn’t happen in reality. Haywood said in a book that he thought about taking out the Lakers, but he never actually approached anyone about it.

Still, people tend to believe what they see on TV. So when “Winning Time” aired, Haywood freaked. Hard.

“I was worried to death about it. Worried about my kids, my grandkids, and my ego most importantly,” said Haywood, adding that he would pause the show mid-viewing to call his psychologist. “I didn’t want that sucker to be bruised too much, even though it’s taken a beating.”

But his kids were fine with it. And the grandkids just thought it was cool that Papa was on TV. As for the ego? It seems to be taking more of a stroking than a beating.

Haywood said few players knew who he was before “Winning Time” came out. Now they know he’s the Hall of Famer who stood by his convictions to win a landmark case. Now they know him as a mental-health advocate who has been sober for 34 years. Now they know him as the podcast host who’s trying to build retirement facilities for former NBA and WNBA players. Heck, at the last Lakers game of this past season, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook jumped into Haywood’s arms and thanked him for his role in the Supreme Court ruling. This is because of the show.

These days, the 73-year-old Haywood is living in Las Vegas, playing golf and participating in various charitable events. And because of “Winning Time,” the world is beginning to know who he is. That’s a good thing.

Dramas are entertaining, but there’s nothing quite like a redemption story.