Haywood's Recovery Mirrors That Of NBA

The NBA wasn't always the prime time, Shaq-attackin', Sir Charles-smackin', Jordan-soarin', top-of-the-charts show it is today.

In 1980, the league was awakening from a long, somber hibernation. The NBA was perceived as a league of spoiled brats who played at half speed until the playoffs.

Franchises were floundering. Cocaine was a league-wide forest fire being whipped by the flames of freebase.

Rookies Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were just beginning their reformation work. And Los Angeles Laker forward Spencer Haywood's career was dying a slow, ignominious death.

The Lakers were riding Johnson's magnetism to an NBA title, beating the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference finals, then beating Philadelphia for the championship.

Haywood played 76 games for Los Angeles that season, averaging 9.7 points. He played in all but the final three playoff games, yet his teammates didn't vote him a share of their playoff bounty.

He didn't receive a championship ring and he was conspicuously absent in the Lakers' team picture. He wasn't even invited to the victory parade.

Showtime was no-time for Haywood. He became the Lakers' invisible man. Like many of his peers, Haywood had fallen into the cocaine trap.

"I went to (coach) Paul Westhead during the Finals and told him something was wrong," Haywood said this week by telephone from his Detroit home. "I told him, `I'm using cocaine. There's something wrong. I can't seem to leave it alone. I need to get some help at the end of the season. In the meantime, I will try not to create havoc here, but you're going to have to monitor me more so I can finish these games.'

"You know what Westhead said to me? He said, `I've got you now. I've finally got you.' Instead of getting me help, I became the Lakers' scapegoat."

Instead of help, Haywood got a suspension. In 1980, the NBA still considered cocaine a public relations nuisance. The league was in the business of damage control, not rehabilitation.

Haywood is clean and sober now. He is a successful businessman. He is the co-author of a riveting new book, "Spencer Haywood: The Rise, The Fall, The Recovery," written with Scott Ostler. The book is a frank look at Haywood's pogo stick life.

A movie version will be produced by former Sonic owner Sam Schulman. Haywood has talked with Alex English, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley about playing the title role.

Life is good. In 1988, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presented Haywood with his belated 1980 championship ring. Last year, the Lakers agreed to pay him half of his playoff money. He is a scapegoat no more.

Haywood is a living personification of how the league has changed since 1980. His book addresses those changes and the dramatic role he had in them.

He went from the racial strife of bucolic Mississippi, to the tense inner city of Detroit, to the high-flying world of professional basketball. He married supermodel Iman. He lived the good life. Then, like too many players of his generation, he fell prey to the devil drug.

"Everybody told us coke was non-addictive," Haywood said. "You've got to remember, the NBA is one big fraternity. When one member of the fraternity started doing coke, it just seemed like all of the members started doing it. About 80 percent of the league was doing it. Everybody was totally naive about this thing.

"When we found out the real story, it was too late. Then, all of a sudden, the players were saying, `Wait a minute, I can't put this stuff down. I'm losing weight. What's going on?' "

Haywood was fortunate. He had a sister, Lavaughn (who lives in Seattle), and a lifelong friend, Vernell DeSilva, who convinced him he needed help.

Through therapy, he discovered a molten anger, born in the South's racial strife, that had steered him in the wrong directions. He found help and re-discovered his life.

He recently attended ceremonies retiring Bob Lanier's Detroit Piston uniform number. After the ceremony, people asked him the city in which he'd like his number retired.

"Seattle was the first place I ever felt wanted," Haywood said. "The fans were my family. It was like I finally found a home. The people in Seattle embraced me. They took me over that bridge between white and black. I had been hurt by so many blacks and whites, that was a tough journey for me to make."

For making that journey, for being honest about his past problems, for the wonderful years he gave a fledgling franchise, Haywood deserves his night in Seattle.

His No. 24 would look good hanging from the rafters of the Coliseum, another reminder of Seattle's basketball roots.