This excerpt of “The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast,” by Marc Spears and Gary Washburn, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy please visit Triumph Books, Bookshop.org, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Spencer Haywood was a defendant, along with the Seattle SuperSonics, in a landmark court case in the early 1970s about the NBA’s rule prohibiting players from entering the league until their college class had graduated. The Supreme Court ruled in Haywood’s favor, clearing the way for underclassmen to begin entering the NBA. "The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast,” will be released Tuesday.
During his time in Seattle, Spencer Haywood was approached with a business venture that would have perhaps changed his life and made him the face of the biggest basketball shoe and apparel company on Earth.
After Spencer’s All-NBA season in 1972–73, a representative from a growing sneaker company based in Portland [Oregon] approached him about a partnership. In the early 1970s, the basketball-shoe game was dominated by Converse, which had transformed its Chuck Taylor shoe into more modern footwear for the demands of the more athletic player; Adidas, which began as a wildly popular shoe for track-and-field athletes; and Puma, which was Adidas' primary competitor in non-basketball athletic shoes and was becoming more popular with NBA players.
Nike wasn’t part of that mass popularity quite yet, but it was seeking a spokesman, and the 24-year-old Spencer, one of the league’s rising stars, was tops on its list.
“We were up in the Northwest, like Portland, Seattle, and Nike was just like, ‘Let’s break out of this area here and we need this superstar to do it,’” he said. “And I was All-NBA first-team. So they came to me and basically said, ‘Let’s do this deal and you can write your own ticket.’ ”
At an impromptu meeting at Seattle University, Nike representatives told Spencer he was their man. It was the early days of shoe endorsements, nothing close to the $100 million deals players such as LeBron James and Zion Williamson signed when entering the NBA.
“It was ’73 now, he hadn’t had the company set up yet. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m down with this new shoe company,’” he said. “Adidas was paying a little bit and I wore Converse, but Converse was killing my feet. That was because of John McLendon and John was with Converse all those years and I was trying to be loyal. When Nike came around I was like, ‘Just work out the deal, guys.’ ”
Nike didn’t have a lot of cash or a lucrative contract offer to make because it was a growing company (less than 10 years old), but it did offer Spencer stock — a chance to be an investor in the swoosh.
“The number that I remember… [was] 10 percent of the stock. In talking with Nike [later], everybody said, ‘Nah we didn’t offer you that much,’ ” Spencer said. “But I had some stock. And I do know my agent couldn’t figure out how he got paid out of the stock, because he was a hustler and [stock didn’t do anything for him.]”
Spencer did not want to reveal the name of the agent, but he said the agent was consumed with how he was going to be paid by such a Nike deal. A deal that included company stock would not result in cash assets for the agent.
Spencer also made the mistake of signing a power of attorney to that agent, who agreed to accept a $100,000 payment for his client (the equivalent of nearly $600,000 in 2020) for the endorsement opportunity. The agent then took the stock and sold it to liquidate the returns.
It was a mistake that would haunt Spencer.
“I’m on the road and we went through all types of business transactions,” Spencer said. “So he had my power of attorney because we were doing transaction on top of transaction. He came back and he sold my stock and he said, ‘You need to take the money now because it’s gonna dry up,’ and all along and we’re trying to keep my salary at a place where I wouldn’t have to pay so much taxes, so we didn’t want to drive up the revenue.”
Spencer said he brought [model and ex-wife] Iman into the equation to help galvanize the Nike team in the 1970s, organizing a party in Sun Valley, Idaho, with the Nike clients and their wives. Phil Knight credits Spencer with boosting his infant company in the 1970s. And, of course, Nike grew exponentially into the 1980s, when Knight was able to acquire a North Carolina rookie named Michael Jordan.
“We’re going to take the cash — cash it out now,” Spencer’s agent told him. “You done did the job for them.”
Spencer stayed a member of the Nike family for years, but he never regained that stock.
“Phil was very loyal to me for what I did,” he said. “He didn’t give me back my stock, but I was still a member of the Nike club.”
Understandably, NBA players didn’t think about shoe endorsements as massive earning engines nearly 50 years ago. Shoe companies were still 20 years from dominating the basketball business.
“We didn’t think about gym shoes back then as a cash cow,” he said. “ ‘What is he talking about?’ And you know what I did with that money? I had to get me a new Mercedes. I feel so stupid.”
Spencer was a young player who made an immature, shortsighted decision.
“I didn’t pay attention to the paperwork because I was balling. I was a young dude and I had a bunch of court cases,” he said. “I just wanted to play and enjoy the game. So I had a novice looking at the contract and what he was thinking about was, ‘I don’t care how much they pay you, I gotta get my 10 percent.’ So it made no sense to him. I wasn’t watching [the] store when they said, ‘We’ll give you a little percentage of the company because we don’t have the funds to pay for those endorsements like that.’ He was just so insistent upon, ‘I gotta get paid, so let’s take the money.’ ”
Spencer claims his agent told him that he didn’t want to generate too much income for his client for fear of paying more income taxes.
“But in this case, he wanted to get paid,” he said.
Spencer wants to dispel the rumors that it was a billion-dollar mistake. But he admits that his agent’s selfishness cost him several million dollars.
“The deal was nowhere near no billions of dollars,” he said. “It was embellished. I didn’t lose no billions of dollars, but I would have been a pretty rich dude. He had the power of attorney that I had signed over to him because I couldn’t travel and do all of the work, so [I felt I] had to give him the power of attorney. While I was on the road, he just renegotiated and got his money.”
Spencer said he enjoyed wearing Nikes and did embrace being the face of company. Eventually Nike would sign several of Spencer’s contemporaries, including Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas, Norm Nixon, Artis Gilmore, Dennis Johnson, George Gervin, and Elvin Hayes. And the company also began popularizing posters that advertised their biggest clients wearing Nikes. In 1984, Nike introduced the Air Jordan shoes, taking the company into unprecedented heights.
“People were saying, ‘That ain’t nothing but an upside-down Newport Cigarettes logo,’ ” Spencer said. "It was wild times. I just didn’t know. I really didn’t know. Michael Jordan will call me and we’ll go out to dinner and he just beats me up with that [expletive]. If you know Michael, he’s going to beat you up about something, and when we hang out he’ll give me a hard time about the Nike stuff.
“But he gives me big respect too.”