Since it first aired in March, not a week has passed where a former Lakers great or other team member from their Showtime era hasn’t expressed contempt for the HBO series “Winning Time.” Spencer Haywood is not on that list.
Although it can be argued that Haywood, a member of the 1979-80 world champion Lakers, is described in an unflattering light, he said he has no issue with his character, played by actor Wood Harris.
Haywood, 73, joined the Lakers that season as a final piece for a club with championship aspirations. But he battled drug addiction and was suspended from the team after Game 3 of the NBA Finals, when he fell asleep at a practice after a night of partying.
While some facts were altered, Haywood said he is pleased with how he is being portrayed and it’s bringing more exposure to his journey through drug addiction and his contributions to the NBA.
Haywood played in the first two games of the Finals against the 76ers before his dismissal. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, and other former Lakers have claimed that several scenes in “Winning Time” were embellished or never happened. West threatened a lawsuit over his portrayal as an overemotional, insecure, and miserable executive still haunted by his six losses to the Celtics in the Finals.
“Wood and I talked and he was a little sensitive about [the episodes] because everybody wants to protect me, but I said, ‘Whatever you have in documentation, go for it,’ ” Haywood said.
“Winning Time” documents Haywood’s drug use throughout that season and his promises to teammate and close friend Abdul-Jabbar that he’d stop as the Lakers continued their playoff run. After a relapse, Haywood’s teammates voted for his removal, with Abdul-Jabbar casting the deciding vote.
“I would say 95 percent of [his portrayal] was true,” Haywood said. “I’m a little disappointed with [how they captured] Jerry. But some real stuff went on that season.”
Haywood said he was not the only Lakers player using cocaine that season, but he won’t identify any others. He remains angry that the organization, led by owner Jerry Buss, West, and coach Paul Westhead, suspended him during the Finals and did not give him his playoff share. The Lakers won in six games behind Magic Johnson’s Game 6 performance with Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by injury.
Haywood played 11 postseason games for the Lakers before his suspension, including key minutes in the Western Conference finals against the defending champion SuperSonics.
“They played the hell out of me then,” Haywood said. “How do you suspend somebody with two games left in the Finals?”
“Winning Time” has drawn raves from television critics and many NBA fans who were too young to remember those days. It also has renewed interest in Haywood, his difficult life that began growing up in the Mississippi cotton fields, his landmark court case regarding how old a player must be to be drafted by an NBA team, marriage to model/actress Iman, and his drug addiction.
Haywood acknowledged he was embarrassed by some of his actions that season, which included plans to hire a hit man to kill Westhead, plans that were quickly canceled after a conversation with his mother.
“I love the attention,” he said. “Because of my suffering for all of these years with PTSD and now I feel so relieved in a way. And now all of this stuff is coming around again and I’m going on health shows and I’m talking about my true feelings that I couldn’t even get out for a while. This platform has given me a chance to let it all out and I feel freedom, so I’m thanking ‘Winning Time.’ ”
Haywood played in Italy in 1980-81 before returning to the NBA for two seasons with the Bullets. He eventually became sober, made amends with many former teammates, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
He has watched the entire first season of “Winning Time” and has given Harris his full blessing.
“He’s killing it,” Haywood said. “I was nervous when I first heard about the series because they were going to pull the cover off of all my [mistakes]. I prayed on it and said this might be an opportunity for players to know what I did and who I am. I decided to let it fly and God would make it in my favor.”
A GROWING PROBLEM
WNBA must find way to keep players
The WNBA opened its 26th season this weekend, which should serve as a celebration for a league rising in success and with more growth potential. But it was a difficult week for the WNBA, which is becoming the hardest professional sports league in which to make a roster.
Because of the constraints of a hard salary cap, many teams are carrying fewer than the maximum 12 players. What’s more, the draft is becoming less impactful, with first-round picks not guaranteed to make the roster.
The Las Vegas Aces released 2022 eighth overall pick Mya Hollingshed and 13th pick Khayla Pointer, meaning two of the league’s top 13 picks did not make their teams. The Minnesota Lynx waived 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and Rennia Davis, the No. 9 pick in 2021.
There is a push among veteran players such as Seattle’s Breanna Stewart to soften the salary cap to allow for more minimum-contract players. But the league has to devise a plan to make the draft more effective.
“I hate seeing so many great players being cut from WNBA teams,” Stewart said on Twitter. “Salaries went up, but a very restrictive hard cap has put teams in a bind. We need to soften it to allow our league to grow. The WNBA needs to adjust ASAP (before the next CBA) to allow teams more flexibility to keep rookies contract players on the roster. Call them practice players and make sure they don’t hit the cap. We need to be developing young talent and taking advantage of the momentum newly drafted players bring from the college game.
“We’re at a tipping point. Interest in the WNBA is higher than ever and without some easy tweaks, we are no longer a league that has 12 teams and 144 players — it’s more like 133.”
Of the 12 players drafted in the first round in 2021, only five averaged more than 10 minutes per game. New York’s Michaela Onyenwere, the sixth overall pick, was named Rookie of the Year despite averaging just 8.6 points per game.
And of the 36 players drafted in 2021, 19 played in the WNBA. With no women’s minor league, that left 17 players with little option besides going overseas.
Despite the WNBA having just a three-round, 36-player draft, 108 players declared early this season. Some were planning to start their careers overseas and had no hope of being drafted. But others believed they were talented enough to make a WNBA team.
The NBA developed the G League for players on the cusp of making the league but in need of more experience. It has been a success because it has served as a minor league system with all 30 teams having affiliates.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert would love to expand the league and develop a minor league system, but the issue is financial backing. Who’s going to pay for a women’s version of the G League? Should teams develop practice squads where two or three players can stick around with hopes of being promoted?
There are more than 144 — or 133 — women talented enough to play in the WNBA, but the league is becoming so competitive that it’s hindering progress. The story line for opening night should have been whether Chicago can repeat. Instead, the focus was on which players, including a stunning number of former first-round picks, were released.
Raptors’ rebuild progressing well
When Kyle Lowry asked for a sign-and-trade from the Raptors to the Heat, the Raptors were in apparent rebuild mode. That was even more the case when Goran Dragic, acquired from Miami, let Toronto know he wanted to play for a contender.
That was a blow to a proud organization and the Raptors played this season with something to prove, and managed to nab the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
A Game 1 injury to rookie star Scottie Barnes along with a hip injury to All-Star Fred VanVleet prevented the Raptors from making their first-round series with the 76ers more competitive. At full strength, Toronto may have been able to overcome Joel Embiid and Co. Instead, management views its first-round elimination as a building block.
“We still preach patience and growth here,” president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said. “We’re thinking the long game here. There are windows, but when we first came here we talked about the development of our players. The goal is to win a championship at the end.”
The plan has been to compile as many long, athletic defenders who can play multiple positions. Pascal Siakam experienced a bounce-back season, while OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa made strides offensively. VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. made for a smaller but productive backcourt.
The Raptors lack a true rim-protecting center, the primary reason why they had so much trouble containing Embiid.
“We need to develop within,” Ujiri said. “That’s really important. We have to get better that way. We’ll continue to be aggressive and look for guys. You have to choose a way you want to play. I don’t think there is one particular formula that works. I’m not into the copycat. Nothing in the NBA will be successful until you win. Whatever we try, you have to win.”
The Raptors are three years removed from their first NBA championship, a team that was led by Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. Ujiri took a calculated risk in trading DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard, but it resulted in the ultimate prize.
The rebuild has moved faster than expected, with the Raptors going from 27 wins in 2020-21 to 48 this season, despite dealing with many injuries and COVID-19 issues. But becoming a legitimate NBA Finals contender again is tough.
“You hope these guys continue to make progress,” Ujiri said. “There’s still a lot of work to do. I still think it’s a team of the future. It’s the first time that Pascal, Fred, and OG have been at the helm, and I think they did OK. Whatever it takes to get these guys to grow, that’s what we’ll do. There’s no discrimination here. We’re trying to win. We’re trying to rim protect.”
VanVleet remains the centerpiece, taking over for Lowry. The Raptors have drafted and developed talent and Ujiri shows confidence in his former undrafted free agent along with lottery pick Barnes.
“He’s a winner,” Ujiri said of VanVleet. “He’s a champion. He’s an All-Star. He beats everything. That’s bigger than 6-9. You need those guys on your team, every day.”
When asked about Barnes, Ujiri said, “As a player, think Scottie is going to keep growing. He’s the kind of player you dream to get. You hope the things he can put together, shooting, maturity, those will come. He’s 20. In his mind, he’s not going to slow down. We love that about him.”
Coach Nick Nurse is a master strategist who spends most of the games working the officials or challenging calls. He’s perfect for the Toronto system because he gets the most out of the talent, which is critical in a market that does not attract major free agents.
“I’m never going to tell Nick how to coach or what to do,” Ujiri said. “I think he got the best out of the players. We like two-way players. It’s not going to be pretty. The development is going to be up and down. Our whole mind-set has to be winning.
“You look at the Boston team, we played them in the playoffs. It’s still the same guys. You look at the Miami team, guys have been playing together for a long time. We’re playing the long game with our guys.”
The Lakers, looking for a coach, are apparently interested in Nurse. Ujiri said that is not happening. Nurse is under contract and will stay in Toronto.
“Nick Nurse expects to win with everything that he does,” Ujiri said. “I dream like [the Lakers] dream. I want [Lionel] Messi. I want [Cristiano] Ronaldo. I want Kobe Bryant. They can keep dreaming. I dream, too.”
Ujiri, one of the league’s few Black executives, lauded the Black coaches who took their teams to the next step, including Celtics coach Ime Udoka.
“The Black coaches that [the NBA] hired, I think they did phenomenal this year, and nobody is recognizing them like that,” Ujiri said. “They need to be commended and encouraged, and Black executives, too.”
The Ben Simmons saga took an unexpected turn this past week when the former All-Star underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disk, erasing speculation he was just trying to avoid playing in the playoffs. The Nets mishandled Simmons’s potential return by allowing him to tell reporters he had targeted a Game 4 return against the Celtics. Not only did Simmons not play in Game 4, he experienced a setback, causing speculation he was not mentally ready to play. Simmons should be healthy for next season, giving Steve Nash a full training camp with Simmons, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving … Speaking of Irving, he is irked he wasn’t placed on the league’s 75th anniversary team and believes it’s a conspiracy because of his vaccination status. While it’s hard to point out 75 players in NBA history with more talent than Irving, he has played in 70 or more games just three times in his career and his abrupt exits from Cleveland and Boston likely led to him being omitted from the list. Most of the current players named to the top 75 team have won MVP awards. Irving does have an argument that he could have been included instead of Anthony Davis, a controversial selection because of his injury history … The Hornets are trying to find the right coach to lead their team to the next level after firing James Borrego after consecutive play-in tournament blowout losses. Veteran Mike D’Antoni is a candidate and the organizational goal is to bring the best out of All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball. The relationship between Ball and Borrego was tenuous because Ball is prone to mistakes, turnovers, and lazy defense. Borrego had a difficult time imploring Ball to improve because he is the team’s centerpiece and most marketable player. The Hornets need a coach who can bring the best out of Ball and help the team improve defensively. Former Nets coach and current Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson, Bucks assistants Charles Lee and Darvin Ham, and Nets assistant David Vanterpool are also candidates. Owner Michael Jordan needs to hit a home run because the Hornets are considered one of the league’s rising teams with several players entering their primes.