“Here, look at this.”

The Pistons’ PR man handed me a book that listed all the players in the NBA. He pointed to a special chapter entitled “All-Time Greats.”

And there was a full page on Spencer Haywood, complete with picture.

I looked down at the book, then up at the hardwood court in front of us. Out amidst the squeaking sneakers, and the yells — “Pick left! Pick left!”
— and the unforgiving thump of the basketball, there he was, in the flesh, sweating and panting with the Pistons’ second string, trying to earn a final spot on the 12-man roster.

The All-Time Great. Spencer Haywood.

In 36 years, he had learned how to dribble, how to rebound, how to soar for a hook. He had learned how to make an Olympics, how to star in the NBA, how to get very rich. He had learned how to get suspended, how to make enemies.

And he ultimately learned how to say, “I quit.”

But he never learned what to do next.

So this summer, Spencer Haywood picked up a basketball for the first time in two years and decided it was time to return.

“I came back,” he said, “to make peace with the game.” Trouble seeks him out The beard is gone. The hairline has begun to recede around the temples, ever so slightly. But the body, all 6 feet 9 inches, is still supple, hard, and, at the moment, was dripping sweat.

We were sitting in the locker room, on a wooden bench. Haywood was stripped to the waist. And he was upset.

Earlier in practice, a veteran player had walked by him singing the song,
“We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

A deliberate message.

“Can you believe that stuff?” he said.

Sadly, you can. For it’s always been this way.

Where there’s smoke, there’s Spencer.

He was born in 1949, three weeks after his father died, and some of his Mississippi relatives believe daddy’s soul shares the body of the son. That might at least explain Haywood’s conflicting actions over the years. For he has at times been gifted, boorish, disciplined, lazy, admirable, aloof, hardworking and hardly working.

He was a superstar for Seattle in the early ’70s. Big name. Big scorer. All-star. Then he went to New York and the media branded him a loafer. Then to New Orleans. Then Los Angeles, where he stayed out all night during a championship series, and fell asleep in practice the next day.

He was suspended, and his teammates later voted to give him only a one-tenth share of playoff money — though he’d been with them all season.

“That,” he said, “was the worst. I was angry at the game for years. I never have gotten over it.”

He played in Italy, came back, joined the Washington Bullets and quit in the middle of the 1983 season. For two years he refused to watch the sport on TV. He never played. Never. He lived in Manhattan. His daily routine: Take daughter to school. Come home. Play tennis. Have lunch. Do yoga. Pick up daughter from school.

He didn’t need money. He didn’t need to work. Time passed. More time passed.

What does man do with nothing but time and nagging memories?

He ultimately goes back to the memories.

And tries to make them better. Time catches up Haywood talked for a long time in the locker room, until all the others had gone home.

The rest of the Pistons are cordial to him. There is some resentment. Some curiosity. He knows it. A one-time all-star, willing to ride the bench?

But Haywood said he only wants to play, to rewrite the ending to his career. He said his body is in top condition. He said he’ll be the old Spencer Haywood pretty soon. And anyhow, he said, he is 35, not 36, as the book indicates.

“This is a mission,” he said, rubbing his hands over his arms, as if checking out the muscle tone. “If I don’t catch on here, I’ll play somewhere else.”

It will likely be somewhere else. His scrimmage Monday was bad. He was called for fouls. Passes smacked off his hands and out of bounds. Opponents drove on him easily. He looked old.

You watch him out there and you want to say, “Go back.” But go back to what?

And that’s just it. Sometimes, a player can spend his whole life learning to control a basketball, only to discover it’s the other way around.

When we were done talking, we shook hands. Haywood repeated that he “only wanted to make peace with the game.” Was that so hard to understand? When I left, the All-Time Great was alone in the locker room, dressed in shorts, looking for a towel so he could take a shower.

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