LAS VEGAS • After Spencer Haywood conquered immense odds to earn a spot on America’s 1968 Olympic basketball team, word got out he was from Trinidad.
How, he was asked, did he emigrate from the tiny island nation in the Caribbean?
“Um, no,” Haywood said. “I’m from Trinidad, Colorado.”
His response inspired a new question.
“Where the hell is Trinidad, Colorado?”
On Oct. 25, 1968 — 50 years ago Thursday — Haywood placed Trinidad on the basketball map when he led an American team depleted by protest and bizarre coaching decisions to world supremacy, lengthening a 32-year American gold medal run dating back to the 1936 Games.
Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem-Abdul Jabbar), Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld declined to play for the U.S., and Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and Dan Issel were cut from the team. All six are members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
As Haywood stood with his teammates at the medal ceremony, he wept. His tears surprised everyone. Haywood learned the game battling against rugged older brothers on dirt courts in Mississippi and later on brutal blacktop courts in Detroit. He never was merely playing basketball.
He was, always, on the attack.
“The toughest guy I ever went against,” said former Nuggets coach Doug Moe, who struggled against Haywood for rebounds. “A tough, tough guy.”
But there he was, on a court in Mexico City, weeping as he looked at big American flags in the crowd. The national anthem was playing, and he was so proud and so surprised. A few months earlier, he had been thrilled to earn an invite to Olympic tryouts. A virtual unknown, fresh from his freshman season at Trinidad Junior College, he expected to get cut.
Instead, he emerged as breakout star of the tournament, shooting 72 percent from the field and scoring a record 145 points, a record that stood until Kevin Durant scored 156 (with the aid of the 3-point shot) in 2012.
In the midst of the American party, Haywood drifted back to his Mississippi childhood. From 6 to 16, Haywood picked cotton alongside his mother, Eunice, and nine brothers and sisters. The Haywood family picked dawn to dusk in harsh southern sunshine. Haywood, adept at his craft, often pulled 200 pounds in a day, and earned $4.
One afternoon in the fields, Eunice pulled him aside.
“Baby,” she said, “you’re going to do something. You just watch and see. The Lord is going to make you really special. He’s going to do that for you.”
In Mexico City, a long way from those fields, Haywood knew Eunice had been a prophet.
“I really believed her and there I was, receiving that gold medal on my neck, tears on my face and all I can see is these people from America,” Haywood says in the kitchen of his Vegas home a few miles south of the strip.
He had endured a trying life. As a child, his family sometimes gathered around an empty dinner table, wondering when the next meal would arrive. He wore battered clothes scavenged from the local dump. When Haywood arrived in Detroit at 16, he read at a second-grade level. The shadow of want always was there.
But his mom’s fierce optimism always was there, too.
“My mom,” Haywood says, “would always say, ‘We’re more American than anybody.’ That was her whole thing, you know. She said we did more hard work than anybody. She said we put our boys in the Army.”
She also said this:
“Baby, ain’t nothing like America!”
She had that right.
The ride to Mexico City and gold began in September 1967 when Haywood arrived in Trinidad, a town of 10,000 nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the southern edge of Colorado. His high school coach, Will Robinson, arranged for Haywood to play for Trinidad’s Trojans. He said Trinidad was “a little ways” from Denver.
On the afternoon Haywood arrived, tumbleweeds and men on horses breezily moved along Main Street, a long way from Denver or Detroit or anything he knew.
First day on campus, Haywood stepped out in the full regalia of a Detroit slickster, wearing 2-inch platform shoes, a pinky ring, lime-green slacks and shirt woven of 100 percent polyester.
But soon he adapted to the slow, quiet beat of his new home. Growing up in Mississippi during America’s racial apartheid, he was forced to sit in the back of segregated movie theaters. At Trinidad’s Fox Theater, built in 1908, he could sit anywhere. He often watched in the opulent auditorium as Clint Eastwood gunned down bad guys.
In the summer of 1967, racial tensions in Detroit ignited a catastrophic riot that burned down much of the central city and killed 43. In Trinidad, he found a welcoming vibe. Townsfolk greeted a 6-foot-10 black teen as he walked along Main Street. For the first time in his young life, he escaped America’s curse.
“No racial tension,” Haywood says. “Everyone in town embraced me.”
He was spectacular in his one season at Trinidad, averaging 28 points and 22 rebounds while leading Trinidad to a 27-4 record. He embarked on a lifelong friendship with Vern DeSilva, a forward for the Trojans. DeSilva, later an art professor, was obsessed with the adventuresome paintings of Picasso, Monet and Van Gogh, and he converted Haywood.
On rides to games in a white 1966 Chevy station wagon the friends sat in the back seat, facing oncoming traffic, gazing at plains and mountains, engaging in conversations that switched from Van Gogh’s suicide to Trinidad’s zone defense.
As Haywood departed Trinidad, DeSilva shouted a final message.
“You’re going to lead America to a gold medal!” DeSilva said. “That’s how this story is going to be told!”
Haywood’s American saga would be filled with beautiful and ugly twists. He carried his nation to gold at 19. He dominated in his one season (1969-70) for the Denver Rockets, an infant version of the Nuggets. He averaged 29 points and 12 rebounds for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1973, when he was only 23.
But there was agony, too. On the brink of an NBA title with Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1980, Haywood passed out at practice after freebasing cocaine. On May 11, a day after game 3 of the NBA Finals, he was banished from the team. Magic and the Lakers won the title five days later.
He spent years in cocaine’s grip. He heard the devil speaking from light bulbs. He walked in crowds, convinced everyone was looking at him and knew all his secrets. He was so lost and so hooked. Eunice kept telling her son, “You sold out to the devil.”
Still, somewhere in his soul, Haywood knew he would escape. As a boy, he believed God was near, residing up there in the closest cloud.
“Faith, faith,” Haywood says slowly, explaining his conviction he would defeat his addiction. “I knew that it was just a slip-up. It was never anything that was permanent for me.
“It was a bad stop. You know, when you’re on a train and you stop in this little town or this big town and you get stuck there because there’s no train right now, but you know you’re getting out because this is terrible. That was me.”
He smiles as he announces he’s been sober 32 years. He and his wife Linda attend Central Christian, which embraces those who struggle. “A place where it’s OK not to be OK!” is the congregation’s motto.
At 69, he’s a devoted health nut. On the table before him beckon four bags of organic groceries and on his refrigerator rest 35 bottles of vitamins.
“With more vitamins hidden in the cupboard,” he says, laughing.
On this quiet Saturday morning on the southern edge of Sin City, Haywood leans on the table and closes his eyes. His body is here in Vegas 2018, but his mind has traveled to Mexico City 1968.
“I see the people in the audience waving that America flag,” he says, narrating his interior images. “Ah, that’s a gorgeous feeling. They call out my name, and they put that medal on my neck.”
He pauses, overwhelmed by his memory.
“Oh, my God,” he says, opening his eyes.
At that moment in Mexico City, he arrived as a basketball giant.
And better still, he fulfilled a prophecy made by his mother in a Mississippi cotton field.