Sonics retire No. 24 worn by Haywood, Johnson

Updated: February 27, 2007, 12:02 AM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Spencer Haywood was finally recognized by the SuperSonics on Monday night for his accomplishments on the floor and his fight in the courts, 32 years after he last played in Seattle.

Terrence Vaccaro/Getty ImagesFormer Sonic great Spencer Haywood's No. 24 jersey was retired by the team, ending his long personal wait for the honor.

And yet, there was sadness accompanying Haywood's honor.

Haywood's No. 24 was to be retired at halftime of Monday's game between Seattle and Portland. And while Haywood was proud about the moment finally arriving, there was sorrow too, following the last week's death of Dennis Johnson, who also wore No. 24 in his time with the Sonics.

"For me it's a high, and then it's a little bit of a low because I know DJ would have loved to have been here," Haywood said before Seattle played Portland. "He's here in all of our hearts."

With "24" spotlights shining on the court and a video tribute playing on the scoreboard, Haywood took the floor with his family to a standing ovation, and wearing a black "DJ" patch on his suit. He was presented with gifts before his jersey was raised to the rafters at KeyArena, between the jerseys of Lenny Wilkens and Fred Brown.

Haywood brought down the NBA's rule banning the drafting or signing of a player before his college class graduated. Honoring him was considered long overdue by many not only for his play in Seattle, but his landmark court victory that opened the door for swarms of teenagers to enter the NBA.

"There are a lot of young players that can really thank him. He was like the Curt Flood of the NBA," said Sonics vice chairman Lenny Wilkens, who was Haywood's teammate and coach during the 1971-72 season. "He established that, and that's why all these young men make a lot of money."

Seattle was Haywood's first NBA stop during a sometimes talented but tumultuous career that included time with the New York Knicks, New Orleans Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Bullets, and was marred by league ban during the 1980-81 season for drug use.

Monday night's honor by the Sonics was the completion of a long wait for the 57-year-old.

"I was waiting for a while and then I stopped waiting because I went through another one of my spiritual awakenings where I realized that things that came on Spencer's time usually we're kind of bad," Haywood said. "So I decided to let it come on a higher power or God's time."

The Sonics signed Haywood on Dec. 30, 1970 to a six-year, $1.5 million contract after the previous season leading the ABA in scoring and rebounding with Denver, as a rookie. He had spent just one year at Trindad State Junior College in Colorado in 1967-68, and then helped the U.S. to a gold medal that summer at the Olympics in Mexico City.

He immediately challenged the NBA's four-year rule, eventually winning a U.S. Supreme Court decision 7-2 in March 1971. That didn't mean Haywood was clear from controversy. Wilkens remembered going into cities during the 1971-72 season where teams had received court injunctions banning Haywood from playing.

"It was a lot of adversity at that time. We wouldn't see him for days cause he'd have to go to court and things like that," Wilkens said. "But in the long run we all felt like it was worth it and I think he proved that."

Haywood was with the Sonics through the 1975 season before being traded to the Knicks. With Seattle, Haywood averaged 24.9 points, including a franchise record 29.2 in the 1972-73 season. He was widely considered the city's first superstar athlete when the Sonics were the only game in town.

"His impact at the time was huge, because everyone knew about Spencer Haywood," Wilkens said.

Wilkens was largely responsible for bringing about Monday's events. He joined the organization as vice chairman in November and immediately went to work on making sure Haywood became the sixth player in team history to have their jersey retired.

The other five were all on hand Monday night -- Wilkens, Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Sonics' assistant Jack Sikma and Portland coach Nate McMillan.

Despite the impact of his court victory, Haywood said only one current player has ever contacted him -- Kevin Garnett. On the day Garnett was named the 2004 league MVP, he thanked Haywood in his remarks.

Haywood hopes events like Monday night spurs more discussion among current players about the league's history.

"This is a great day," Haywood said. "It's making players much more aware of what went on and what it was like."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press