Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
Typically the NBA doesn’t allow underclassmen to play in the pro’s, but Spencer Haywood is an exception. As an Olympic gold medalist and college superstar, the league determines that he is ready to join after only his sophomore season. He is declared officially eligible for the 1969 NBA Draft.
He isn’t taken first, but that’s only due to the presence of UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Instead, he’s taken by the perfect team at No. 2: the extremely talented Phoenix Suns. They featured three stars in Dick Van Arsdale, Gail Goodrich and Connie Hawkins along with consummate role player Paul Silas. Haywood would slot right in at center and be their missing piece.
That turns out to be precisely the case. Haywood leads the Suns past the Lakers and Knicks to win the championship in only their second year of existence. He even finishes third in MVP voting behind Willis Reed and second in Rookie of the Year to Milwaukee’s Lew Alcindor. When Alcindor wins the title the following year, pundits proclaim Haywood vs. Lew to be the decade’s answer to Russell vs. Wilt.
Unfortunately for both, their teams can’t keep up. Age slows down Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Arsdale enough to turn the Suns into a relatively pedestrian team, and the depreciation of Oscar Robertson does the same to Milwaukee. Neither Haywood nor Alcindor wins a championship in the next several years, and when Alcindor changes his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and is traded to Los Angeles, Haywood forces his way to New York just as quickly.
Ironically enough, the Suns make the NBA Finals the very next season, losing to the Boston Celtics in a classic six-game series. That leaves Phoenix fans somewhat wary of Haywood when discussing his legacy. Yes, he was a legendary talent and yes, he led the team to its only championship, but who knows how far the team could’ve gone had he stuck around. Maybe they would’ve beaten Boston in 1976, and maybe they would’ve won several more in the later part of the decade when Walter Davis joined the team.
But ultimately Haywood is too self destructive a person to be the leader of a dynasty. With time, Suns fans learn to accept him for what he was, an excellent player and a pioneer of the game, even if he wasn’t all that he could’ve been. So they cheer when his number is raised into the rafters in Phoenix, never to be worn by a Sun again, even if he only spent a few brief seasons with the team.