Their time together wasn’t long, but former NBA star Spencer Haywood once was coached by Jerry Tarkanian.
It was in the spring of 1968, and the Olympic basketball trials were taking place for the Mexico City Games. Haywood was a star player at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, and Tarkanian was finishing his stint as the coach of Pasadena City (Calif.) College. Tarkanian, who was about to become the coach at Long Beach State, was the coach of a junior college all-star team that competed in a three-day tournament in Albuquerque, N.M., with several college all-star teams and all-star squads representing the AAU, NAIA and U.S. Armed Forces.
The 1968 Olympic team, which was coached by Henry Iba and went on to win the gold medal, was strictly amateur. Several top college players, most notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), didn’t participate. But Haywood decided to play, and he made a lasting impression on the Olympic coaches.
“He was our best player,” Tarkanian said of the 6-foot-9-inch forward, who made the Olympic team and led it in scoring and field-goal percentage despite being its youngest member at 19. “Spencer had huge hands. I couldn’t believe how big they were. And he was a great shot blocker.”
Forty-five years later, Haywood and Tarkanian are together again — this time as finalists for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Both believe they’ve been previously denied induction due to their willingness to take on the establishment in court.
Haywood sued the NBA in 1970 for the right to play while still an underclassman, and Tarkanian sued the NCAA in 1992, claiming it had conspired to run him out of coaching after previous encounters with that organization while he was at Long Beach State and UNLV.
The NBA eventually allowed Haywood to play in 1971, and Tarkanian and the NCAA settled their case in 1998, with Tarkanian awarded $2.5 million.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it?” Haywood said. “Me and Coach both battled in court, we both won, and yet we’re not in the Hall of Fame. But I believe justice will be served this time, and we’re both going to be in.”
Haywood said he almost followed Tarkanian to Long Beach State.
“When I played for Tark at the trials, I fell in love with him,” Haywood said. “He was such a players’ coach. He gave you that fire inside to play hard. He wanted me to come with him to Long Beach, and I actually took a visit there. Let me tell you, with the warm weather, the palm trees and the ocean, I was ready. But I had family back in Detroit, that’s where I played my high school ball — at Pershing — so I felt obligated to go back home and play at UD.”
Haywood played one year at Detroit, averaged 32.1 points and led the nation in rebounding with a 21.5 average. He then bolted for the American Basketball Association for the 1969 season and was the ABA’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year after averaging 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds with the Denver Rockets.
Regardless of what happens, Haywood and Tarkanian plan on being in Atlanta this weekend at the Final Four, where the official announcement for the Class of 2013 will be made Monday.
“I think we’re both going to have a reason to celebrate,” Haywood said.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.