1980s NBA Star Spencer Haywood Should Have Been The First Billionaire Athlete… But He Made a Bad Decision

Spencer Haywood is one of the giants of NBA history. He was a pioneer for the league. After dominating during his sophomore season in college — posting 32.1 points and 21.5 rebounds — he joined the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association. He put up 30 points and 19.5 boards per game in his debut season with the Rockets. With those numbers, Haywood attempted to enter the NBA.

However, the NBA had a rule that prevented players from entering the league before their college class graduated. Since Haywood would have still been a senior had he stayed in college, the league said he couldn’t join the Seattle Supersonics.

He was only 21 years old, but Haywood successfully sued the league. The lawsuit lowered the minimum age to enter the NBA. Haywood’s actions helped pave the way for future stars to enter the league earlier and maximize their earning potential.

Haywood had a solid NBA career — 20.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, an NBA championship in 1980, and entry into the Hall of Fame in 2015. Yet his biggest move ended up costing him dearly.

John McCoy/Getty Images

As he was ascending to superstardom, Haywood came into contact with Phil Knight. Knight had just started a new shoe company called Nike and was looking for someone to be the face of the brand. This person had to have a certain charisma, a rebellious attitude, and a larger-than-life personality.

Haywood was perfect for the role.

While other athletes rocked Adidas and Converse, Haywood felt drawn to Nike and Knight. Both men were based in the Pacific Northwest, and they bonded over that connection and a shared vision for athlete and brand partnerships.

By most reports, Nike offered Haywood a deal: $100,000 in cash or 10% in equity in the company. It appeared Haywood chose the cash route, but in an interview years later he explained what happened and how his agent’s stupidity cost him billions:

I went on the road and [my agent] had the power of attorney letter. He couldn’t figure out how to get his 10%, so he sold my stock for the cash… My agent was preaching to me at the time to not take the money for tax advantage purposes. We agreed on that, but he got greedy. He couldn’t figure out how to get that percentage instead of asking me for $10,000 out of $100,000 and moving on.

It wasn’t Haywood who opted for the sure cash — it was his agent, who didn’t know how to take his cut of equity. And pairing with that agent ultimately proved quite costly for the big man. Nike has become one of the biggest names in the fashion and apparel industry, raking in billions of dollars every year. Haywood estimates he lost out on $2.8 billion because of his agent’s decision.

On the plus side, he’s opened up financial doors for tons of other players. By taking on the NBA, NCAA, ABA, and the four-year rule, Haywood says he’s helped players earn $32 billion from their contracts.

So, yes, Haywood has lost out on quite a bit of money himself. But he’s paid it forward in other ways. That probably helps ease the sting of not being a billionaire. Not all the way, of course, but a little.

Leave a Comment