Gordon Hayward, having just finished scrimmaging against the United States Olympic men's basketball team, was chatting with a reporter when a man who was more than old enough to be his father interrupted by enthusiastically reaching out to shake his hand.
"Gordon Hayward," the man said slowly and rhythmically with a big grin. "Spencer Haywood."
Haywood made a quick joke about the similarities of their surnames, which seemed to be the purpose of his introduction, and kept on walking. Hayward, the young Utah Jazz forward, looked bemused, smiling at the apparent randomness of the encounter. He clearly had no idea who this tall, cheerful stranger might be.
"I've never heard of him," Hayward said.
Neither had John Wall. Or Blake Griffin.
As anonymous as Haywood might be among many of today's NBA players, his presence at the scrimmages last week between the NBA's most celebrated players -- and a generation of future stars -- could hardly have been more appropriate.
It was Haywood's 1970 court challenge of the NBA's eligibility rule that opened the door for players to leave college before their class graduated, a ruling that eventually allowed players to bypass college altogether. His case is particularly salient for this year's Olympic team, which is the first without any players who stayed four years in college. Only guard Deron Williams stayed more than two seasons.
"If not for him," said Chris Paul, who spent two years at Wake Forest before heading to the NBA, "there's no LeBron James, no Kevin Garnett, no Kobe Bryant -- none of it."
If the court case defines Haywood's legacy, his story is richer than that -- even if it is rarely remembered, coming as it did in the NBA's Paleolithic era before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. In many ways, the 1980 season stamped the transformation of the league, with the Finals that season marking the arrival of Johnson -- and also, in essence, the exit of Haywood, who was booted off the Lakers by coach Paul Westhead for showing up for a Finals game in a cocaine-induced stupor.
Before that, Haywood, as a 19-year-old junior-college player, led the United States to a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, when some of the country's best players -- Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld among them -- boycotted the Games.
Haywood might have been the first African-American to play in the Southeastern Conference, he said, had Kentucky's legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, who had just lost to Texas Western, not objected to his signing with Tennessee because he wanted him.
When he turned pro, Haywood led the American Basketball Association in scoring and rebounding as a rookie and was named the Most Valuable Player of the regular season and the All-Star Game. He was named first-team All-NBA in 1972 and 1973. He was married to the supermodel Iman, says he has been sober since 1986 and runs a flooring business in Las Vegas.
"I stumble into s---," Haywood said with a laugh, noting that he has indeed come a long way from the boy who picked cotton in the Mississippi delta.
Haywood, 63, his head cleanly shaven, is a regular presence at USA Basketball camps and rookie symposiums. He is there, he says, not at the behest of the players or their union, but of commissioner David Stern. It is at these meetings that many players, like Paul and Tyson Chandler, say they first heard of Haywood.
While some Olympians have a full understanding of Haywood's role, nobody has embraced the man himself more than James, who is one of the few players to know of Haywood before reaching the NBA -- James says he learned of him in grade school -- and once invited Haywood to speak at his summer camp in Akron, Ohio.
"He understands the history of the game," Haywood said. "And he's such a pioneer, man. The things he went through with people not necessarily liking him, blah, blah, blah -- that's very personal to me."
It may seem far-fetched because of the mushrooming of pro basketball's popularity, along with media platforms, since Haywood's day. But if James has company among players who are transcendent talents and lightning rods for criticism -- some of it their own doing -- then Haywood is in that class.
Haywood, who left college after his sophomore year, successfully sued to sign a five-year, $1.9 million NBA contract with Seattle before the 1970-71 season, which would have been his senior season in college. He was a polarizing figure -- he was going to ruin college basketball and his avarice would be contagious in the professional ranks.
Though this happened in an era when professional athletes spoke out more often, they were hardly free from ramifications for doing so. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing title for opposing the Vietnam War, Curt Flood saw his baseball career all but ended for challenging the reserve clause, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith were vilified for their black-gloved protest at the Olympics.
"I heard Malcolm X speak once, and he said something that I never forgot," said George Raveling, the former college coach and a friend of Haywood. "History is best situated to reward all man's deeds, so basically if you do certain things, it takes years for it to be put into historical significance.
"I don't think people really understood the cultural and social impacts that were going to result from what he did. This was back from a time when lawsuits weren't as prevalent, especially in the athletic community, and there weren't many athletes who were willing to step out of line and say this is wrong, and the ones who did paid the price. There's that moment in all our lives when you have to make a significant decision -- am I going to do what's right and just, or am I going to stand on the sidelines?"
To Haywood, the lawsuit was out of necessity. After his rookie season with the Denver Rockets in the ABA, he was rewarded with a new contract that would pay him $1.6 million. But Haywood did not read it and later discovered that most of the money would be given to him when he was 50 or older. So he signed with Seattle, which had the move blocked by the NBA.
Haywood is more proud of his participation in the Olympics. He says Harry Edwards, the influential sociologist who urged African-Americans to boycott the Olympic movement in 1968, used the wrong tact with him.
"He said, 'You're a cotton picker for the man,' " Haywood recalled. "And I said back to him, 'Oh, are you from the same field I'm from? Did you pick cotton, too?' He just walked away from me, but I was truthful. I did pick cotton."
Haywood grew up in Silver City, Miss., which was so rural that official birth records of blacks were rarely kept. When Haywood needed a passport for the Olympics, the State Department confirmed his birth through records in his mother's family Bible.
In Mexico City, Haywood scored 21 points in the United States' 65-50 victory over Yugoslavia in the gold medal game, leading an American team that had only two other successful pros -- Charlie Scott and JoJo White.
He wept on the podium.
"It changed me as an American," Haywood said of his Olympic experience. "My mother was always talking about, 'Baby, ain't nothing like America.' She's telling me that s--- while I'm in the cotton fields. 'Today you're picking cotton, tomorrow you might own the sack, tomorrow you might own the field.' I thought she was brainwashing me to finish that row. Then I got to the Olympics and it was true -- how can a boy from the cotton fields three years ago and now I'm the leader, a gold medalist for the United States? That changed me profoundly."
As Haywood spoke, it was clear he enjoyed sharing his story, just as he did spending time catching up with contemporaries, like Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, or others who do not need a primer, like Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins and Chris Mullin, whom he helped stage a clinic at Nellis Air Force Base.
But Wall, the young Wizards point guard, was not quite sure if he knew Haywood. Was he the man wearing the bright yellow shirt he had met the day before, Wall wondered.
Indeed, he was. Then it was related to him that Haywood had paved the way for others, like him, to leave college early to pursue their career.
"I'll have to give him another handshake," Wall said with a smile that easily passed for a thank you.