Spencer Haywood Documentary Explores Rocky Relationship with NBA

Former NBA player Spencer Haywood was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last September, but few know the story behind his struggle to attain the accolade. Full Court, a new documentary making its way around the festival circuit, reveals a fascinating look at the ex-NBA All-Star player's landmark court case against the league and the aftermath.

Prior to stints with the New York Knicks, New Orleans Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers, Haywood challenged the NBA's "four-year rule," which stated that players could not enter the league until they were four years removed from high school.

Haywood's spent the '69-'70 season with the ABA, but it meant he couldn't return to the collegiate level. Not old enough to play in the NBA, Haywood found himself unable to earn a living and support his mother. Haywood felt he had no choice but to challenge the NBA. Haywood signed with the Seattle SuperSonics prior to the age requirement and sued the NBA, taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and winning.

But his triumph over a major sports league came with blowback. The documentary explores the reaction to Haywood challenging the status quo, drawing parallels between Haywood's struggles and the civil-rights issues of the era.

Filmmaker Martin Spirit, who is British and more familiar with cricket than basketball, was a little hesitant to take on the documentary.

"I knew absolutely nothing about basketball," Spirit tells me in an interview. "But for me it was a challenge I wanted to take on."

Spirit felt the impact of Haywood's legacy would be forgotten without a documentary to highlight his contributions.

"He was involved in so many benchmark things that happened in the last 50 years," Spirit says. "He's been forgotten about. At the same time the whole [Muhammad] Ali thing was going on about his religion, people remember that. But they don't remember that Spencer stood up and said, 'no, this is wrong.'"

In addition to his struggles with the NBA, Haywood saw his fair share of personal ups and downs, growing up in poverty, winning Olympic gold, marrying and divorcing fashion icon Iman and struggling with a cocaine addiction.

"When he thought he reached his peak, he tripped up," says Spirit.

Yet, for all the adversity, Spirit feels like the documentary leaves audiences with a sense of optimism.

"It doesn't matter where you come from or where you start out, if you've got a goal in mind it will happen," says Spirit. "That's what Spencer did."

Full Court is currently showing at the Seattle Film Festival.