41 years ago today, Spencer Haywood was probably thinking about how he would celebrate the upcoming anniversary of his successful lawsuit against the NBA. Maybe he was thinking about some jazz music in his beautiful apartment overlooking Downtown Seattle, or having a few friends over, some good food, or perhaps just a toast to the fact that a young black man from the rural South had knocked off those high-priced NBA lawyers.
What he surely wasn’t thinking was how the unending Seattle rains were going to seriously screw up all that he had won in that contentious lawsuit.
It was Sunday, March 5, 1972. President Richard Nixon had just completed his historic trip to China and the Sonics were gearing up to cruise into the NBA Playoffs for the first time in the team’s history. Entering play that Sunday the Sonics had won 12 of their last 14 games. They hadn’t lost at home in more than a month; their quest with Golden State for second spot in the Pacific Division was a tough one, but certainly attainable. With the dismal Atlanta Hawks in town the only question was whether the Sonics would use the opportunity to nudge Golden State aside.
As always, it was raining like crazy in Seattle (more than 20 inches of rain had fallen since the beginning of the year, and a torrential rain storm on Sunday didn’t help matters), and it was dripping again inside the Seattle Center Coliseum, but that’s just how it was in Seattle, right? Okay, they were starting to call the place “The Leaky Tepee” and “The World’s Largest Shower Bath,” but, after all, the city had spent north of $100,000 to caulk the 6,000 aluminum panels that made up the roof of the building, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, really.
Well, it became a big deal. A very big deal.
That Sunday was an especially leaky day at the tepee (so much so that no fewer than five ball boys were on hand to mop up the puddles), but as any Seattleite with a basement will tell you, there’s only so much you can do when you’re fighting water.
A mere six minutes into the first period Haywood was headed down the court on a fast break when his left foot and a massive puddle at half-court greeted one another. The result?
A stretched right medial collateral ligation in Haywood’s leg.
Amazingly, game reports glossed over Haywood’s injury. “Not expected to be serious,” the AP said, focusing more of its efforts on the broken ring finger of Sonic Captain Dick Snyder – suffered in a fall during the same game. More amazingly, the Sonics had beaten the Hawks, putting them into a tie with the Warriors for second place. Playoffs, here we come!
Two days later, though, the news was grim: Haywood was out for the season. Playoffs, there we go.
Suffice it to say the Sonics did not rebound well from seeing Haywood (26 ppg) and Snyder (16 ppg) sidelined. The Seattle dropped eight of their final nine games, putting them a full four games behind Golden State in the road to the playoffs.
Worse, the leak further poisoned the relationship between the city and the team. A week after the incident, the Sonics had filed a claim against Seattle for “gross negligence” in not repairing the leaky roof. Eventually, the Sonics and Haywood would enjoin to ask the city for more than $400,000 for the injury (roughly $280,000 for Spencer, $162,000 for the Supes), although the parties would settle for a lesser amount (according to one account, Haywood got about $50,000).
“After many requests and complaints about the leaks in the roof, which not only make the playing surface of the basketball floor unsafe but also brings great discomfort for our fans,” team owner Sam Schulman said in a statement. “I am very bitter that I find it is necessary to make an issue every time I need assistance from officials.”
A spokesman for the team even implied that the fiasco was causing the Sonics to think seriously about leaving the Coliseum, perhaps to that nifty domed facility the county was working on (something the team wound up doing just a few years later, before returning to the Coliseum in the 1980s, then onto KeyArena, then onto … I’ll just stop now).
Luckily for Spencer Haywood, the injury did not turn out to be career-ending. After finishing in the top five in scoring in 1971-72, Haywood returned the next year and averaged 29 points per game, earning him four votes for MVP and a top-ten finish in the voting, and 10.2 win shares, both of which would be career highs for him, certifying that while the injury may have hurt his health in the long run, it certainly didn’t hurt it in the short run.
(Information gathered from: Associated Press, The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists, UPI, and The Rise, the Fall, The Recovery, by Spencer Haywood and Scott Ostler).