The sports documentary of quick rises, inevitable falls and redemption gets a brief workout in Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story, a moderately involving look at a man who helped shape the course of the NBA and those who aspire to play in the league on their own terms.
For those, as I was, unfamiliar with Haywood’s accomplishments on and off the court, Haywood himself brings viewers up to speed with stories of his family’s struggles as sharecroppers and cotton pickers in Silver City, Mississippi, and the heroics that would lead him to a life of fame and substantial earnings. This means covering a high school basketball championship, record-setting performance with the USA gold-medal-winning Olympic team, league-leading achievements in the ABA and NBA, and an era-defining court battle. Early in the film, Haywood walks through a cotton field while sharing what life was like for him, his siblings and a hard-working mother who had to raise and provide for them after her husband died. Those trying circumstances end up being the catalyst that leads him to contest the NBA’s rule that a player had to be four years out of high school before joining the league.
When Haywood’s not doing the talking, Chuck D (of Public Enemy) provides additional narration, guiding us through the adversity, racism, second chances and self-destructive behavior that marked Haywood’s life through the early 1980s. Though along the way we stop at a junior college in Colorado, the University of Detroit and the gold-medal winning Olympic basketball team of 1968, Haywood’s professional days begin in 1969 with the American Basketball Association’s Denver Rockets and a headline-grabbing contract that wasn’t what the press made it out to be. Realizing this, Haywood would go on to sign with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, a move that led him to spend, as he puts it, “more time in court than on court” in his first year because of that NBA rule. His landmark challenge would ultimately go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
When Haywood’s addiction to cocaine and freebasing around the mid-’70s comes to light, the documentary becomes less about Haywood’s failings than his misfortune at not having a mentor of the type he could rely on throughout his career up to that point. What we don’t get is much in the way of reflection from Haywood, who repeatedly labels cocaine as “demonic,” framing it as an outside force he had to battle, rather than one from within. One ex-teammate opines that drugs were probably Haywood’s way of coping with the court battle that prefaced his professional career, and Haywood appears to agree with that assessment, but it feels far from a definitive statement on that part of his life.
Famous faces—coaches Lenny Wilkins and Pat Riley, players Charles Barkley and Bill Bradley, and sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards—testify to Haywood’s greatness as a player and to the importance of his perseverance. Edwards frames the social significance of Haywood’s court victory, while Barkley emphasizes the debt that all future NBA players owe to Haywood. Haywood himself indulges a bit in his accomplishments, and his narration comes off a bit too practiced. But he earns goodwill through being friendly and soft-spoken, and if he’s enamored of his own achievements, he has good reason to be.
Chuck D’s admiration for Haywood (at one point, he shares sketches he made of his childhood hero holding a basketball) is typical of the overall tone. Both he and Haywood rattle off plenty of references to statistics and on-court achievements that are meant to impress. Director Martin Spirit serves as curator of that tone, perhaps at the cost of a deeper look into Haywood’s development and personal struggles. Full Court is, as documentaries go, conventionally conceived and presented, to the point that it may be fair to call it a bit dull. It makes one wish Spirit had brought Haywood into conversation with Edwards, whose lifelong career in studying sports, race and U.S. culture might have elicited some fresh perspectives and insights.
Director: Martin Spirit
Screenwriter: Kim Clemmons
Starring: Spencer Haywood, Chuck D., Dr. Harry Edwards, Lenny Wilkins, Pat Riley
Release date: Premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival