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It’s an overstatement to say that the NBA as we know it wouldn’t exist without the pioneering work of Spencer Haywood, but not by much. The Supreme Court helped, too.

Forty years ago, Haywood became the first player to leave college early and go to the pros. Just after completing his sophomore year at the University of Detroit, Haywood signed with the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association.

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At the time, this just looked like one more publicity stunt by a fledgling league that had resorted all kinds of garish promotions and publicity stunts—think bikini-clad ball girls—to bolster attendance, which all too often was in the hundreds rather than thousands. But Haywood had game. And in his sophomore year at the University of Detroit, he averaged 32.1 points and 22.1 rebounds per game. The year before, as part of the U.S. basketball team, he won Olympic gold. Haywood quickly silenced the first wave of doubters who thought that, at 20, he was too young to hoop against the pros. He scored 30 points and grabbed 19.5 rebounds per game, leading Denver into the ABA playoffs. He was also a standout in the all-star game, scoring 23 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. He was named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

At the time, the NBA had a rule against drafting players whose college classes had yet to graduate. The association didn't particularly care if a player himself graduated just as long as he spent four years in the collegiate ranks. Yet, at the same time, the association was undergoing rapid expansion; some of the new teams were eager to fill their ranks with talent like Haywood. After his standout debut season in Denver, the Buffalo Braves (the team now known as the Los Angeles Clippers) drafted Haywood in the second round, 30th pick. They then traded his draft rights to the Seattle Supersonics.

The NBA and several teams argued immediately that the pick was illegal, but the Sonics and their owner, Sam Schulman, launched an anti-trust suit against the league, arguing that the rules were a violation of the Sherman Act. As a restraint of trade, they prohibited Haywood from making a living. The case dragged on well into the ’70-’71 season, and it ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which upheld lower court rulings in favor of the Sonics and Haywood.

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As a result of the case, the NBA changed its rules to allow for hardship entry into the draft, if a collegiate player could prove that the income from playing in the NBA was necessary to his family. The pretense was dropped in 1976, and all underclassmen were allowed into the draft. (This was modified four years ago, and now players must be 19 to be eligible for the NBA draft.)

After the ruling, Haywood was able to join the Sonics. His rookie NBA season proved that he was well worth the wait. In 33 games, he averaged 20.6 points and 12 rebounds per game. He was an all-star in each of the next four NBA seasons; his best campaign came in ’72-’73 when he averaged 29.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per contest. He helped define the power forward position in the early ‘70s.

In 1975, Haywood was traded to New York, where his flamboyant style proved a perfect match for Gotham’s bright lights—he even married Iman. (They divorced in 1987.) But the glamorous life had its downside. As he relates in his autobiography, Spencer Haywood: The Rise, The Fall, The Recovery (Amistad), he was introduced to cocaine while playing in New York City. It took a toll on his game. Later in his career, he was traded several times. He won a championship ring with the Los Angles Lakers in 1980; he drifted, playing in Italy for two years before finishing his career with the Washington Bullets in 1983.

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His career might have ended on a whimper, but Haywood’s influence goes much deeper than his breakthrough season. If Haywood had played in the NBA at a mediocre level, it would have confirmed the conventional wisdom that collegiate and ABA players weren’t as good as those in the NBA. Instead, Haywood was an all-star right away ,and it opened the door for others to follow.

There is justifiable ambivalence about players arriving into the pros at such an early age. Every basketball fan can name five players who entered the NBA too soon, players who would have been better served by using extended collegiate play to either work on their game or just to grow up. But the rules demanding that every player spend four years in college were arbitrary. With the notable exception of San Antonio pivotman Tim Duncan and Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, nearly every leading NBA player today arrived in the league without completing four years of college. They owe Haywood a big thank you for jumpstarting their careers.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter