Tall, Dark and Handsome: That's L.A. Laker Spencer Haywood and His Wife, the Model Iman

updated 04/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1980 01:00AM

Like most couples, model Iman and Los Angeles Laker basketball forward Spencer Haywood were drawn together by a mix of attractions. "Initially, I suppose it was sexual," says Iman, "but there was always something going on intellectually and culturally." They also shared an uncommon bond—knowing what it's like to have a blemished public image.

In a troubled 11-year career, Haywood, 30, has been booed for seemingly indifferent performances, labeled "Spencer Deadwood" in one New York paper and has even watched angry opponents walk off in protest against his legal battles with the National Basketball Association.

Iman, 24, who was brought to America in 1975 by photographer Peter Beard (before he latched on to Cheryl Tiegs), endured—and abetted—the hoax that she had been discovered herding cattle in the African bush. "No, Peter did not find me swinging from a tree," Iman admits, although at the time she claimed her family "moved from place to place by camels every three months." Now she confesses, "My parents are retired, but my father was a Somalian diplomat and my mother a gynecologist. I was educated in Catholic boarding schools and I speak five languages."

The stunt launched her career spectacularly. Since then, Iman has appeared on numerous Vogue and Harper's Bazaar covers and is co-starring in Otto Preminger's thriller The Human Factor. ("I took one look at myself in the film and went out and hired an acting coach," she winces.) She's also adapted to some problems of American civilization. "I will never forget the first time I tried to get a taxi at night in New York, only to be ignored because I was black," she says. "It took a long time to realize that being angry at fools was a waste of time."

Haywood's problems also have an international background. He led the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, then quit the University of Detroit after his sophomore year to turn pro. ("Bitter? You bet I'm bitter," griped the dean of student affairs, Fred Shadrick.) It was then an illegal move under pro rules designed to keep college athletes in school. But Haywood persisted and won a landmark "hardship case" court ruling.

"I wanted to begin earning money so I could get my mother off her knees," Haywood explains. "I was the eighth of 10 children, and my father, who was a carpenter, died the month before I was born. My mother was still down in Mississippi picking cotton." He signed with Denver of the American Basketball Association; then, after being named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player his first season, he jumped that team in a contract dispute.

"The Rockets announced I had a $1.9 million contract," he recalls, "but I found I was getting $100,000 a year and the rest amortized over 20 years. I felt they should give me the $1.9 million and let me invest it." Haywood moved to the Seattle SuperSonics of the rival NBA, instigating lawsuits of Byzantine complexity. "In Baltimore and elsewhere, the whole team walked off the court each time I came in because they thought I was ineligible and thus the game wouldn't count," he remembers. "Only a few players in the league like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton would talk to me."

Haywood finally won the right to play with the Sonics. But he tired of being on what was then a mediocre team and became an ex-local hero when he referred to Seattle as "a backwater." After asking coach Bill Russell to trade him, Haywood ended up with the New York Knicks in 1975. "The first question I was asked by a reporter was, 'Are you going to save the team?' " he recalls. "I answered 'yes' without considering the implications. What was I supposed to say, 'No, I don't care about the team'?"

That set the stage for a self-described "miserable" stay in New York, during which Haywood was blamed for the failure of a fatcat Knick team. As Haywood's scoring average, once 29.2, plummeted to 13.7 in 1977-78, his reputation grew as a clubhouse lawyer given to bad-mouthing coaches and teammates alike.

At the same time, but with considerably less publicity, Haywood continued to work with underprivileged children and to coach younger teammates. He acquired a few defenders. Jim Hill, a black sports reporter with KNXT in Los Angeles, says, "Haywood cares about people. And he isn't dumb. Most jocks, if you tell them to run through a brick wall, they'll try it. Spencer wants to know why you can't run around the wall. This doesn't always make him popular with coaches."

Haywood was traded to New Orleans in January 1979 and finally to Los Angeles in September. He went into this spring's playoffs, at last, with a legitimate contender. Says Iman, who met Spencer through a mutual friend in 1976 and married him a year later in a Muslim mosque in Manhattan, "I liked him because he is a man with strong basic values." Iman, whose full name is Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, was a poli-sci major at the University of Nairobi when Beard "discovered" her. She finished her degree at New York University in 1978. "Spencer is very cosmopolitan," she adds, "although he comes from humble beginnings and remembers that."

"We went to school six months a year and picked cotton the other six," says Haywood of growing up in Silver City, Miss. (pop. 400). When he was 15, an older brother arranged for him to attend a Detroit high school that had better academic and sports facilities. He lived with a family who "kept me busy and out of trouble." He went on to tiny Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, the University of Detroit and the Olympics. There, after the furor over the fist-clenched protest by black U.S. track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Haywood got on the award stand and, he recalls, "I raised my hand in excitement. People thought I was an activist."

Nowadays he makes "over $300,000" a year and Iman up to $3,000 a day. They live in a rented eight-room house in Laurel Canyon, where a nurse tends to their daughter, Zulekha, almost 2; her name means "precious" in Somali. "It is up to black families in America to see that their children are educated in their own cultural background," Iman says. "The children aren't going to learn it in school. I don't want my child to think Africa is all Tarzan and Jane."

As for the future, she notes that "our careers, his playing and my modeling, have a time element." She's working on a book of African stories for children (with kibitzing by friend Alex Haley), modeling for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris and Calvin Klein here. She would like to continue acting. Spencer's interests are divided among broadcasting—he had radio jazz and talk shows in Seattle and New York—a shopping mall he owns in Utah, and developing programs which he subsidizes to encourage kids to stay in school. ("I used to have a much harder edge," he admits, "always pointing out racial problems and causing people to feel guilty about them. I've learned that's not the way to handle the situation.")

They spend perhaps 50 percent of their time apart because of Spencer's road trips and Iman's modeling tours (she sometimes takes the baby with her), but they seem quite secure as a couple. "We both have a very full life," she says. "I do not question Spencer about what he does on the road and he does not question me." Adds Haywood, "I had 10 years to get that out of my system."

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