As the improving Bullets prepare for their first game of 1982, undoubtedly the most surprising development thus far in the season has been the comeback of Spencer Haywood.
The fact that the 32-year-old forward is even in the National Basketball Association has to rank as one of the league's biggest upsets.
The fact that he is a starting forward on the youth-oriented Bullets and providing them with consistent scoring is, unquestionably, the comeback story of the year.
On New Year's Day two years ago, Haywood was starting for the Los Angeles Lakers, who would go on to win the world championship in May. At this time last year, however, he was wandering around Europe, wondering if he would ever get another opportunity to play in the NBA.
Despite a career scoring average of 20.5, this 6-foot-9 former all-star was ignored by 23 teams and wound up playing in Italy last year. Given what he believed to be his last chance to play in this country by Gene Shue, Haywood has responded even beyond the expectations of his coach.
"Spencer has been terrific, not only on the court but in the locker room," Shue said before leaving for Indianapolis for tonight's game with the Pacers (WTOP-1500 at 7:35).
"His attitude has been excellent," the coach continued. "He has had a very positive effect on the other players. On the bus ride to the Milwaukee game, he said the party was on him if we won. I can't remember the last time I heard a player say that."
Haywood has been able to assert himself more recently because he finally seems to performing up to his capabilities. In his last four games, he has averaged 18 points and six rebounds, making 28 of 44 shots (64 percent).
"Ability was never a problem," Haywood said. "I know I can still play. It was just a mental thing with me. I had to convince myself and convince others that I can still play.
"I've gotten wonderful support from the Bullets' organization," he continued. "(General Manager) Bob Ferry has talked to me a lot, given me a lot of encouragement and so has Coach Shue. He's spend a little extra time with me and now it's beginning to pay off."
With Haywood giving the team an early offensive lift (he scored 10 of his 20 points against Milwaukee in the first half when the Bucks concentrated on shutting down Greg Ballard), the Bullets have won three of their last four games.
"Between Spencer and Jeff (Ruland), we're getting incredible statistics at the big-forward spot," said Shue, referring to Ruland's 12-point scoring average as a part-timer. "One of these days, you're going to see them playing together. Spencer is playing much better than he was. He feels settled in now and is used to what we're doing. I expect him to get even better offensively."
If Haywood can continue the 18-point a game pace he has achieved over the past two weeks and Ballard maintains his 19-point average, the Bullets will have enough scoring from their starting forward to become a playoff contender in l982.
The Bullets have split two games with the Pacers, losing, 92-90, in the final seconds Nov. 28 at Capital Centre and winning, 115-98, at home Christmas Day. In both games, Rick Mahorn was the scoring leader, including a season-high 26 points last week . . . Indiana's top scorer is guard Johnny Davis, with a 16.3 average . . . Rookie Herb Williams is sixth in the league in blocked shots with 2.29 a game . . . When the Pacers visited Capital Centre Dec. 25, they had won 10 of their previous 14, but since then they have lost three of four.