Sometimes it takes stepping back, slipping away, getting another perspective, to make someone appreciate what he has and, often, what he has lost.
A year ago, Spencer Haywood was in exile in Europe, playing basketball in Venice, watching National Basketball Association games on television and wondering whether he ever could recapture the past.
Now, after 55 games with the Washington Bullets, the teen-aged phenomenon of the late 1960s has reestablished himself as an offensive force, a valuable scoring leader on a team fighting for the playoffs.
Over the weekend, the 32-year-old forward twice led his team to victories, with 27- and 24-point performances. He said yesterday he is confident he can continue that pace tonight when New Jersey visits Capital Centre (WTOP-1500, 8:05).
"I really feel part of the team now," he said, sitting on a stage at Bowie State College after a two-hour practice. "At first I was reluctant to assert myself. I didn't want to upset anyone, step on anybody's toes. I wanted everyone to feel comfortable around me.
"I felt I had to earn the respect of the coach and my teammates, and I think I've done that now. I learned a lot being away from the league for a year."
In retrospect, Haywood admits that playing for Carrea in the Italian League last season, where he says he was the leading scorer and the league's most valuable player, changed his thinking and made him a better person.
"Europe turned out to be a very positive thing for me," he said. "It took me out of my normal environment. Italians have a different way of life. They accept everybody for what they are. There is no segregation over there, everyone is treated the same. They don't look at things as black and white.
"Over there I became more conscious of the fans, how important an autograph can be, and I tried to be more considerate of them. Basketball is a great release for me. For awhile there, I wasn't positive about the game anymore. People would ask me if I was a basketball player and I would answer, 'No, I'm a human being,' that sort of thing."
Haywood always was a superstar, from his days at Pershing High School in Detroit, to all-America honors at the University of Detroit, to the 1968 Olympics, to his first season in the now-defunct American Basketball Association. At 19, he was named rookie of the year and most valuable player after averaging 30 points a game.
"I always was one of the best," Haywood said when asked about his early days as a player. "The best five in high school, the best five in college, the best five in the pros. People start catering to you, and it's easy to lose touch with reality. You can become very unaware of other people."
"But once I got away from the NBA, I realized how much I missed it. I'd watch the games on TV over there, and I knew I could still play. But it still had to be the right situation."
Haywood's world fell apart when he was suspended indefinitely from the Los Angeles Lakers during the championship series of 1980. He showed up late to practices, fell asleep once during stretching exercises and finally got into a shouting match with teammate Jim Chones after the second game against Philadelphia.
Admittedly shattered by the snub, he sought solace abroad. He says the year in Europe provided the mental stimulation he needed to come back and prove, once again, that he can play basketball with the best in the world.
"I very much mistrusted the NBA when I was in Venice," he said. "I wasn't bitter anymore. I had gotten over that, that was the first thing I went through. But I wasn't just going to come back in any type of situation.
"I could have been here at this time last year. The Bullets talked to me and it was all worked out in January, but I was reluctant. I knew when I came back, I wanted it to be in a really good situation, with a good coach and good people.
"I knew the Bullets wanted me, so I called around. I talked to my good friend, Earl Monroe, because he had been with the Bullets and knew (Coach Gene) Shue and (General Manager Bob) Ferry. All reports I got were that they were honest, straight-up, folksy people.
"I wasn't coming back if I couldn't trust the people. I played in New York and Los Angeles and dealt with a lot of high-powered people before. I wanted to go somewhere where I could build up a trust. This summer I spent about four hours with Shue in Philadelphia, just talking. I walked out of that meeting feeling that I would be coming to Washington."
Elvin Hayes practically had been given away to Houston for a pair of second-round draft choices, and once Mitch Kupchak signed with Los Angeles, the Bullets were without an experienced power forward. In training camp, Greg Ballard was tried at the position, but near the end of the exhibition season, Shue knew he needed help.
Between games of a preseason doubleheader at Capital Centre Oct. 24, Haywood, just off a plane from Italy, was introduced to the press as the newest Bullet.
"I'm going to judge Spencer on what he can do for us," Shue said at the time. "I know he's had some terrific problems, but that's in the past. Sometimes it's good to get a player after a setback. He really wants back in the NBA, and I think he'll work hard to stay here."
Now Haywood is averaging 10.5 points and 5.2 rebounds, and has made 49 percent of his shots. His last two games, however, have been particularly encouraging to Shue.
"I've been after Spencer to look for his shot more, and he's finally doing it," the coach said. "We need him to become more involved in the offense. The more weapons you have, the better off you'll be. We're starting to run more plays for him now, and that will take the heat off of Ballard."
Now that he is scoring 20 points a game again--his career average is 20.5--and is in the type of atmosphere he enjoys, Haywood says he is as content as he has been in a long time.
"I just want to blend in now," he said with a huge grin. "My wife always told me, 'It's not your world, Spencer,' but I never really listened to her until recently."