Thursday, April 25, 2019
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Gordon Hayward of Celtics was hollowed out by mutilated jazz fans on his return and gave both sides the closure they needed

SALT LAKE CITY – When Gordon Hayward stepped out of the changing room of the Vivint Smart Home Arena on Friday evening, through the tunnel to warm up to the floor, the Boos fell down in front of the fans.

Each time he touched the ball in warm-up, the boos came back. The Boos came when Hayward's Boston Celtics jogged to the ground before the jump, Hayward the last to come out. They came the loudest when his name was announced during the launch. The sold out crowd of 18,306 – including a fan who plays an old Utah Jazz No. 20 on the nameplate was "COWARD" instead of "HAYWARD" – so loud you could not even hear his name.

They bored every time he got the ball. They booked when he checked into the game. They booed when he left the game. They booed when he took a shot (though, to be fair, one could also make out scattered applause). They applauded in the first quarter when Hayward collided with his former teammate Joe Ingles in the middle of the court and fell to the ground. She burst out laughing as Hayward flew an open jumper from close range in the second quarter.

And in the last minute of the fourth quarter, when the jazz had finally pulled away from the 123-115 win, Hayward went to the free throw line. And the jazz fans sang in unison how they really felt about Hayward, 16 months after he had rejected the franchise in the small bright lights market of the Boston Celtics.


"I was expecting something like that," Hayward said with a shrug of his first game in town, where he spent the first seven years of his career. "It's part of the game, they booed me from the start, even warming up, every time I touched the ball while warming up, I got booed, it was kinda weird, but when you're in the game, that do not worry, this species disappears. "

When Hayward left Utah, the pain of jazz fans was strong. By the time Hayward had become a star, jazz had come from a successor to the NBA, a team that had missed the playoffs in five out of six years, including a season in which they had won only 25 games The 51 games won a playoff series in his final season.

Then he went. Utah, an underdog place at first, felt shabby. He could have been the face of the franchise in the city where his first child was born. Instead, he went somewhere else. He did not like a simple business decision. it felt personal. Some jazz fans performed the bizarre 21st-century sports cleansing ritual, pouring gasoline over a Hayward jazz jersey and then posting it on social media.

As the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Weisel once wrote: "The opposite of love is not hatred, it is indifference."

Utah's feelings towards Gordon Hayward and the way they quickly changed from adoration to antipathy showed that.

And then the most unusual thing happened.

A charismatic boy named Donovan Mitchell moved to the city.

And the Utah Jazz moved on.

The jersey-burning ritual belongs as much to the modern sport as the emotional return play. It's something a star player has to go through when leaving a place he once called home. When LeBron left Cleveland for the first time, the fans burned their jerseys, and then the Cavaliers moved from a 61-win team that made the Eastern Conference semi-final a 19-win team. When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, the fans burned his jerseys and the Thunder turned from a 55-victory team that made the Western Conference final to a 47-win team that lost in the first round. When Shaq left Orlando, it was too early for the Social Media Performative jersey burning ritual, but the Magic turned from a 60-win team making the Eastern Conference finals to a 45-win team that bounced in the first round.

That does not mean that Hayward was equal to these players.

But the way he dropped Utah made the emotions feel the same.

After Hayward left, the jazz turned from a 51-win team to the Western Conference semi-final to a … 48-win team that made the Western Conference semi-finals.

Basically the same team.

Only with a new, younger, more explosive and charismatic star player at the helm.

"I do not think you can dispute the timing," David Locke, spokesperson for jazz play-by-play radio, told me why Mitchell has so revitalized jazz and its fans. "Our hearts were ripped out and trampled in. Gordon's emigration crowded into the fanbase, and not only did Gordon leave, he went a little heartless, without a thank-you, without acknowledging a commitment, without." to mention a teammate in his Player Tribune Items. The fan base felt as if they had just been used. So this boy came to him with that joy and excitement even before he played great last year. Return to the Summer League right after Gordon leaves, and the crowd is already connected to him. There is a timing that was perfect here. "

Even though jazz fans felt compelled to spy on the Boos on Friday night, it did not feel like the Boos were so angry. It was almost as if this was a rite for jazz fans. Sure, they were deeply hurt when Hayward left last year. Since then things have changed. They still felt compelled to take him out as if that was what was expected of them, but the feelings were not so raw. Jazz had moved on with a new star. And there was the empathy that Hayward's cruel leg injury from last season brought in his first game for his new team.

"It's been a long time," said jazz head coach Quin Snyder. "It was long ago."

What it felt like on Friday night was less an angry depiction of the fandom than a reconnection between two former lovers – two people who had spent some great hours together each day, but who both had moved on and who had done both will be better off ,

"We all lived a kind of homecoming," said Brad Stevens, Celtics head coach. "Everybody handles it the way it handles it, I think it can get easier and easier over time, but the first time is always a bit unique."

And so grinned Hayward in the warm-up, as the fans exploited him. He grinned during the introduction. He was not grinning at the game itself – he was too focused on his work – but he grinned as he talked about it in interviews after the game. This was still a place that gave him a warm feeling.

"I spent seven years here," he said. "I've built some really great relationships, maybe I was a bit scared, just bustling with the whole thing. (But) I grew up here and came as a beginner married, had a few kids, had one of them here, just a lot nice memories here, the biggest one was the process we started, we were not very well in the playoffs until my final year of winning this round. "

The cameras shut down, and Hayward walked to a VIP lounge inside the arena before heading for the team bus. Hayward hugged the head of public relations for jazz and chatted. Hayward's wife, who was pregnant with her third child, referred her husband to a guard he had been with and Hayward went over and hugged him.

The emotions were complicated. But for a moment, it felt like Gordon Hayward was back home.


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