BY: TIFFANY TRIPP
Saturday night, my twitter timeline was set ablaze as the Utah Jazz played the Boston Celtics. Much of the fiery discourse centered around Gordon Hayward (or Haywood, depending on who you ask). Fans of both teams have every reason to be concerned with how the Celtics forward is performing, with one being his former team’s fan-base—a fan-base that feels slighted and betrayed by his departure—and the other a base whose team doled out a max contract to sign him. His decision to leave the Jazz to sign with the Celtics has created a bona fide rivalry, the likes of which we don’t see very often over just one player.
It’s been an interesting year and half for me on NBA Twitter, as a fan of both the Jazz and Celtics. I remember the anxious feeling I got when fans at TD Garden cheered for Hayward while he was still with the Jazz, irking both Jazz fans and now Jazz man Jae Crowder, who was a Celtics starter at that time. Things started to sizzle a little more when news of Hayward’s top free agency destinations broke. The Utah Jazz, the Miami Heat, and the Boston Celtics were reported to be his favored choices.
Jazz nation gave an incredibly heartfelt plea for his return, with a billboard campaign, Twitter and Instagram videos and hashtags, and more. We were hell bent on winning him back and showing our loyalty. I was at the closing game of the season that year, where after the final buzzer we all chanted his name as the players left the floor. The jumbotron zoomed in on him waving back at us gratefully, and though my fellow Jazz fans may deny it now, I could’ve sworn I saw tears in his eyes.
I Was Supposed to be at a Barbecue
July 4th, 2017 will represent more than Independence Day in Utah for a long time. The tweet came through late that morning, if I remember correctly, that Hayward had made his decision and was signing with the Boston Celtics. Mere minutes later, contradictory tweets sprang forth like 4th of July fireworks saying that he had not, in fact, made his decision yet. We all sat and waited for what felt like an eternity, and then final word came that the original signing news was accurate.
That, in a nutshell, summarizes the primary reason Jazz fans were so hurt by Hayward’s departure. It didn’t just feel like losing your team’s star. It felt like deception; betrayal even. He could’ve cleared up the confusion by instructing his camp to issue an official statement, we fumed. It seemed he left us in limbo so he could control how the announcement was made, knowing we were agonizing over that first tweet. To be perfectly frank, it felt like he didn’t care one lick about the fans who gave him a home and lovingly watched him go from pre-serum Steve Rogers to Captain America during his seven year tenure here.
Jazz nation’s social media presence was as incendiary as I’d ever seen it, and though I mourned alongside them at the uncertainty and potentially ominous future facing our team, I worked hard the next few months to be at peace with it. “Haywood”—a nickname bestowed as a jab at some Boston fans for allegedly barely knowing his name—had left the Jazz high and dry, but he was now playing for my other favorite team and would be reunited with his college coach, Brad Stevens…whom I adore. I had to find a way to be okay with it all while remaining loyal to both teams and my fellow fans. As I previously stated, it’s been one hell of a year, and I still haven’t perfected any of it. When I see my twitter friends feuding, my maternal instincts kick in and I tend to lecture them about it. I’m working on that.
Celtics fans were rightfully perturbed that Gordo’s previous team’s fans were gunning for him, as most loyal fans would be. Despite feeling similarly about Ray Allen leaving for the Miami Heat in 2012, a large part of being a fan is having your current star players’ backs; especially when it’s their former fanbase throwing the shade. This free agency debate is a tradition older than NBA twitter, and I would wager it will outlive twitter altogether. Some of us will probably always be burning jerseys we paid good money for—jerseys we could just as easily donate or sell, but that’s beside the point—and the rest of us will watch the videos of memorabilia being burned in effigy and either be laughing or editorializing about how immature and petty it is.
Lord Carry Him Now
I won’t get into the details of Hayward’s gruesome injury and season long recovery, as it was a regular topic in the NBA news cycle for the better part of the last year, but it’s safe to say watching him go through that made most Celtics fans even more protective of him. It even gave my struggle to be at peace with his move some finality, as I found myself shrieking and immediately in tears when he went down. He was no longer just the guy who’d hurt my beloved home team and its fans, he was a part of my cherished Celtics and he needed all the fan support he could get.
As someone who has never had an injury of that nature, I can literally only imagine how slow and daunting—and probably discouraging, at times—the rehabilitation process was for Gordon. We as fans got little tidbits of encouragement that it was going well in the form of tweets, blog posts, and videos. We tried to remain optimistic as we heard quotes like “he still has a little hitch in his giddy-up”, and we hoped with all our hearts we’d see the all-star version of Gordon Hayward step onto the court this season. That version of him could still very well appear, but it’s looking like our waiting period will be a little longer.
Hayward is currently averaging 9.8 points per game and is shooting just under 40% from the field (on an average of only 9 field-goal attempts), with an offensive rating of 103; less than stellar numbers for a maximum contract player. Both Jazz fans and Celtics fans have taken note (insert rim shot gif here) of his lackluster production; with the former feeling somewhat vindicated, and the latter starting to nervously wonder if we’ll ever see “2016 Gordon Hayward” again. A few important things to remember, though, when judging how Mr. Haywood is looking this year: he’s playing an average of 27 minutes with his usage rate being at 18.2%, compared to his all-star season (22 pts/3 assists/5 rebounds/approached 50-40-90 shooting/118 offensive rating) wherein his usage rate was 28% and he played an average of 35 minutes.
It’s clear to anyone who is looking objectively that he is being utilized differently, both because of the injury and because of Coach Stevens’ talent pool and approach; but that hasn't stopped his sub-par display from adding fuel to the already smoldering exchange about his value as a player. There is much for both the coaching staff and the players to figure out, and how to best utilize Hayward is a large part of that.
The Celtics are only 17 games into the season (9-8), but every win is precious come April when we’re staring in the face of playoff seeding. It’s time to buckle down and play tough basketball, with the sense of urgency befitting a team who could soon see their clear path to the Eastern Conference finals slipping away. Will we see all-star Gordon Hayward resurface and be a key component of a finals contender? As much as Celtics fans would love a crystal ball to tell them the answer, only time will tell.
To read more about the Celtics’ puzzling start to the season, read my friend James Holas’ piece here.
Stay tuned for part two of this mini-series, where I will interview fans from both ends of the Hayward debate!