A funny thing happened on the way to TD Garden for Gordon Hayward, most of it involving his hair. When he came into the league, Hayward rocked the floppy, unkempt locks of the scrappy Butler Bulldog aesthetic. “I just did Great Clips,” he says in a room above the Celtics’ training facility outside Boston, seeming almost wistful about his days frequenting the ho-hum barber shop chain. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The Celtics’ prized acquisition—coming off a banner year in which he was selected to his first All-Star team, averaged a career-high 21.9 points and led the Jazz to the second round of the playoffs—is a self-professed humble guy in a not-so-humble sport.
It was his wife, Robyn, who has powered his fashion makeover. She found Josh Pereira at Titletown Barbers in suburban Natick, Massachusetts, on Instagram. “We really try to go for the European look for him,” Pereira says of Hayward’s signature, shaved-on-the-sides style.
Pereira styled that before Hayward’s first joint Celtics press conference with Kyrie Irving.
Hayward is now a regular customer. “In a matter of two weeks, I probably cut his hair three times,” Pereira said.
As the season approaches and the spotlight dangling over his career turns on, Hayward is going to need to pay even more attention to the sartorial.
There will be nationally televised games, complete with tracking shots of him wandering through the tunnels of arenas across America, playoff expectations and the opportunity to play next to an NBA champion, thanks to one of the most high-profile, scrutinized trades in recent NBA history.
What’s he going to do when he hits the tunnel, live on TNT? “I’m not a huge, flashy person, so I’m not gonna pull some Russell Westbrook stuff,” he says. “But I do want to make sure I look good.”
Gordon Hayward’s free-agent move was agonizing, and he’s still transporting his life 2,400 miles east. He took a private plane this time, befitting his status as a nine-figure franchise player. But Hayward’s first big move, from sleepy Indiana to equally sleepy Salt Lake City, Utah, was done by car. He and his dad packed all his stuff into a tiny vehicle and drove it to his new home, where he’d blossom into an All-Star as a member of the Jazz. There, he grew close to not only his coaches and fellow players, but to the city of Salt Lake.
Thanks to the relatively small size of the city, Jazz fans in Salt Lake feel a closeness with their players that’s rare in the NBA today. The plucky squad led by Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Joe Johnson and Joe Ingles became beloved thanks to an improbable run to the second round of the playoffs last year. The juicy temptation to run it back with the same exciting young core was there in the back of Hayward’s mind, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from joining his Butler coach, Brad Stevens, in Boston.
Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge, who had been hoping to coax Hayward away from Utah for some time, recalls the excitement in the air when he finally committed. “We know how much lots of other teams in the league wanted him,” he tells B/R Mag. “We know how much he liked Utah and he’d become such a great player there. To convince him that this would be a great place for him in his career, with an opportunity to win. We were very excited.”
The weeks that led up to his announcement were some of the most trying of his career. He’d flown under the radar for years, just how he liked it. “I’m not like a super flashy ‘Snapchat everything I do and see and Instagram story’ type person,” he says. But this time, he couldn’t lay low; not when everyone in the basketball universe was wondering where he’d end up. “That was definitely an adjustment, to see myself on SportsCenter. For whatever reason, the Jazz get the shaft a lot when it comes to national attention.”
Any time a player leaves a city, there’s heartbreak and disappointment, but this situation is even more fraught with hurt feelings. The Jazz were moving up, carving out a place for a small-market team in the superteam-infested waters of the Western Conference. Now, the Jazz are back to rebuilding, swapping George Hill for Ricky Rubio, losing Hayward and leaving Rudy Gobert the lone star in town.
In the wake of Hayward’s decision, Gobert let his unhappiness show on social media. As of September 15th, when Hayward was interviewed, the former teammates had gone radio silent. “I have not talked to Rudy yet. No. I have talked to one of my assistant coaches I was really close with. Our relationship is bigger than basketball."
The same goes for his relationship with Coach Stevens, a major bonus in the Celtics’ favor when he was deciding where to go. The talk is of unfinished business, of accomplishing what they could not at Butler: winning a championship. The vibe for Hayward and Stevens is that of a high school prodigy coming back to see an old teacher. The teacher is still the teacher—older, wiser, more respected—but the student’s grown plenty. The dynamic is the same, but different.
“Coach Stevens has been my friend, when he was still at Butler, when he was with the Celtics,” Hayward says of his new-old coach. “Like, I’ve called him before just to say what’s up and to talk. I didn’t get a chance to call him before July 1st, just for rules’ sake pretty much. But on July 1st, he called me. I don’t know if weird is the right word, but it was almost like deja vu of seven years before, when he’s recruiting me and he was just an assistant at Butler.”
Hayward is a different player now, by necessity. As a kid, he dreamed of being Steve Nash, a point guard with a knack for finding the open man. Because both of his parents were 5’11”, he never thought he’d end up a 6’8” small forward or that the defensively minded Utah Jazz would lean on him for scoring quite so much. It took an offseason of tutelage from Kobe Bryant to unlock Hayward’s offensive potential and get him to the point where a team like the Celtics would break the bank for him.
Some of his scoring burden will be alleviated in Boston. The Celtics were the third-best three-point shooting team in the league last year and were seventh in scoring. Plus, there’s Uncle Drew breathing the same backcourt oxygen and hungry for the ball. On the other end of the spectrum, they were a dismal 27th in rebounding. Hayward might be able to help in that area more than you think, as he accumulated 8.2 rebounds per 100 possessions last season.
But his primary responsibilities will remain getting buckets and playing wing defense. It’s just that now he’s going to have to wear the LeBron stopper hat in crucial playoff games if the Celtics want to get over the hump and dethrone the Cavs. The Irving trade—which sent Kyrie to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a 2018 first-round draft pick—deepened the growing rivalry between the Cavaliers and the Celtics.
Hayward was in his summer home of San Diego, taking in a horse race at Del Mar Racetrack when the news came in: He was no longer the only new guy in town. The stage was now even bigger, the lights brighter, and he’d have to share that stage with Kyrie Irving, who has something to prove to himself and to a media that often doubts his ability to lead a team on his own.
Boston has a bloody nose from the Cavs after a thorough dismantling in the Eastern Finals. Both teams have restocked and reloaded. They’ve swapped point guards. It’s a borderline incestuous rivalry, one that will write its next chapter on opening night, when the Celtics travel to Cleveland.
“It’s gonna be an intense game,” Hayward says. “It’s gonna be chippy, I’m sure. We want to come out and play our best basketball, but at the same time, not put too much weight on just one game. It’s the first game of the year. We’re gonna be trying to figure out who we are as a team.”
And what of King James? Will LeBron be his defensive assignment? “A lot of our defensive assignments are going to be LeBron,” he says laughing. Ainge agrees: “We have a lot of guys who can get that matchup. LeBron plays a lot of four, and he can play some five. I think that between Gordon and Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart—I think all of those guys will play against players like LeBron.”
To win in the modern NBA, one must slay the dragons atop each conference—Cleveland and Golden State. The key to stopping the Cavs is slowing down (forget about stopping) James, to make him work for everything.“You can’t let him get easy dunks, easy cuts to the rim, stuff at the free-throw line, Hayward says. “If he’s making his threes, he’s almost impossible to stop. You want to make him test the jump shots. Easier said than done.”
The Celtics can hang with the best, but can they win? “I still think all the pressure is on the Warriors to win again. All the pressure is still on LeBron and Cleveland. We have expectations, we’re gonna have pressure, but that’s what you want a little bit.”
After all of the hype and the pressure and the heavy-duty emotional work of starting over on a new team, Hayward is finally back at the one place where he can really feel comfortable: the basketball court, a place where haircuts take a backseat to championships and you’re judged less on how you look and more on how you ball.
With his new running buddies (he throws Al Horford’s name around a lot, indicating his excitement to run pick-and-rolls with him), Hayward has to figure out his place and his spot all over again. When Isaiah Thomas was still around, there might have been a scenario in which the Celtics became Hayward’s team. With Irving at the 1, the question of leadership is a bit more settled.
So far, it’s all smiles in Beantown. “They’re functioning great,” Ainge says of the Irving/Hayward pairing. “They both can play on the ball. They can play off the ball. They both realize the importance of each other.”
When asked about who the alpha dog will be at TD Garden, Hayward says all the right things, befitting his reputation as one of the NBA’s true nice guys. “Kyrie and I have talked about it. We want to come in and have open communication and for it to be a partnership.” When it comes to who has the ball in the last seconds of a close game, Hayward says “that part doesn’t matter. We’re partners. Our biggest strength as a team is that we’re a team.”
Still, Hayward and Irving are both disciples of the Tao of the Mamba, both have relationships with Kobe that surely must include the passing down of No. 24’s killer instinct and drive to be the most clutch player in the game. The secret ingredient in all of this is Stevens, a coach who instilled in Hayward the team-first mentality that could make for a truly magical dynamic in Boston. “As a player, I want to be the one to take the last shot. If there’s a better matchup, if there’s a better shot for our team to win the game, I want to win the game first.”
In the meantime, Hayward is settling into his new home and enjoying the spoils of his new celebrity status, while not losing sight of the kid who packed up his dad’s car to start a new life in Salt Lake City. Hayward recently attended the Boston premiere of the film Stronger, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. It was the first movie premiere for the shaggy-haired kid from Indiana made good. “I felt like I was in the way the whole time,” he said of the experience. “I’m kinda like wide-eyed. Where am I supposed to be?” Hayward figured that out this summer. This season he’ll be in the crosshairs of LeBron, on the marquee, ready for his close-up. Gordon Hayward—humble Midwestern kid—is a star. He’s home.
Now, the question is, where can he take this team?
Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.