Ever since it was known that All-Star forward Gordon Hayward would become a free agent this summer, Boston has been viewed as a logical landing spot for him. It was partly because the Celtics would have room to sign him and partly because the team is on the path to becoming a title contender.
Most of all, though, the belief circled back to coach Brad Stevens. When Stevens coached at Butler, he recruited Hayward from nearby Brownsburg (Ind.) High School. Together, the two took the college basketball world by storm, culminating in an improbable trip to the 2010 NCAA championship game.
Hayward left for the NBA that summer and was drafted ninth overall by the Jazz. Stevens followed three years later when he was hired to coach the Celtics. And now there is a chance for a reunion.
“Gordon fit Butler; he fit,” said Darnell Archey, the school’s former coordinator of basketball operations. “And it sounds like from what Brad’s doing in Boston, he’d fit that, too.”
“Putting the two of them together again, who knows what they might be able to do?” said longtime Butler athletic director Barry Collier.
Those who knew Stevens and Hayward best at Butler mostly spoke glowingly about their relationship there and made it clear there would be joy at the 4,000-student university if the two teamed up again.
And in addition to an obvious friendship, they said, Stevens might know how to deploy Hayward on a basketball court better than anyone else. Still, it remains unclear how much of an impact Stevens’s presence will have on Hayward’s massive decision in the coming days, when he is expected to visit the Jazz, Celtics, and Heat.
“They’re not like best friends, but there’s a lot of mutual respect between the two,” said a source close to those Butler teams who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Hayward’s decision. “I think the one thing about it was Brad really believed in Gordon almost before Gordon believed in himself.”
A recruiting pitch
Hayward was once a skinny, gangly teenager whose future as a college athlete could just as easily have been in tennis. Initially he generated little basketball recruiting interest, but then he began to sprout, and Butler, IUPUI, and Purdue became his primary suitors.
Stevens was a Butler assistant when he began recruiting Hayward as a junior during the 2006-07 season, and he was leery of holding off Purdue, particularly because it was the alma mater of Hayward’s parents.
Stevens was named head coach that April, after Todd Lickliter was hired by Iowa, and he became increasingly intrigued by Hayward. Early in the process, he told Hayward that he thought he could become an NBA player. It was almost an illogical thought at the time.
“Brad kind of always had that belief in him,” said a former Butler staffer, “and I think that always kind of resonated with Gordon, like, ‘Hey, maybe I can be.’ ”
According to the Indianapolis Star, Hayward was vacationing with his family at Disney World in June of 2007 when he called and committed to Butler. Stevens was so pleased that he told his staff to take the rest of the day off and go golfing.
“We just felt like he was a good basketball player, and he knows it,” Stevens told the Star then. “But he has no idea how good.”
Hayward was always a fierce competitor, regardless of the stakes. Collier recalled a time when Stevens heard two of his players arguing loudly in the locker room. He rushed in to make sure he did not need to break up a fight and found Hayward and a teammate having a disagreement over a physics equation.
On the court, there were times when Hayward’s confidence needed a boost. Former Butler assistant Terry Johnson, now a coach at Ohio State, remembered a drill in which Hayward was struggling to box out one of the team’s much shorter walk-ons. He said Stevens challenged him to do better, and that they would not stop until Hayward got a rebound.
“If you got on him too hard and he got mad at you, he’d be like, ‘All right, I’m not even gonna play. I’m just gonna stand in the corner. I’m not even a good player right now,’ ” Johnson said with a chuckle. “And we’re like, ‘No, Gordon, no. Get out there.’ ”
During the drill, Hayward eventually shoved the walk-on out of the way and grabbed the rebound.
“Coach had a way of pushing Gordon’s buttons and helping him get to where he needed to go,” Archey said. “They’re both highly intelligent. Gordon is a very cerebral thinker and kind of always a step ahead, so they were a match made in heaven in that sense.”
In Hayward, Stevens had found a versatile, dynamic prospect capable of playing and defending several positions. In Stevens, Hayward had found a brilliant young coach who would not pigeonhole him.
“Their relationship was extremely good because Brad’s very competitive, but he’s also very smart,” said former Butler assistant Matthew Graves, who now coaches South Alabama. “And Gordon was able to really think the game. He really picked up things very quickly.
“Obviously, Brad is really good at set plays and schemes, and with both of them being so competitive and having an exceptional basketball IQ, that really attracted them to each other.”’
‘Brad was right in his corner’
After Hayward’s freshman year in 2009, he shined for the US Under-19 team that won a gold medal at the World Championships. He was the team’s third-leading scorer, and his performance caught the attention of NBA evaluators. It became common for scouts to attend Bulldogs practices, but Stevens tried to protect Hayward from rising expectations.
“He’s a very focused person,” Stevens told the Indianapolis Star in 2009. “And if he gets an [NBA] opportunity someday, then that’d be great. Gordon’s the type of person that, if that doesn’t happen, then he’ll have a successful career with whatever he decides to do.”
Hayward had a dominant sophomore season. He was named the Horizon League Player of the Year and led the No. 5-seeded Bulldogs to the NCAA title game against top-seeded Duke. Butler trailed, 60-59, with 13 seconds left when Stevens called a 30-second timeout.
“It’s the biggest moment in Butler basketball history on the biggest stage in the world, and who did Brad choose to get the ball to in that moment? It was Gordon,” said the school’s former sports information director, Jim McGrath.
“I think that tells you everything you need to know about how Brad felt about him.”
Hayward missed the shot after the timeout, and then with his team trailing by 2 nearly drilled a game-winning half-court heave, but it caromed off the backboard and the rim.
Butler was projected to have an elite team the following season, but Hayward entered the NBA Draft. He was selected by Utah, and the Bulldogs went on to reach another title game anyway.
“There were people in the Butler community who were hurt or disappointed,” McGrath said. “I hated to see him go, obviously, because we had a great team coming back, and we thought this group could win it. So there was some disappointment.
“But the one guy who never expressed that or never showed any disappointment was Brad. He understood the opportunity for Gordon and was fully supportive. While the rest of us were hoping Gordon would have stayed, Brad was right in his corner.”
Will they reunite?
Those close to Stevens and Hayward say that the two remain friends, but it could be characterized as a typical player/coach relationship. This past season, Hayward was named an All-Star for the first time and Stevens coached the Eastern Conference team, but their busy schedules kept them from visiting beyond basic pleasantries.
They have met for meals when the Jazz and Celtics play, but most often even that is a challenge because of the unforgiving nature of the NBA schedule.
Former Butler staffers are unsure what impact Stevens will have on Hayward’s decision. Their friendship can only help, they say, but they don’t know how much.
“I think Gordon is going to do whatever is best for him,” said a Butler source. “I don’t think [Stevens’s presence] makes that big of a difference to him.
“It might, but I think he’s going to do what’s best for him. And I think Brad would want him to do what’s best for him. He’s not going to pressure him like, ‘Let’s do this or I’m not going to be your friend anymore.’
“He’s going to be happy for him no matter what happens.”
Added Johnson, the former Butler assistant: “I don’t think [Stevens] will factor in too much. It’s different now, because it’s such a business.
“Obviously I think the relationship matters, but also he has kind of set his mark in Utah as well, having great relationships there. One thing I’ve found out about Gordon is he’s a loyal guy.”
Joshua Kendrick, Hayward’s former high school coach, still plays basketball with Hayward’s father occasionally but said he does not know which way Gordon is leaning. He said that during Hayward’s college recruitment, he initially thought the forward was all but certain to choose Purdue.
“But, you know, Gordon sat down and analyzed the situation, and I’m sure he made a pros-and-cons list and he made that decision to go to Butler,” Kendrick said. “And I’m sure he’ll approach this with the same level-headedness and rationale, whatever his next decision is.”
There is less debate, however, about what a Stevens/Hayward reunion would mean for people at Butler. Both are from the area, and they were the two most prominent figures that helped turn the program into a basketball power and bring worldwide recognition to their small university. So if they end up together again in Boston, it would resonate.
“I think everybody here in the Butler community would be beyond excited,” McGrath said. “If we could see the two of them reunited, it would be a dream come true.”