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BOB RYAN

Red Auerbach would’ve loved Gordon Hayward

sean h. haffey/Getty

Even as a 5-year-old, Gordon Hayward had dreams of NBA stardom.

By Globe Correspondent 

Oh, boy, would Red have loved this kid.

I’m not speaking about the basketball part. The basketball part is obvious. What wouldn’t he like about a 6-foot-8-inch guy who can score inside, drill threes, rebound, pass, defend, and go coast to coast — Red did have a phobia about big guys handling the ball in the open court back in the day, but he would have easily acclimated himself to these new guys — and who can think a little bit?

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No, I’m talking about something else. Red would have loved this kid because in addition to basketball, Red Auerbach was crazy about tennis, and Gordon Hayward was a scholastic tennis player of great Indiana renown. In fact, when Hayward was a 5-11, 125-pound freshman en route to earning the nickname “Stickboy,” he considered abandoning this whole basketball thing.

“I was just thinking ahead, realistically,” he was quoted in David Woods’s book about Butler basketball, “Underdawgs.” “I probably don’t have a good chance to play college basketball right now, and maybe I should concentrate on tennis. But I stuck with it.”

Why yes, he did. He started growing, reaching 6-6 by the end of his senior year. Still, he played both basketball and tennis in high school. Small wonder that when he first saw 6-10 John Isner play on TV, he said, “I thought I was looking at myself.”

David Woods never dreamed when he was first covering the Butler basketball beat for the Indianapolis Star that it would lead to, well, what it led to.

“I didn’t expect to be spending successive summers writing books about the Butler Bulldogs,” Woods tells us in the author’s notes to “Underdawgs: How Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs Marched Their Way to the Brink of College Basketball’s National Championship.”

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No way. Butler was a perfectly respectable mid-major school, far more famous for the building in which it played than for the actual basketball it played there. Butler turned out doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, and assorted pillars of numerous Indiana communities, and that was it.

Not until Hayward and teammate Shelvin Mack came along to become NBA players after being developed and shaped by Stevens was the Bulldog community reminded that the only previous Butler grad to make it to the NBA had been Ralph “Buckshot” O’Brien, who played 119 games for Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Baltimore from 1951-53.

Stevens and Hayward are both Hoosiers through and through, and it is fitting that they have been reunited as coach and pupil. Stevens is from Zionsville, a town of approximately 27,000 about 15 miles north of Indianapolis. Hayward is from Brownsburg, a town of approximately 25,000 about 15 miles west of Indianapolis.

High school basketball is king. Each is a complete product of his environment, which means each man has been shaped by God, family, academics, and athletics. They totally understand each other.

Gordon Hayward is a twin. He is close to his sister Heather, and are you ready for this? They were the respective Brownsburg male and female Athletes of the Year in 2008. According to Woods, “Gordon pushed his sister in sports, and Heather pushed her brother in academics and spiritual growth.”

Speaking of academics, perhaps you’ve already heard the story about the overheard physics debate. It seems that Hayward and teammate Avery Jukes, both engineering majors, were heard shouting about a physics problem in the locker room.

How good a student was Hayward? Mathematics professor Prem Sharma put it this way: “Hayward is a brilliant student who can flawlessly sketch in his mind a meandering path through a complex grid of almost 17 million nodes spread in 24-dimensional space.”

In an e-mail, Professor Sharma elaborated: “Most people see in Gordon glimpses of a greatness in basketball; they know not abstract universes reside in his brain.”

I’m sure Coach Stevens was just hoping he’d remember the sideline out-of-bounds play he just called.

Hayward either was or was not destined to become an NBA All-Star. The fact is the 5-year-old Hayward actually composed an eight-item list of basketball goals, the first of which was, “Play in NBA.” It was a list in obvious reverse order, because No. 8 was, “Start on sixth-grade team.”

He was a bona fide high school star, leading Brownsburg to its only state title in 2008. Brownsburg defeated mighty Marion (seven previous championships) for the 4A title, and you can guess who scored the winning basket.

It wasn’t pretty. Teammate Julian Mavunga redirected a three-quarter-court pass to Hayward, whose hasty flip found its way to the rim and down the chute for an — ugh — 40-39 triumph.

“I don’t know how I was open or how I caught it,” he explained. “But, I mean, it went in.”

Of course, we remember one last-second shot he took that did not go in. Had his midcourt shot fallen against Duke in the 2010 NCAA championship game, Butler would be remembered as the most improbable NCAA champ of all. But successful 50-foot heaves are pure luck. Even I happened to make one at the end of a first-quarter game against Pennington Prep. That’s all you probably need to know about that subject.

But Hayward sure was impressive in the Final Four. Wrote one seasoned observer, “The versatile Hayward alone makes them a threat to win any game. The 6-foot-8-inch kid from Brownsburg, Ind., mixes outstanding 3-point shooting skill with the ability to take it to the hoop, and he will bang on the boards and D-up, as necessary. The head is on so securely straight he sounds like a coach already.”

Full disclosure: That was me.

And now colleague Christopher L. Gasper says Hayward is the real-life Jimmy Chitwood. But the difference, as my mother would say, is that the 6-8 Hayward could eat spaghetti off Chitwood’s head (Funny, that’s the first time I’ve thought of that line since she passed 15 years ago).

I’m sure of it. Red would be feeding this kid all the Chinese food he could eat. Maybe even spaghetti.


Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.