Gordon Hayward has more in common with Larry Bird than you might think. They’re both fairly pale, are small-town products from Indiana and served as the face of their team. Growing up an hour away from where Hoosiers is historically based, the 6-foot-8 Jazz man has always had some underdog in him. Hayward, who now serves as the face of the franchise as the longest tenured player, is a perfect fit for Salt Lake.
There aren’t many cases where NBA players don’t have basketball as their premier focus during their high school years, but this was the case for Hayward. The Brownsburg native was a talented tennis player, along with his twin sister, who had tennis in mind when looking at universities. Hayward considered going to Purdue, before a huge growth spurt in high school, where he arose in height from 5-11 to 6-4, eventually topping out at 6-foot-8.
Hayward ultimately decided to attend Butler University in Indianapolis for basketball. While there he led one of the more recent Cinderella teams and rose to become a mid-major star, taking the program to the National Championship and coming a few inches away on a missed half court heave from shocking the world against Duke.
The next chapter for Hayward wasn’t clear. He didn’t look and seem like an NBA player. Despite having good size and length and obvious playmaking ability, some didn’t see a fit for him at the next level. But the Jazz drafted him three years ago, and in those three years he’s gone from a rookie to the franchise’s longest-tenured player.
Hayward is a pretty relatable person and athlete to Salt Lake City, one of the smallest markets in the NBA. Salt Lake is a place perfect for someone who comes from a town of 20,000. A personality such as his can easily be embraced by fans because of the similarities they share.
Not to say Hayward carries every characteristic of a small town persona, but as a player more known to play video games than be found in a night club he’s surely not one of the guys who feels born to play under the brightest lights in the biggest city.
Salt Lake City does not have the biggest appeal for many athletes who aspire to live a celebrity like lifestyle, but it’s the perfect place to receive love and attention that can help lift a career and create opportunities beyond playing days. Just look at Matt Harpring, a former player who was never a superstar, but who managed to get the color commentating job for Root Sports covering the Jazz nearly right out of retirement. Scenarios like that show that if Hayward plays his cards right he can be embraced in full by the Jazz and the community like so many that have come before him.
The culture and setting may be perfect for Hayward, but now that he’s the guy to shoulder the load, how will he respond? His new role will call upon him to be more vocal and gritty, traits that he hasn’t shown very much of.
Al Jefferson, who was of sorts the spokesman for the locker room the past few season was blunt, and never afraid to call his team out. Hayward needs to embody some of that behavior to be a complete team leader for the Jazz.
Rookie Trey Burke is considered by some to be the new face of the franchise. Burke is indeed Utah’s best potential super star, but until further development and evidence of big-time play, the team is Hayward’s.
This year will be a test of faith for the players, organization and the fans as the youth of the team and loss of key players will make this year a huge challenge to get wins and compete for a playoff spot. That test of will may be biggest for Hayward.
Hayward has talent. He can hit shots, pass, defend very well, and rise up to the occasion in a big moment. In a city and organization that’s so similar to his upbringing and personality, the opportunity to become the solidified face of the franchise is there. But could the lack of talent around him and the rough patches on the horizon stifle what could be for Gordon Hayward’s legacy with Utah?
This season we’ll see just what can become of the 23-year-old “veteran.”