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September 1, 2012

The Hayward Love Affair Rolls On

-- A not so brief history on Gordon Hayward's ownership of Spencer Hansen's heart

Any Jazz fan worth his weight in tickets should readily declare Paul Millsap his favorite player of this latest Jazz remake. From the same player who brought you 11 points in 28 seconds against Miami last year has come a career of devotion-inspiring highlights: Millsap is the man who responded to a benching at the beginning of this season with a near all-star bid, the man who ranks as clutch as any in Utah history, the man who plays with braces, bruises and the never healing handicap of not being quite tall enough. Yet for whatever reason the Mighty Millsap never took over my heart. When the all-time leader in assists and the all-time leader in rebounds left the team, Coach Sloan took over the title of my most beloved Jazz member. Sloan's departure should have signaled Millsap's coronation, but my heart went another direction. How did it happen? How did Gordon Hayward, in just his second year, take the top spot from the hardest working Jazz man since Karl Malone?

It didn't start with Butler, I can tell you that much.


The NBA Draft: June 24, 2010

My birthday has coincided with the NBA draft on more than one occasion, making the Jazz's annual player selection feel like a package gifted specifically to me. Maybe that's why me and Nathan have gone to the arena to the attend the draft so frequently. Maybe that's why I'm always so optimistic about the Jazz's picks each year. And maybe that's why I took the fan's booing of Gordon Hayward that day -- my 24th birthday -- so personally, vowing then and there that I would support this year's present more than usual. And so the love affair began, with my cheers thrown at Kevin O' Connor even while the boos rung throughout Energy Solutions Arena.

"Give me two years, and you'll see I'm right!" GM O' Connor more or less said.

Too pessimistic, Kevin. He needed but a year and a half.

The Dwill incident: October 30, 2010

A season opening loss to Denver had left Sir Deron Williams in a sour mood. Or perhaps it was the fact that Williams had lost former teammates Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Eric Maynor, Carlos Boozer and Mehmut Okur -- only an entire starting lineup -- to free agency, trade and injury over the past year. Either way, when rookie Gordon Hayward (in just his second game, mind you) failed to cut to the hoop late in a blowout loss to Phoenix, Deron gestured angrily at Gordon, yelled at him, and rifled a pass at him in anger. (Which, comically, GH turned into into a lay-up on a well executed give-and-go.)

And just like that it wasn't the fans alone that were voicing displeasure at the rookie. In a podcast done by David Locke with Kevin O' Connor, O' Connor confirmed that there were at least two Jazz players (unnamed, but you can guess one) that were unhappy with the Jazz picking Hayward. It seemed unjust to me. "It's only his second game," I said. "He's just two years out of high school." Maybe it was because I was yelled at by a teamate once in a basketball game, but I felt bad. I wanted to say something to the guy, to tell him I understood him, that he'd fit in just fine with the Jazz but alas, I didn't have a twitter account at the time.

Dunk #1 - November 17, 2010 

Matt Harpring's analysis on the play: "I didn't think (Hayward) had that in his game." Neither did the booers. Neither did I. But I had hoped. Oh I had hoped.

The Swats Begin - January 6, 2011

I trust that this wasn't Hayward's first official block in the NBA, but it was the first that made me wonder if I'd mistaken the rookie for Andrei Kirilenko. It was hustle, it was athleticism, it was payment for my heart's investment.

Proving a Point - February 25, 2011

Nothing quite like the statement dunk. In his initial return to the hometown, playing in front of his fans, going up against the player drafted immediately after him, a player who would later demonstrate his hops in this years dunk contest, Hayward threw it down. On top of Paul George. The home crowd rose.

CP3 Tossed to the Sky - March 25, 2011

This one was a thing of beauty, and it came around the time people were starting to catch on to the possibility of Hayward actually being a decent player. Like those indie band nerds who relish in discovering new hits before they go mainstream, I was angry at the Jazz fans who were just now arriving to the party. But no one can stay angry for long watching Chris Paul fail in his attempt to 1) slow his body to draw a lame foul and 2) get his shot ram-rodded into the first row.

Long Range Bomber - End of Rookie Season

No highlight here. Just the statistic that brings hope of what may come. Hayward finished the season shooting 47.3% from the 3-point line, good for third in the leauge. The Jazz currently rank among the hobos of the NBA when it comes to 3-point firing. That stigma won't be around long term.

The Mystery T - February 2, 2012

There were two comical things related to the double technicals given to Gordon Hayward and Mo Williams during the Jazz-Clippers game early this year. 1) Neither player did anything to deserve the call, and 2) it was Hayward's first technical of his career. Not NBA career. Playing career. High school, college, playground. Which means one thing - the guy is unflappable. Poke him in the ear? Elbow him in the face? No response**Don't make the mistake of interpreting this as Hayward lacking the guts or fire to respond**. He's like the non-fiction version of Atticus Finch, walking silently away from every tobacco spit in the face, but not before leaving his assailant looking a fool in the court room, er, court.

Coast to Coast to Coast - March 18, 2012

Fully sprinting from one side of the court to the other is one thing. Going coast to coast to block a shot, then going coast to coast the other way for the dunk? That's another thing altogether. How could you not love that? Or this?

The Exhausted block - March 28, 2012

My favorite play of Hayward's career thus far. Just watch the second block. Look at Hayward's face. It's a look of pure exhaustion. Of someone who looks fed up. And yet he runs up, jumps, and completely re-routes the Boston attacker. Hayward had excuses to let that shot go. He'd already hustled back. He'd already stopped one fast break. His team was losing, and would most likely go on to lose. And wasn't Burks the one who turned the ball over after the first block? Why jump again? Exhausted? Yes. Willing to give up a free basket in a lost cause of a game? Nope.

The Career Game - April 12, 2012

29 points, 6 assists, 2 boards, 2 steals, 7 of 7 from the free throw line, 4 of 5 from the three, unquantifiable elite defense, all in the biggest game of the season up to that point, leading the Jazz to victory over Houston on the road. Interestingly enough, Patrick Patterson, the player who was drafted five spots after Hayward, the player Jazz fans wanted the team to draft, that all-elusive "big guy", the blown pick that left the Jazz fans booing the selection of Hayward, was on the floor for that game too. 10 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal.


Obviously, there have been other plays. Passes. Jumpers. Rotations. Fundamentals. Basically all the stuff that YouTube left behind. And of course there have been ugly plays too (Remember the Hornets, anyone?). And, yes, when the season ends, Millsap will have graded out as the better player. Same goes for Big Al Jefferson. Those two deserve the adoration of Jazz fans wherever they be found.

But Jefferson and Millsap don't eat at the Olive Garden when they're in New York City. They don't worry about a $2,000 fine resulting from a bogus technical foul. They don't play Halo in their off time or spend an hour signing autographs on their way to the Cheesecake Factory. They don't stop two dunks on one play, or move the ball to the open player every single time. And I suppose that's how Hayward won my heart. He lives and plays the way I like to do.

He just does it a million times better.

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