Seven years ago, they were sharing a foxhole. Coach Brad Stevens and his Butler captain Gordon Hayward were a match made in heaven, rolling to National Championship games. But then they both eventually moved on to the NBA, where tampering rules limited their interactions. They maintained a strong friendship, but there were always limits to where their conversations could go.
But then it was the late evening of July 1, 2017. Gordon and Brad were face to face in Boston’s Logan Airport, beginning the 24 hours that would reunite their journeys. Almost a decade removed from their chase for college glory, they were finally free to discuss the chance to do it on the most historic stage, with the most historic franchise.
Joined by assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, the same assistant coach whom Hayward played under at Butler, Stevens greeted Hayward to both his past and future.
“It was kind of like déjà vu,” Hayward told reporters on his introductory conference call Friday. “It was cool like how it kind of all just circled back.”
“We get to Boston and it’s late at night and my wife and I are greeted by Brad and Coach Shrewsberry,” Hayward said. “It’s immediate familiarity and comfort and it brought back memories of when I was being recruited in high school by Coach Brad. It started out like that and that was just a really cool feeling to be doing it over again, this time at the next level.”
Hayward harkened back to the first time he went through this with Stevens, being the first recruit in Brad’s office back when he was a teenager. It was a different time in many, many ways.
“Back when he was recruiting me the first time, I think I had to ask my parents to get me texting on my flip-phone because college coaches were starting to text me,” he said. “Like I said, as soon as you get off the terminal, it was instant familiarity. Just a comfort level with Brad and what he does and how he goes about things. It was easy, it was really easy.”
The ease went beyond a mentor from his younger days, as Stevens has been a friend ever since. Renowned for being a presence in his players’ lives well after they play for him, Stevens was always an important part of Hayward’s life, maintaining a closeness that would give Hayward the comfort or even audacity to make such a bold change in his career.
“He came to my wedding. Anytime I needed anything, he was there for me,” Hayward said. “And this is when he’s getting ready for his second National Championship run, when he finally decides to go to the Celtics, he’s got a whole agenda on his plate.”
They both grew, going through growing pains early in their careers to eventually establish themselves on winning teams in the NBA. Stevens was proud and impressed by the maturity he saw in the former high school tennis player texting on his flip phone. The kid with the scraggly hair and oversized jersey he once coached combed his hair to the side, filled out his frame and became an offensive machine. This was a complete player and a complete person he was dealing with now.
“It’s really an unbelievable thing to be sitting with a guy in your offices when he’s 16 or 17 years old, in the recruiting process and then again be sitting with him when he’s 27 years old,” Stevens said on a conference call Friday. “To see just the change and the maturity and the great questions, and the thoughtful ways that he was looking at all of his options and all of his opportunities and trying to talk with him about why we thought this was a really good situation for him.”
From Stevens' perspective, he wanted to toe the line of drawing Hayward in while recognizing the gravity of the ramifications of coming to Boston. Stevens walked Gordon through his own history grappling with the same decision, when he left Butler in 2013 to replace Doc Rivers as the Celtics head coach.
“I think that one of the things that I tried to do was talk about why this transition was so great for me and my family, and also how hard it was to initially make the transition,” Stevens said. “It was something we really had to deliberate on, something we really had to think about.
“I spent 13 years at Butler so I could understand what he was—the emotion he was wrestling with having spent his last seven years in Utah, and tried to be empathetic towards that and talk about why we thought it was a great situation from a standpoint of what we’re trying to continue to accomplish with the Celtics, and how seamlessly we thought he would fit into that.”
That pull back to Utah was incredibly strong. Hayward enjoyed success there, and the team was continuing to trend upwards, albeit against a brick wall laid out by the Golden State Warriors for the foreseeable future. He had a great relationship with Jazz coach Quin Snyder and the front office. He was playing next to one of the best centers in the league in Rudy Gobert, a generational defensive behemoth who is coming into his own on offense. There was no impetus to leave Utah. There was just a shining glow in Boston, from the organization, to the players, to the city, and to the coaches.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into making a decision, and obviously a familiarity doesn’t hurt,” Stevens said. “But at the same time, he had to make that decision for a lot more reasons than just familiarity with me, and not only me, but Micah Shrewsberry.”
“So, to choose somewhere else, it had to be a special place and I think he recognizes that Boston is a special place. And I think that he really likes the guys on our team. Having played against them and having studied them, I think he thinks that he’ll fit in really well.”
The fit is ideal, joining a team with an All-Star point guard and former All-Star big that was looking for a scoring wing to complete the puzzle. Hayward was drawn to fitting in perfectly with them as much as anything. He is good at just about everything you can imagine on offense, giving the Celtics a second option to run any offense they want in the fourth quarter and take the pressure off Thomas. When he found that they had great synergy off the court, he really started to turn the corner.
“We went out to eat with Al for breakfast, went out with Isaiah and his wife for dinner. I’m more than ecstatic to play with those guys, I think it’s going to be a great fit and I think we can complement each other extremely well. Really looking forward to playing with those guys.”
When he sat down with Stevens, Brad illustrated how they would play off each other to maximize their strengths and enhance an already versatile team. The team will be wing-heavy this year, running out three- or even four-wing lineups with either a point guard or a big. Hayward will be the secondary scorer for the first time since he became a star, giving him more freedom to play off-ball and in more unique situations that leverage his diverse skill set to make things easy and efficient.
“Brad has talked a lot about that and using a lot of the guys that we have on the roster in different ways,” Hayward said. “He’s a genius when it comes to that stuff, both offensively and defensively. I couldn't be more excited with the guys that we have on the team. I’m ready to get to practice already and start learning and start competing with these guys.”
Hayward, of course, said they are going for a title this year and he’s working this offseason with only that goal in mind. There isn’t a team out there that thinks they are the favorite against the Warriors, but both this Celtics team and Hayward are both going to be competing later in the season they have before.
Regardless of the end of this year’s journey, Stevens and Hayward are finally on that path together again. They left things off with a half-court game-winner hitting the glass and bouncing mercilessly off the rim. This reunion is set forth to ensure their crowning achievement is more than getting close, but no cigar.