Gordon Hayward and his family emerged from the plane in the terminal in Boston. Fresh off a visit with the Miami Heat where he received a police escort swooping him off the runway to the hotel where meetings awaited him, he saw Brad Stevens waiting like a chauffeur.
Stevens went to pick up Hayward with assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry. That was the first time Hayward described Boston as “different,” setting the stage for a “gut feeling” that would sway him away from returning to the Jazz and toward the Celtics. That, the familiarity factor with Celts personnel, the talent influx in the western conference, among many other factors weighed into Hayward’s final decision on July 4.
In this week’s episode of The Woj Podcast Hayward commentated on every step of the multi-week free agency process that brought him from San Diego to Miami to Boston and back (note: this article pulls extensively from that interview and you are encouraged to go listen to the podcast to hear Gordon’s words for yourself). The travel didn’t shake him as much as the rampant drama of decision day, with texts from everybody involved flowing before news of his decision leaked. Hayward expressed that he wasn’t going to extend the process beyond the fourth, out of courtesy to the teams, and before his mind was set he looked online to see a frenzy.
It had leaked, initially through Chris Haynes, in that the afternoon that Hayward had decided on the Celtics. He dialed his agent Mark Bartelstein countless times in the days and weeks leading up to free agency, this would be the most frantic call. Hayward had learned that this wasn’t just about him, his inner circle and the teams chasing him. The entire NBA world was locked-in on his decision. He described it as the biggest surprise of a process that exhausted him.
With information moving faster than he could dial his phone, Bartelstein told Hayward to leave the high-speed race of reports to him. As his agent made calls that reversed fireworks across Celtics nation, Hayward retracted back to square one. All along his mission was to keep pressure out of his choice, of teammates, of suitors texting him, of sanctimony. “You’re making a life decision” he said. “You got to think about it. I wanted to go and visit the cities. That’s where I was going to live.”
Hours passed, the social media storm weathered and by nightfall Hayward set out to make that call that “I would have dreaded the call no matter what.” He had to tell Quin Snyder he was leaving the Jazz after seven years and going to the Celtics.
The announcement, finalized in a Player’s Tribune article, had little foresight going back any amount of time and little to do with a personal relationship with Stevens, as had been speculated going back almost a year by many. Hayward said he had narrowed down three or four teams that eventually became the Heat and Celtics alongside a return to Utah.
Before free agency opened on July 1 Hayward would call Bartelstein, hang up, pass out, awake the next day and call on a completely new subject and perspective countless times. They assembled a point system, considering the pros and cons of the cities, teams and situations he was mulling over. Every day seemed to bring new considerations to the table.
With that in mind he took off into the sky on the final day of June with a general idea of what he was looking for entering free agency. The wildness and fanfare that ensued brought the necessity of separating business and personal relationships, having been a restricted free agent previously but never a top high school recruit or college prospect.
“It’s really easy to sit back and see yourself and ESPN and all these other writers speak on ‘sources say,’” he said, drawing a snicker from Wojnarowski. “It’s something where when you’re in the situation it’s completely different.”
The courting began with the Heat meeting. Gordon and Robyn Hayward arrived with their children with the knowledge that the Heat had long been high in their point system. They traveled to the American Airlines Arena for meetings with Pat Riley and his wife Chris, which Hayward described as a “family atmosphere.”
Hayward had little previous connections with anybody in the Miami organization, Bartelstein was the one who nudged him in that direction with the prowess of champions Riley and coach Eric Spoelstra who had successful recruited LeBron James. The whole staff was there presenting Hayward with a video presentation, individual meetings and touting their championship rings in a scene that blew him away.
Hayward remembered thinking, “Wow. That’s going to be really tough to beat”
Miami was not familiar though. Hayward had established relationships in Utah that went “beyond basketball” and he stressing a “clean slate” in his own head as he boarded the plane en route to Boston. By this point the offseason was underway and teams had get their plans moving. As the Jazz waited that meant planning as if Hayward was going to return.
With George Hill sitting in free agency seeking big money, the Jazz had to progress creatively regarding the point guard situation and it led to an awkward situation of trying to keep Hayward in the loop as he too sat in free agency. On July 1, Utah executed a trade to bring Ricky Rubio to the team for a first-round pick, a move Hayward endorsed but told them was no guarantee.
“I don’t want to be someone who says go get him and I’m in,” Hayward said, describing a fine line of not trying to make demands but keeping open the significant chance of him re-signing.
The offseason opens the doors from team-work to the business world where no situation is stable. Opportunities present themselves every day and players like Avery Bradley, a fixture with the Celts for seven years, suddenly find themselves going from talking about next year in exit interviews to holding up a Pistons jersey next to Stan Van Gundy.
That was another truth Hayward established in free agency. Relationships that were firmly established in him being a member of the Utah Jazz had to transcend basketball. He worked out with Jazz trainers in the early offseason, kept an open line of communication with assistant coach Johnnie Bryant and discussed team matters “as if I was still part of the team.”
It had been seven years since Stevens coached a young Hayward. As Hayward hopped in the car with Stevens, got lost, and finally arrived at their destination the disconnect wasn’t as far as Hayward had originally feared.
“It wasn’t like everybody made it seem. Like we were besties or something,” Hayward said. Stevens was “in his corner” but they weren’t texting and calling every day. Once Hayward heard from Stevens on July 1, it did feel like a continuation of a professional relationship ending with one last heave in a college national championship game that bounced off the front of the rim.
The setting was different this time, Boston, where Hayward had only for single nights, arriving at the TD Garden for games and staying in the hotel for the short turnaround in and out. There was nothing intimate about the visits but that changed when fans stopped him in the airport this time, asking for pictures and telling him how excited they were for him to be visiting Boston.
A week later he would return, take to the streets, buy a suit at Joseph A. Bank for a press conference “which I got killed for” and then visit the North End in the shadow of the Garden. He got a haircut and “you could feel. Everybody was just excited, everybody saying how excited they were that I was in Boston.”
In Boston Hayward would meet with Al Horford, who made a similar decision last summer after a full career with the Hawks. Neither had grown up on Celtics lore, Larry Bird or the banners but both shared sentiments of an intense dedication by the fans and organization to get back to greatness. In all the meetings the discussion was fixated on one central goal, “how can we get a championship.”
Danny Ainge and ownership spoke about how the two sides can help each other, Hayward met with Stevens for a private film session highlighting where he’d fit in Boston’s plays and defense and then Isaiah Thomas, who finished fifth in last year’s MVP voting, flew in for a dinner with the Haywards.
Players hadn’t been present in Miami, Thomas and Horford were taking time out of their short offseasons to directly appeal to Hayward. The “difference” in Boston was beginning to show.
Stevens would scoop Hayward up again, like the guy in the ESPN commercial sadly looking to chauffeur a different Michael Jordan, and before a flight back to San Diego that would be over six hours all he could think was “man, that’s incredible.”
The Heat possibility may have been put to rest at this point but the hardest part of the Celtics’ chase to catch the largest fish in free agency was Hayward’s close relationship with Utah. Stevens coached Hayward for two years, Snyder and Salt Lake City had been Hayward’s basketball home for almost a decade.
The Jazz made the final pitch in sunny San Diego, Hayward’s offseason residence.
It was another representation of offseason awkwardness that clearly sat the wrong way with Hayward, knowing he was on the same side, but the meeting making him feel removed from the situation.
Greg Miller, Utah’s owner, spoke emotionally about bringing a title to Utah. The coaching staff pressed the many big steps they’ve taken through the years from a young group to one of the elite teams in the western conference last season.
Then Bryant opened the door and in came Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood and Rubio. Three of them were close friends and teammates of Hayward’s for years.
The final message: let's take another step toward winning a title. We’ve come this far and we only feel like we’re going to get better. They laid out the steps and vision. That was the final word. We need you to come back.
Before decision time arrived with a stomachache and feeling of unease deep within Hayward, Snyder pulled him aside and concluded: we want you back, but I’ll still be in your corner with whatever you decide.
The next night Hayward called Snyder and announced he was signing with the Celtics, at ease that his relationships in Utah transcended business. The business decision had become clear after what Wojnarowski originally described as a “tortured” process.
Hayward was familiar with Stevens, the Celtics have become a standout team in a weaker conference and the city of Boston felt right all the Haywards.
“It was a different feeling in Boston that I had. It was a gut feeling. With everything that we broke down, the city, the coaching staff, the players. The feeling of putting on a Boston Celtics uniform and competing for a title outweighed everything else for me.”
The Celts may have been victor of circumstance, having the right coach in Stevens certainly helped but what’s clear is that Hayward saw Boston as the best situation to win a championship before he retires. That was done by rebuilding efficiently, acquiring assets and prioritizing a winning culture.
The Celts may not have pulled off the blockbuster trade many are waiting for, but their two-year success in free agency speaks to the environment Ainge has established. One that players like Hayward have used to make extremely difficult decisions to become a part of. That’s different in this league right now.