'It was chaos:' Looking back at Gordon Hayward's wild July 4th decision to join Celtics, a year later

John Tomase
July 04, 2018 - 12:54 am

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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Gordon Hayward spent the first four days of last July riding an emotional bungee.

Diving into the unknown of unrestricted NBA free agency for the first time, he experienced the exhilaration, anxiety and uncertainty of a freefall on each stop before being yanked back into the sky just shy of a decision.

His agent, Mark Bartelstein, remembers Hayward feeling comfortable with each of the finalists vying for his services: the Jazz, Celtics and Heat.

"When he met with Miami, that night he was planning to go to Miami," Bartelstein said by phone. "We met with Boston, and after that meeting he was planning to go to Boston. We came back and met with Utah, and I think he was planning on staying in Utah. It wasn't until the next day on the Fourth, when we went back and forth, and we kept talking about it, that he finally came to a decision."

Ahh yes, the Fourth. Perhaps it's fitting that Hayward chose Independence Day to take his talents to the birthplace of the revolution. One year later, Bartelstein reflects on a frenzied 24 hours that saw Hayward agonize over a wrenching decision, only for a report to break that declared him signed, sealed, and delivered to Boston, even though he had yet to make up his mind. The last-second disruption threw the entire process into turmoil.

Hours later he agreed to a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics, but Hayward waffled until the final moments before officially reuniting with college coach Brad Stevens.

"That day was chaos," Bartelstein said.

The No. 9 pick in the 2010 draft out of Butler, Hayward had methodically transformed himself into an All-Star with the Jazz. He hit free agency in his prime at age 27 after averaging 21.9 points and leading Utah out of the first round for the first time in seven years.

The 6-foot-8 forward's ability to score at all three levels and defend multiple positions made him the perfect two-way fit for Stevens' system, which came as no surprise, since the pair had risen to prominence together at Butler, where Hayward's half-court heave nearly slayed Duke in the 2010 national championship game.

Those same skills appealed not only to the Celtics, however, and Hayward's decision quickly boiled down to the aforementioned trio of teams.

"He felt like he had narrowed it down to three great, great situations," Bartelstein said. "Obviously Utah was a great situation. He had spent his whole career there, loved everything about it. They treated him great, so Utah was a great opportunity. Miami is an elite franchise in the NBA, so well-run, they do everything first class, they had a great vision. And then obviously Boston. We just felt with the history of the franchise, the previous relationship with Brad, those were all (draws)."

Of added importance to Hayward, all three spots boasted what Bartelstein labeled "elite" coaches: Utah's Quin Snyder, Miami's Erik Spoelstra, and Stevens.

"I read all kinds of stories where he knew what he was going to do and it was predetermined and he had known for a long time," Bartelstein said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Hayward visited the Heat on Saturday, July 1 and left dazzled by Pat Riley and the team's slick presentation, which included prominently displayed championship rings. He felt himself leaning Miami.

A day later, he visited Boston for a pitch that included a video at Fenway Park and personal chauffeuring by Stevens. Boston took the lead.

On Monday, July 3, he conducted his most emotional meeting with the Jazz in San Diego, where he makes his home. His allegiances ran deep. Utah had drafted and developed him from the boy who left Butler into the man who now found himself agonizing over his future. He went to bed believing he'd stay put.

On the morning of July 4, Boston re-emerged. Hayward spent the day on the phone with Bartelstein discussing pros and cons. Moving to Boston would reunite him with Stevens and present a new challenge while playing for one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. But he felt loyal to what he had helped build in Utah, and the Jazz could afford to pay him roughly $50 million more than anyone else, a not-insignificant sum.

Then at 2:17 p.m., a bomb dropped. ESPN's Chris Haynes tweeted that Hayward planned to join the Celtics, citing league sources. A number of respected writers quickly confirmed the report.

Just one problem: Bartelstein insists Hayward hadn't made up his mind.

The two were on the phone when the news broke, and their minds raced. Hayward felt he owed it to the Jazz to inform them of his decision before it was broadcast to the world. Bartelstein needed to conduct damage control while assuring everyone involved that Hayward hadn't reached a decision.

"It caused chaos, there's no question about it," Bartelstein said. "I understand the media's got a job to do and they're all trying to get the news and report the story and what's going on. Their job is to dig and get the sources, but the reality of it is the only two people who knew what Gordon was going to do at that point were Gordon and myself and we didn't know, because we were discussing it.

"So when it happened, it caused a media storm. I had to deal with the teams we were still considering and didn't want to put them in an awkward position. It was chaos, to say the least."

The two hit pause while Bartelstein worked the phones, telling ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski that deliberations continued.

"We just took a deep breath," Bartelstein said.

When they reconvened, Hayward made his decision. He'd be going to Boston.

"It's just a moment of great anxiety and that butterfly feeling in your stomach," Bartelstein said. "You're leaving somewhere you're comfortable with, you're leaving somewhere where you have a lot of long-term relationships, you're going to try something new, and you're sort of taking a leap of faith."

That leap landed him in Celtics green and Hayward has no regrets, even as rehabs a broken ankle that cost him all but five minutes of the 2017-18 season.

His much-anticipated return is one of the primary reasons the Celtics are considered favorites in the Eastern Conference. He recently began running again after a follow-up procedure removed the screws and hardware in his ankle to relieve tendon discomfort.

The on-court validation of a journey that began a year ago today waits just around the corner.

"He's doing great," Bartelstein said. "He works out three times a day. He's so committed. I can't imagine anyone could have a greater work ethic than Gordon Hayward, that's for sure. His entire life revolves around working out and getting better. He's doing really well. I think it will be an extremely emotional moment to get back out on the floor, no doubt about that."