SALT LAKE CITY — As Gordon Hayward warmed up in front of a small collection of fans an hour prior to the Boston Celtics’ game against the Utah Jazz on Friday, a solitary heckler screamed at him from halfway up the lower bowl.
“Miss,” the heckler shouted, as Hayward fired up a turnaround jumper against a Celtics assistant coach.
The shot dropped through.
“Do it again,” the heckler shouted.
Hayward’s next shot dropped through too. A small smile appeared to flicker across Hayward’s face. It was impossible to say for certain whether the smile was simply a reaction to the shot, or whether he heard the heckler and appreciated the small victory.
There was no mistaking the reaction on either end when Hayward was introduced a little over an hour later. Utah fans let out a year’s worth of pent-up rage at Hayward’s departure in a deafening chorus of boos.
And there was no question this time: Hayward was smiling.
Hayward told Boston reporters a week previously he hoped the year off would soften Jazz fans to his return. Clearly, Jazz fans weren’t softened — they chanted “We don’t miss you” at him loudly on multiple occasions and dedicated themselves to booing early and often. Equally clearly, Hayward hadn’t expected them to actually be softer.
So he smiled through it.
“In warmups, it was like every time, even in warmups, they were going to boo,” Hayward said. “So that was kind of funny to me. But when you’re in the game you’re not worried about that. That kind of disappears.”
Hayward wasn’t lying: Jazz fans were thoroughly locked in on Boston’s layup lines and prepared to unleash a chorus of displeasure every time Hayward touched the ball. It didn’t matter whether he was going for a layup or rebounding for a teammate — the anger coursed through the building at every available opportunity.
None of the enthusiasm dissipated as the game progressed, although Hayward silenced it on a few occasions. His first shot was a layup in transition from Jaylen Brown, which he finished cleanly. He canned a pull-up iso jumper later in the half, and he defended Donovan Mitchell well in the second half. The loudest noise, naturally, came when he was at the free-throw line, but he finished 6-for-6.
Jazz fans, however, had plenty of reason to explode. Mitchell scored an iso floater on Hayward in the second half. Jae Crowder, who has acted as a Hayward replacement of sorts, put the game away with a corner triple late in the fourth as Boston was looking to rally.
“We needed everybody in the arena,” Crowder said. “Thank you tonight, we appreciate it. We will keep it rolling for you guys, man. Thank you.”
The Jazz dropped confetti afterward, a tradition after every win. Hayward embraced Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio, and he made his way through it off the court to the brief peace and quiet of the locker room. He took his time, appearing to gather himself for the barrage of questions he had to know was coming from the moment the schedule came out and slotted his return for Nov. 9.
Some of the questions were predictable.
“Were you surprised by the boos?” (He wasn’t).
Some were a little more strange.
“I don’t know, I didn’t think about it like that,” Hayward said when asked if the game was like seeing an ex-girlfriend.
As the press conference broke up, Hayward was mobbed by a different group. An usher shook his hand and thanked him. A ball boy greeted him. He hugged a Jazz PR staffer. From every direction, his name was called, and he stopped and talked to many who asked.
“It was good to see just the people walking in, see some of the people around the arena, obviously the staff over there and some of the players,” Hayward said. “So I wish we would have won the game but it was good to see everybody.”
The Celtics, of course, lost 123-115. They are 1-3 on the road trip and frustrated with their defense. The offense has gone through inexplicable dry spells. Hayward himself is still getting his feet under himself — he’s averaging just 10.2 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting.
But Hayward could be excused if all of the team’s issues and the final score of the game were low on his list of priorities for one night. With the boos still ringing and confetti still littering the court on which he used to be the star, he wrapped up an evening he had anticipated ever since his Player’s Tribune story thanking Utah came out on July 4, 2017.
Perhaps the most relevant, least bizarre question Hayward was asked in his post-game press conference: Was this a night he was looking forward to or dreading?
“Something in between,” Hayward said. “More than anything, I was looking forward to seeing (people). I spent seven years here so I built some great relationships and was looking forward to seeing some of those people. Maybe dreading a little bit about just the hoopla of the whole thing. With my injury and everything too, it’s been a whole year. We’re focused on our own thing and I know the Jazz are focused on their thing too.”