SALT LAKE CITY — When Gordon Hayward walked out of the visitors’ locker room on Friday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena, through the tunnel and out onto the floor for warm-ups, the boos rained down from the fans.
Every time he touched the ball in warm-ups, the boos came again. The boos came when Hayward’s Boston Celtics jogged out to the floor before tipoff, Hayward the last one to come out. They came the loudest when his name was announced during introductions. The sellout crowd of 18,306 — including one fan who had doctored an old Utah Jazz No. 20 so the nameplate read “COWARD” instead of “HAYWARD” — booed so loudly that you couldn’t even hear his name.
They booed every time he got the ball. They booed when he checked into the game. They booed when he checked out of the game. They booed when he made a shot (although, to be fair, you could make out some scattered applause, too). They applauded during the first quarter when Hayward collided with his former teammate Joe Ingles at midcourt and fell to the ground. They booed and laughed when Hayward airballed an open jumper from point-blank range in the second quarter.
And in final minute of the fourth quarter, as the Jazz had finally pulled away in what would become a 123-115 victory, Hayward went to the free throw line. And Jazz fans chanted in unison how they really felt about Hayward, 16 months after he jilted the small-market franchise for the bright lights of the Boston Celtics.
“WE DON’T MISS YOU!” they chanted. “WE DON’T MISS YOU!”
“I kind of expected some of that,” Hayward said with a shrug after his first game back in the city where he spent the first seven years of his career. “It’s part of the game. They were booing me from the get-go. In warm-ups too. Every time I touched the ball even in warm-ups, I was getting booed. That was kind of funny to me. But when you’re in the game, you’re not worried about that. That kind of disappears.”
When Hayward left Utah, the pain of Jazz fans was acute. As Hayward had developed into a star here, the Jazz had turned from an NBA afterthought — a team that missed the playoffs in five of six years, including one season where they won only 25 games — into a force that won 51 games and a playoff series in his final season.
Then he left. Utah, an underdog place to begin with, felt jilted. He could have been the face of the franchise in the city where his first child was born. Instead, he went somewhere else. Him leaving didn’t feel like a simple business decision; it felt personal. Some Jazz fans performed the bizarre 21st-century sports cleansing ritual of taking a Hayward Jazz jersey, dousing it in gasoline, burning it, and then posting the video on social media.
As Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Weisel once wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”
Utah’s feelings toward Gordon Hayward, and the way they rapidly shifted from adoration to antipathy, displayed that.
And then the most unlikely thing happened.
A charismatic kid named Donovan Mitchell moved into town.
And the Utah Jazz moved on.
The jersey-burning ritual is as much of a part of modern-day sports as the emotion-filled return game. It’s something a star player must go through when he leaves a place that he once called home. When LeBron left Cleveland the first time, fans burned his jerseys, and then the Cavaliers went from a 61-win team that made the Eastern Conference semifinals to a 19-win team. When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, fans burned his jerseys, and the Thunder went from a 55-win team that made the Western Conference Finals to a 47-win team that lost in the first round. When Shaq left Orlando — well, it was too early for the social-media-performative-jersey-burning-ritual, but the Magic went from a 60-win team that made the Eastern Conference Finals to a 45-win team that got bounced in the first round.
That’s not to say Hayward was the equal of any of those players.
But because of the way he jilted Utah, the emotions felt the same.
After Hayward left, the Jazz turned from a 51-win team that made the Western Conference semifinals to … a 48-win team that made the Western Conference semifinals.
Basically, the same team.
Only with a new, younger, more explosive and more charismatic star player at the helm.
“I don’t think you can deny the timing,” David Locke, the Jazz’s radio play-by-play announcer, told me about why Mitchell has so revitalized the Jazz and their fans. “Our hearts have been ripped out, stomped on. Gordon’s departure was crushing to the fan base. And it wasn’t just that Gordon left. It’s that he left somewhat heartlessly, without a thank you, without a recognition of any commitment, without mentioning a teammate in his Player’s Tribune article. The fan base felt as though they’d just been used. So here came this kid with this happiness and excitement to him — even before he started playing great last year. Go back to Summer League, right after Gordon left, and the crowd’s already attached to him. There’s a timing thing that was perfect here.”
And so, even though Jazz fans felt compelled to belt out the boos on Friday night for his return, it didn’t feel like the boos were all that anger-filled. Instead, it was almost like this was a rite of passage for Jazz fans. Sure, they were deeply hurt when Hayward left last year. But things have changed since then. They still felt compelled to boo him, like this was what was expected of them, but the feelings weren’t as raw. The Jazz had moved on with a new star. And there was the empathy that came with Hayward’s gruesome leg injury from last season, in his first game for his new team.
“It’s been a long time,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s a long time ago.”
What it felt like on Friday night was ultimately less a vitriolic display of fandom than a reconnection between two ex-lovers — two people who’d had some great times together back in the day, but who had both moved on, and who had both become better for it.
“We’ve all lived homecomings of sorts,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “Everybody handles those the way they handle them. I think obviously as time goes by it may get easier and easier. But the first time back is always a little bit unique.”
And so Hayward smirked in warm-ups when the fans booed him. He smirked during introductions. He didn’t smirk during the game itself — he was too focused on doing his job — but he smirked while talking about it during postgame interviews. This was still a place that gave him warm feelings.
“I spent seven years here,” he said. “I built some really great relationships. Maybe dreading it a little bit, just the hoopla of the whole thing. (But) I grew up here, coming in as a rookie. As I improved, I grew up as well, ended up getting married, had a couple kids, had one of them here. Just a lot of fond memories here. The biggest one was the process that we started. We weren’t very good all the way up to my last year when we won that round of the playoffs.”
The cameras switched off, and Hayward walked toward a VIP lounge in the bowels of the arena before heading to the team bus. Hayward hugged the Jazz’s head of public relations and chatted. Hayward’s wife, pregnant with their third child, pointed her husband toward a security guard he had been close with, and Hayward walked over and gave him a hug.
The emotions were complicated. But for a moment, it felt like Gordon Hayward was back home.