SALT LAKE CITY – When Gordon Hayward left the visitors' locker room on Friday night at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, through the tunnel and on the floor for the warm-up, the whistles rained down by the fans.
Every time he touched the ball in the warm-ups, the whistles came again. The whistles came when Hayward's Boston Celtics ran to the ground before the rollover, Hayward the last to leave. They arrived the strongest when his name was announced during the presentations. The sold out crowd of 6.306 – including a fan who had cared for an old Utah Jazz n. 20 so the plate said "COWARD" instead of "HAYWARD" – it whistled so loud that you could not even hear his name.
They whistled every time he took the ball. They whistled when he checked in. They whistled when he extracted the game. They whistled when he made an attempt (even if, to be honest, you could also see some applause spread). They applauded during the first quarter when Hayward clashed with his former team-mate Joe Ingles in midfield and fell to the ground. They whistled and laughed when Hayward blew a white open hopper into the second quarter.
And at the last minute of the fourth quarter, while the Jazz had finally retreated into what would become a 123-115 victory, Hayward went to the free throw line. And Jazz fans sang unison as they really felt about Hayward, 16 months after stopping the small market franchise for the bright lights of the Boston Celtics.
"WE DO NOT LOSE YOU!" they sang. "WE DO NOT LOSE YOU!"
"I was expecting something like that," said Hayward with a shrug following his first game in the city where he spent the first seven years of his career. "It's part of the game, I've been whistling since the beginning, even in the warm-ups, every time I hit the ball even in the warm-up, I was whistling, it was pretty fun for me, but when you're in the game , you're not worried about this, this kind of disappears ".
When Hayward left Utah, the pain of Jazz fans was acute. As Hayward had turned into a star here, the Jazz had moved from a rethink of the NBA – a team that lost the playoffs in five of the six years, including a season in which they only won 25 games – in a force that won 51 games and a series of playoffs in his last season.
So he left. Utah, a losing place to start with, felt left out. He could be the face of the franchise in the city where his first child was born. Instead, he went somewhere else. His departure did not seem a simple commercial decision; he felt personal. Some Jazz fans performed the bizarre 21st century sports purification ritual to wear a Hayward Jazz shirt, smash it with gasoline, burn it and post the video on social media.
As the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel once wrote, "the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference".
This was demonstrated by the feelings of Utah towards Gordon Hayward and the way in which they quickly passed away from adoration to dislike.
And then the most unlikely thing happened.
A charismatic boy named Donovan Mitchell moved to the city.
And Utah Jazz went ahead.
The ritual that burns the shirt is part of modern sports like the return game full of emotions. It's something that a star player has to go through when he leaves a place he once called home. When LeBron left Cleveland for the first time, the fans burned his jerseys, and then the Cavaliers went from a team of 61 wins that brought the Eastern Conference semifinals to a team with 19 wins. When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, the fans burned his jerseys, and the Thunder went from a team of 55 wins that led the Western Conference Finals to a team of 47 wins in the first round. When Shaq left Orlando – well, it was too early for the social-media-performative-jersey-burning ritual, but the Magic passed by a team of 60 wins that turned the Eastern Conference Finals into a team of 45 wins bounced back into the first round.
This does not mean that Hayward was the same as any of those players.
But because of the way he left Utah, the emotions felt the same.
After Hayward left, the Jazz passed by a team of 51 victories that turned the Western Conference semifinals into … a team of 48 wins that made the Western Conference semi-finals.
Basically, the same team.
Only with a new protagonist, younger, more explosive and more charismatic at the helm.
"I do not think you can deny timing," David Locke, the jazz radio announcer, told me about why Mitchell revitalized Jazz and their fans. "Our hearts were ripped, trampled, Gordon's departure was overwhelming for the fan base. And it was not just that Gordon left, it's that he left a little heartless, without a thank you, without acknowledging any commitment, without mentioning a teammate in his Player & # 39; s Tribune article. The fan base felt like they had just been used. So here this guy came with this happiness and excitement for him – even before he started playing big last year. Back to the Summer League, just after Gordon's gone, and the crowd is already fond of him. There is a timing thing that has been perfect here. "
And so, even if the Jazz fans felt obliged to pack the whistles on Friday night for his return, it did not seem that the whistles were full of anger. Instead, it was almost as if this was a rite of passage for Jazz fans. Of course, they were deeply hurt when Hayward came out last year. But things have changed since then. They still felt forced to whistle, as if it were what was expected of them, but the feelings were not so raw. The Jazz had gone on with a new star. And there was the empathy that came with Hayward's fierce leg injury last season, in his first game for his new team.
"It's been a long time," said Jazz Quin Snyder's coach. "It's been a long time."
What looked like Friday night was ultimately a less crazy vitriolic performance than a reconciliation between two former lovers – two people who had had a good time together during the day, but who had both continued, and that had both become better for this.
"We have experienced all kinds of homecomings," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "Everyone manages the way they handle them, I think that over time it could become easier and easier, but the first time is always a little bit unique."
And so Hayward grinned in the warm-up when the fans whistled. He grinned during the presentations. He did not smile during the game – he was too focused on doing his job – but he smiled as he talked about it during post-game interviews. This was still a place that gave him warm feelings.
"I spent seven years here," he said. "I've built some really great relationships, maybe dreading them a bit, just the hustle and bustle of the whole thing. (But) I grew up here, coming like a rookie." As I improved, I grew up too, I ended up getting married, had a couple of sons, there was one here, just a lot of good memories here.The biggest thing was the process we started.We were not very good until my last year when we won that round of the playoffs. "
The cameras went out and Hayward headed for a VIP room in the bowels of the arena before heading for the team bus. Hayward hugged the head of Jazz's public relations and chatted. Hayward's wife, pregnant with their third child, pointed her husband to a security guard he had been with, and Hayward came over and hugged him.
Emotions were complicated. But for a moment, it seemed that Gordon Hayward was back home.