The Idiosyncratic Heroism of Gordon Hayward
If the Jazz were a comic book, Gordon Hayward would be its hero. Which isn’t to say he’s playing the best basketball on the team or even that he will have the brightest career, just that of all the Jazzmen, Gordon Hayward embodies a narrative and personality most fitting a comic book hero. But not just the over-simplified, Adam West Batman kind of hero, and not just the Christopher Nolanesque, brooding and tortured kind of hero either. Gordon Hayward is all kinds of hero. He’s flawed and talented. Insecure and confident. Timid and reckless. Glaring shortcomings mingled with occasional flashes of blinding brilliance. Simultaneously subdued and authoritative (see: Friday night’s dunk). He’s just simple enough to root for and just complex enough to fascinate you. With Hayward, it’s all about which moments you’re watching–which abrupt snapshots of which brand of Gordon you witness. To say I understand him, even in simple, basketball terms, would be completely inaccurate. To say that I’m never baffled and frustrated by him would be dishonest. And to say that I believe with every iota in my basketball-breathing soul that he will be Great and Legendary would be hyperbole. But only slightly.
By any normal standards of judgment, Gordon Hayward is an enigma. As I have mentioned, the guy was one shot away from attaining Cult Hero Status as the Indiana boy who conquered college basketball’s malevolent tyrant, but he’s also a well-documented and self-publicized video game nerd. He has definitely cracked the Top Five Most Athletic White Americans in the NBA list, and yet he struggles in stereotypically white-boy basketball skills (pure, spot-up shooting to name one). He disappears for long stretches at a time only to return for a highlight reel drive and dish. He doggedly adheres to the rigidity of the half-court offense but thrives in the creativity of the open-court. Occasionally opponents blow by his weak perimeter defense and on a subsequent possession see their shot sent back by one of Hayward’s patented, help-side blocks. In fact, before Saturday’s game against Golden State, I was devising a post in which I examined how to better utilize his considerable talents in the team’s offense. Then Saturday night happened, and I was left both pleased and confused by Hayward’s performance.
The fact is, as hard as it is to assess Gordon’s broader effect on the game, I’m often disappointed at how reluctantly he asserts himself. But even as I puzzle over his seeming fear for the spotlight, he grabs a loose ball, races down the court, draws the foul, and nails a game-winning free throw that acts as the culmination of an awe-inspiring, box score -filling performance. It’s almost as though he glories in seizing those moments when everyone has counted him out. He waits, and waits, until you’ve started to lose faith, to regret your prediction that he’ll be an all-star, and to lower your expectations to Rasual Butler levels–then he strikes. Then he wakes up, looks you in the eye and unassumingly asks “remember me?” Suddenly, he’s blitzing the passing lanes and starting fastbreaks. He’s throwing down brash dunks and flying around the court like Detlef Schrempf on speed. Most importantly, he’s winning games for the team you’ve loved all your life. He’s showing the same kind of respect for the game that drives you to wear that Jazz T-shirt for four game-days in one week because you think it’s lucky (it is lucky). He understands how you feel about this team, and he wants to win it for you. Gradually, in that dawning of comprehension, you begin to see the possibility that Momentarily Great Gordon Hayward could be Always Great Gordon Hayward. You begin to see Gordon Hayward The Future. Gordon Hayward The Hero.