Gordon Hayward is not your conventional underdog. He excelled as both an all-state basketball and tennis player in high school. He grew up in Indiana, the hub of basketball.
His high school, Brownsburg, won the state championship in 2008 off his buzzer beater.
It’s safe to say he was a superb athlete.
But some believed that his devotion to both basketball and tennis hurt his college basketball prospects. While the majority of big-time schools overlooked him, a young, budding coach named Brad Stevens took a chance on Hayward, offering him a scholarship at Butler University.
We all know how that relationship worked out.
Stevens and Hayward led the Butler Bulldogs to prominence in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Butler, like Hayward, was under-appreciated and flew under-the-radar.
I can still hear the clang of the basketball off the rim, just inches away from going in, on a shot Hayward fired off at the buzzer against Duke in the National Championship game. Had it gone in, Hayward would have made one of the greatest plays in the history of sports given the magnitude of the moment.
In many underdog stories, the protagonist experiences moments of temporary failure, but out of the ashes of failure rises a stronger person, more prepared mentally and physically to embrace the next challenge.
Hayward did not let that miss deter him from knowing his worth as a potential NBA prospect.
Unfortunately, the challenge of carving out a niche in the NBA was just a small form of adversity compared to what happened to him on that fateful night of October 17th, 2017.
Yes, his rise from Brownsburg, Indiana is commendable, but the true test of his character and what it means to succeed as an underdog was on display five minutes into opening night of the 2017-2018 NBA season.
“Hayward broke his leg…Hayward has broken his leg.”
Except for his sophomore season in the NBA (2011-2012), where he played sixty-six games, Hayward averaged in the seventies for games played in his seven seasons with the Utah Jazz.
Then, in his first game with the Celtics, in the first year of his four-year, $128MM deal, everything changed. Hayward cut toward the basket, leaped off the ground for an alley-oop, and landed awkwardly.
Something wasn’t right.
The gasp by Cavalier’s center Tristan Thompson said it all. Hayward broke his tibia and dislocated his ankle. Witnessing such a horrific injury as a devoted Celtics’s fan, but most importantly, as a fan of Hayward, broke my heart.
My mind immediately shot to Paul George’s injury several years ago in the USA basketball scrimmage. George came back from his gruesome injury. After missing basically the entire 2014-2015 season, he started and played in eighty-one games the following season. He was named an All-Star — shooting 42% from the field and 37% from three.
So, who’s to say Hayward couldn’t do the same?
But first, he’d have to endure months of rehab following two separate surgeries. Sure, he could come back physically. But it’s difficult to imagine, at the time, the mental and emotional toll that would challenge his desire to return.
Fans kept faith that his indomitable will would carry him. The intense desire to build himself into an NBA All-Star from that slight, skinny freshman at Brownsburg High School just nine years prior.
Hayward battled all the way back and returned this season, ready in time for training camp with a new appreciation for basketball.
“There has definitely been a renewal of my passion for the game,” Hayward told GQ last week. “Practices, lacing up the shoes, putting on the uniform, even the drills I hated doing — all that means so much more to me now.”
In his twenty-six games (fifteen started), Hayward has shown flashes of his All-Star level in Utah. But many think he is a shell of himself.
In the 2016-2017, Hayward’s All-Star season, he shot 47% from the field, shooting about 40% from three. This season, he is only shooting 41% from the field and a pedestrian 34% from three.
Naysayers may write him off, saying that he will never return to his peak form. But those people fail to see the heart of a champion in Hayward. He’s proven since day one that he deserves to play at the highest level of basketball and excel.
Granted, Hayward may never reach the statistical success that he achieved in Utah. But it’s far more important to recognize his ability to even get back on the court a year after one of the most gruesome injuries ever seen in sports.
What separates Hayward from many players at his talent level is that he wants to win. And be a leader while doing so.
During the Celtics’ early struggles this year — as Stevens tinkered to create the most optimal lineup with the abundance of talent that his team possesses — Hayward told his former college and now professional coach, that he would be willing to come off the bench.
A Burning Desire
Hayward’s sacrifice for the betterment of the team is the mark of the consummate leader.
We should all root for a guy like this. First and foremost, few could even return from such an injury. And even fewer would sacrifice their own minutes.
He does so because he wants to achieve the ultimate prize — an NBA Championship. But also because Hayward knows the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In the end, Hayward’s sudden rise to prominence comes from a combination of hard work, desire, family, and coaching. If you look back to the beginning of his journey and who he is as a person, Hayward’s underdog story is less surprising than it seems.
If you look closely enough, you’ll see what makes him tick is the same as any overachieving athlete, actor, musician, or entrepreneur.
What’s your favorite NBA comeback story? Comment below.