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  • Gordon Hayward is the rare NBA player who was better at another sport. The Celtics star, whose Indiana ties loom large in Boston, is still close to his tennis roots.
By Jon Wertheim
September 28, 2017

By 7:00 a.m. in mid-August, the sun had started to rise, the equivalent of shedding tearaway pants and coming off the bench. Inside the San Diego State basketball gym, Kawhi Leonard finished up a free throw drill. And then it was time for Gordon Hayward to take over the court for his workout. The NBA All-Stars were two of the five people in the entire facility, yet they passed without acknowledging each other. Leonard is famously, strenuously, almost pathologically, shy. Hayward had a different explanation. “I’m pretty sure he didn't recognize me.”

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Players can add muscle and improve conditioning, but self-perception can be hard to change. Hayward may be a steadily ascending star—he’s improved his scoring average in each of his seven seasons—whose employment status can dominate entire news cycles. But he still sees himself as the accidental NBA player. Were it not for an unexpected teenage growth spurt—his parents are both 5'10"—Hayward intended to play tennis, not basketball, in college. He played at Butler, yes, because it was a few miles from his home in Indianapolis, but mostly because it was the only school that had recruited him with anything resembling zeal. He was surprised when the Jazz selected him at No. 9 in the 2010 draft; he was less surprised when he averaged 5.4 ppg. as a rookie.

While the end result would be wealth to the point of abstraction, Hayward approached his free agency this summer with a mix of wonderment and unease, knowing his persona would no longer be grata in at least one NBA market. In the end, of course, he chose to leave Utah for Boston, signing a four-year deal for $128 million. While it wasn’t Durant-to-the-Warriors big, Hayward’s move marked the most prominent personnel shift this off-season.

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Though his Jazz days are behind him, Hayward plays the minor keys. He scores often but efficiently, averaging 21.9 points on fewer than 16 shots a game. He also has a sixth sense for basketball nuance, whether it’s reading switches or moving off screens or defending the pick-and-roll. Aware of the assumptions that go with it, he sheepishly admits that he encapsulates Indiana basketball. In Boston, not only does a previous small forward from Indiana loom large, but Hayward will be reunited with another fellow-Hoosier, his college coach Brad Stevens.

He’s spending the last few days of his chaotic summer in San Diego, where he and his wife, Robyn, keep an off-season home. There’s a tennis court in the back. Hayward hasn’t gotten around to installing a basketball goal. He invited Tennis Channel and Sports Illustrated to visit and hit a few balls. Here are some outtakes from the afternoon session, edited lightly for length and clarity.


Brian Babineau/Getty Images

The other day I had lunch with Steve Kerr. A woman comes up, “I’m sorry to interrupt but I’m a big fan.” Before I can say “thanks,” I realize she’s talking to Steve and is looking at me because I’m supposed to take the photo. Which I did. 

One of the first times I met Brad Stevens, I was a senior in high school. He wasn’t head coach at Butler yet. He was recruiting.  I was playing tennis and hadn't lost yet all season. Undefeated at the time at No.1 singles. He came and I ended up losing.  So I said, “No more. You can't come back to any more matches.”  I was actually really embarrassed, because he knew that I was supposed to be a good player. 

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Isaiah Thomas did a tremendous job helping recruit me. He talked about Boston as a city, the fans, the organization, the coaches, the people that are involved behind the scenes. He was somebody I was definitely excited about playing with; you know he’s an unbelievable player, he had an unbelievable year last year. I would be lying if I said that this wasn’t the truth. But like I just said, I have been in the business long enough to realize it is a business, things happen, things can change and I go from an opportunity playing with IT and the rest of the guys that were on to now playing with Kyrie Irving, who’s an unbelievable, one of the best basketball players in the league and another great opportunity for me.

Initially I was a baseliner.  I was always just fast and athletic and could just get to every ball.  And I'd just keep the ball in.  Then I started growing when I was in high school, and my coach told me that I had to get to the net. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was straight serve-and-volleyer, chip and charge, always get into the net. 

The individual nature of tennis, yeah, I love that.  That was one of my favorite parts about the game.  I actually didn't really like playing doubles.  I would always play it in tournaments just 'cause you could enter it for free and it was another way to stay on the court.  But singles was my passion. You're really out there on an island.  It was something where you got all the glory when you won, but you also took all the blame when you lost.  In doubles, I felt like I would let my partner down if I messed up.  You know, you're trying to be perfect for them.  Or there are times when they're struggling and it's hard because you then want to take all the shots and you can't.  Singles really helped me in other sports and in other areas, because you have to pick yourself up mentally, move on to the next play when you make a mistake.  And there's nobody out there to help you with that.  

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

I really don't like specializing and playing only one sport so young.  I think there's so much to learn from playing other sports.  You don't get burnt out.  Physically, your muscles aren't pounding over and over the same movements.  And there's so many other things you can pick up from other sports.  I wouldn't be nearly the basketball player I am if I didn't play tennis, if I didn't play soccer, if I didn't play some of these other sports that helped me develop.  

There was a time when I was a freshman in high school where I wasn't growing. I was 5'11", probably like 120, 130 pounds.  Just thought like, “This basketball thing might not be the way I play a sport in college.”  You know, luckily I ended up growing.  I was 6'8" by the time I was a senior.  So the basketball thing ended up working out for me.  

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I think if LeBron tried to do anything, he'd probably be really good, if he trained enough. I bet Steph Curry would be pretty good at tennis. He’s somebody that's got great hand-eye. Good golfer. Seems like he'd pick things up pretty easily and quickly.  Touch, finesse, yeah, he'd be pretty good.

Summer has flown by for me, just with the decision for free agency, and then all that goes along with that. I think things have finally started to settle down. Right before they're going to pick back up again. Then trying to move from Utah to Boston, all the while staying here in San Diego.  So it's been definitely a crazy summer. But I'm excited about the upcoming season. Excited about being in Boston.  

If the Celtics had won the title last season they're less appealing to me. I didn't want to necessarily go to a team that was a title winner or anything like that. I think it is something that I want to strive to accomplish.  To do it with them and with my old coach, that would be a lot of fun.  

Michael Conroy/AP Images

This past summer was way more stressful than picking a college.  I wasn't heavily recruited in college, and so there were only a handful of choices.  There wasn't any media exposure at all.  People really didn't care where I went, except for the people that were in my circle. And this time? No matter what decision I would have made, people would have been upset and would have said I made the wrong decision.  You know, it was all over ESPN and Twitter and everything.  

I had to just get off of social media and not look at it because—no matter what you do, no matter what you say—there will be people who are going to take it the wrong way, take it to mean something else, take it out of context, be upset with your decision and not understand.  So I just had to get off social media, try not to worry about it. I know in my heart I made the right decision.  I'm happy with it. I have to just move on.  

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It's kind of come full circle here.  You just have déjà vu when Brad was recruiting me.  I got off the plane in Boston and he's standing there outside the terminal and waiting. I had flashbacks of him coming to my workouts 5:45 in the morning Brownsburg High School trying to get me to come to Butler.  Now here he is picking me up, trying to get me to play for him with the Boston Celtics.  

I think if you would have told either one of us 10 years ago “you're going to both be playing together again for the Boston Celtics,” we both would have said, “No way, absolutely not, I don't believe you.” It's definitely a cool story. I'm looking forward to playing for him again.  

I think what makes Brad a really good coach is more than anything—at least from when I was with him—was his preparation. He just knew the answer to everything before we even played the game.  And if something didn't work, he would have a Plan B.  If that didn't work, he'd have a Plan C.  He already envisioned it in his mind and we'd already practiced it and gone over it.  He already knew when the game was on the line what play we were going to run based on how they were guarding things, because he already knew how they were going to guard things.  If they decided to switch it up, he knew what their backup plan was, so he could attack that.  His preparation was just really, really on point.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

My leadership skills were definitely not good when I first got into the NBA. Tennis being an individual sport, you don't have to communicate.  You're communicating with yourself internally more than anything.  You know, I would always just do that.  And still to this day as a leader, I've gotten more vocal, but I'm still not rah-rah, yell at people, really get going vocally.  I've always been more of a lead-by-example type person.  

I had to learn how to lead and how to be more vocal with teammates in other areas because I was just so used to, you know, leading myself and motivating myself.  

I think what I'm most proud of from my basketball career is kind of just the work that I put in to get to the level of player I am today. I think for me I still haven't accomplished the ultimate goal, which is to win a championship. I'm a team-first kind of guy, so that's always been my goal.  

But individually I think to work from going from a rookie and not playing too much to then becoming an All-Star last year, all the sacrifices that were made and time that was put in, that's really rewarding for me.

What's the most Indiana thing about me? I would say that I played basketball in a small-ish kind of town and ended up winning the state tournament on a last-second shot. Indiana is known for Hoosiers, Jimmy Chitwood, state title, kind of an underdog going and winning the whole thing.  That's what we were.  And that's pretty Indiana.  

I've had some of those Larry Bird comparisons on Twitter already.  They're completely ridiculous. You know, Larry is a legend and I'm not even close to that.  I think it's just the fact that he's an Indiana guy, I'm from Indiana. Same position, same height. But he won some titles there, so maybe I can do the same thing.  

With tennis, if you don't win, you're not necessarily getting paid. That's one of the things that basketball players are blessed with: guaranteed contracts. So whether or not you're playing your best or playing your worst, you're still getting paid.  So it's probably pretty stressful, pretty nerve-wracking for a tennis player. But you know, also maybe that helps you work even harder. If I weren't a professional basketball player, for sure I would have tried to be a professional tennis player.

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