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Gordon Hayward Reflects on His Time With Celtics and Why He Left

The former Celtic is making his first return to Boston since leaving the franchise.

BOSTON – Gordon Hayward isn’t nostalgic. What for? It’s been 14 months since he left Boston. A full season has passed. Another half of one, too. He still speaks to people within the Celtics organization. His Celtics ex-teammate, Terry Rozier, is now a current one. Injuries and last season’s downsized schedule are the only reason he hasn’t been to Boston, a city Hayward called home for three years and where Hayward insists he has positive memories.

“I think that I built a lot of great relationships in Boston,” Hayward said in a phone interview. “With the staff, with the coaches, training staff, the players. Those are the things that you remember more than anything. I know a lot of retired players always talk about it, but that's just the truth.”

It’s easy to forget what Hayward once meant to Boston. In 2017, Hayward, then a sought-after free agent, signed a four-year, $128 million deal with the Celtics. He did it in part to play for Brad Stevens, his former college coach. He did it in part for a chance to play for a championship, which the Celtics, who traded for Kyrie Irving weeks later, seemed poised to do. “When you decide you want to play for the Boston Celtics, there's so much tradition and history, that's always your goal, to try to win a championship,” Hayward says. “So I certainly thought that.”

The Celtics had veterans in Hayward, Irving and Al Horford. They had dynamic young players in Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. “The talent level was insane,” says Hayward. Five minutes into Boston’s season opener, Hayward suffered a gruesome ankle injury. He missed the rest of the 2017-18 season. He spent ’18-19 trying to find his way back. He felt good in ’19-20, but a twisted ankle early in the playoffs that season kept him out until the conference finals, which the Celtics dropped to the Heat in six games.

Hayward left Boston in 2020, though he swears he wasn’t eager to. He signed a four-year, $120 million deal with Charlotte, a decision he says had as much to do with basketball reasons as financial ones.

“The money was relatively similar at all the places that I was looking at,” says Hayward. “It was more just the place where I felt like I could maximize who I was as a basketball player. Charlotte kind of blew me away with their presentation and having the chance to take a team to that next level.”

How so?

“Just talking with [Hornets coach] James Borrego, just me playing against those guys,” says Hayward. “I kind of had seen their talent level and seen what they were about and the way they wanted to play basketball, and that fit how I wanted to play. I felt confident in myself too, that I could bring something to the team. It just felt right.”

By all accounts, the fit has been excellent. Charlotte is 24-20 and in the thick of the conference playoff race. Physically, says Hayward, he feels like the player he was in Utah. “Maybe a little less verticality than I used to have,” Hayward says. He averaged 19.6 points in his first season. He’s posting 17.3 this season, shooting close to 40% from three. He’s an integral piece of a top-five offense and a valuable veteran in a locker room loaded with young talent led by LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges.

“Miles is on another level [athletically],” Hayward said. “The stuff that he's able to do, it’s fun to sit back and watch sometimes. LaMelo with his ability to fly up and down the court and use his skill with his athleticism, with some of his finishes with both hands, it’s incredible. He does things that other players don't do and can't do. These guys are really talented.”

Hayward went to Boston to win a championship. Charlotte isn’t on that path yet, but Hayward says he is happy playing a role in helping the Hornets get there.

“I'm extremely happy,” says Hayward. “I love the city of Charlotte. I think our family loves the city of Charlotte. We certainly have room to improve and a lot of work before we can say that we're going to contend for a championship, but we're trying to do that every day and we're trying to get better and I'm doing whatever I can to help us do that. And that's different things on different nights. But certainly just trying to help us win basketball games. And it's been a lot of fun so far.”

Hayward will return to the TD Garden for the first time on Wednesday. He will likely see Stevens, though it won’t be in the opposite coaching box. He admits he was surprised when Stevens left coaching to become Boston’s president of basketball operations last summer but says Stevens has “always been somebody that no matter what he's done, he's been successful at it. And so I know he'll probably figure it out.”

Hayward and Stevens were never able to win a championship together, coming up just short at Butler, when Hayward’s potential game-winning half-court heave in the 2010 national championship game rimmed out, and with the Celtics, where horrific luck doomed them early on. But Hayward says his affection for Stevens—and Boston—remains.

“I think I'll choose to remember all the good moments that we had together,” says Hayward. “Getting a chance to play for somebody when you're 18 and then play for somebody when you're 30, I think that’s pretty cool and pretty special. He certainly helped me become the player that I am today. I owe him a lot. It’s pretty amazing that I got a chance and the opportunity to do that. It's definitely going to feel some sort of way walking in [to TD Garden]. I'm looking forward to it.”

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