Basketball bonds: Gordon Hayward's father has helped the Jazz player during every step of his career
SALT LAKE CITY — In the disappointing aftermath of the Utah Jazz's season-ending loss at Memphis on April 17, Gordon Hayward's smartphone buzzed with a string of late-night texts.
Some messages included long-distance compliments.
Others offered constructive criticism from afar.
All were anticipated.
This particular flurry of feedback was sent from the familiar 317 area code of central Indiana, and more specifically from the phone of his all-time favorite coach — the shorter, older, wiser Gordon Hayward.
This wasn't an isolated occasion or merely an end-of-season exchange.
Gordon Scott Hayward, the father, has been giving Gordon Daniel Hayward, the son, some type of personal performance analysis since the younger one started playing basketball as a 4-year-old.
After every single game.
The postgame chats became a ritual about 15 years ago inside of a minivan — an old, two-tone tan and burgundy Mazda MPV that the younger Gordon remembers as being "boring."
That Hayward tradition even took on a name of its own: "Van Talk."
Circumstances have drastically changed, but the back-and-forth dialogue continues years later — just on mobile phones, not in a minivan.
This soul-to-cell interaction is one of many ways these Gordon Haywards remain tightly bonded even while the son's job keeps him hundreds or thousands of miles away from his family's home in Brownsburg, Ind., for eight months a year except for that one night each season when Utah visits Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"He's always been there for me," Gordon said of his father. "And I always appreciate him for that."
"He knows the game, and we're on the same page," the elder Hayward added. "We can have those kind of conversations and he can share his successes or his frustrations with me and I can relate to them, understand, and help him get through them."
That usually happens in eight to 20 text messages per game.
Thank heaven for unlimited data plans.
If you want to see a smile emerge on Gordon's youthful visage — or maybe watch his eyes well up with moist, salty love — just ask the 23-year-old about his mom and dad.
"They're the best parents in the world," he's quick to say.
And he means it.
Good luck finding a more supportive pair.
Before Gordon's NBA career, the Hayward parents, both of whom have full-time jobs, watched all of his basketball games in person, whether they were held in Brownsburg gyms, at Butler's famed Hinkle Fieldhouse or in foreign countries like New Zealand and Italy. Although they can't attend all 82 NBA games a season, the Haywards even went on a 2,300-mile driving expedition to Memphis, New Orleans and Oklahoma City, beginning and ending near Indianapolis, during a back-to-back-to-back Jazz road trip during the lockout-shortened season.
Whether she goes to his games or not, Gordon's mom, Jody Hayward, always sends him a thoughtful pregame text. Before hitting the pillow every night, she also sends Gordon and his twin sister, Heather, goodnight texts.
"We have a lot of traditions," Hayward's dad said.
The more traditions, the more ways to stay close together as a family, which is of utmost importance to parents who've done everything they possibly can to raise their children to be good Christians.
"As a parent or as a coach, you feel like you do all you can do," Hayward said. "After that, it's in God's hands. You've done your job."
Fortunately for Gordon, his dad isn't quite ready to fully turn the job over to The Big Coach Upstairs just yet.
Technology has helped the Haywards evolve with an ever-changing lifestyle and adapt when distances come between them, allowing traditions like "Van Talk" to continue. The 5-foot-10 Hayward, who swam, played tennis and baseball at Brownsburg in his high school days, feels it's his responsibility and privilege to continue doing his job of helping his only boy succeed even though he's a mature pro and not a peewee player.
Whenever he can watch Jazz games — after a busy day loaded with duties as a full-time software engineer and part-time assistant coach — Hayward types down thoughts and analysis as the action goes on. He then fires off the observation-packed texts to Gordon after the final buzzer.
Hayward knows his missives can be lengthy. It cracked him up to hear his son discuss the long-distance consultations once with Jazz broadcaster David Locke. He laughs about how Gordon told Locke, "Yeah, I've got this whole book I've got to read from my dad."
The proud author cracks a grin about his long-winded fingers.
"I think he appreciates it anyways," the elder Hayward said. He chuckled and added, "I'm not sure if he gets half of them."
Gordon does. He might be in the locker room, on the team charter or at his place, but he gets them and reads every single word. Then he plays the role of a good son.
"He always responds," his dad said.
Sometimes, Gordon will pick up the phone and talk things over with his father. At times, he'll ask questions or explain what his intentions were and what happened via a text chat.
Other times, the son simply replies, "Thanks" or "Appreciate it, Dad" or "Love you."
A son's gift
If a Father's Day tradition holds up this Sunday morning, Gordon will show a token of gratitude to his namesake. As he's done before, the local legend will accompany his dad to a school gym somewhere in the Indianapolis area where a group that gathers every Sunday for hoops will play a pick-up game with — or at least in the company of — the lifelong Pacers' fan who wears No. 20 for the Jazz.
Gordon, who's been invited to participate in an elite USA Basketball minicamp in July with teammate Derrick Favors, might feel like he's playing in a slow-mo replay. But his dad loves this annual gift. So do his weekend warrior basketball buddies, who cherish getting autographs, photos and a chance to catch up with a rising NBA star who's as down to earth as he is talented.
"They'll bring their sons and jerseys and whatever (to be signed)," the elder Hayward explained. "They all know it's Father's Day and Gordon's going to be there."
The same thing happens when Dad's birthday rolls around in August.
Sometimes after they change out of their basketball shorts and put on their church clothes for Sunday services, Gordon gives his dad some payback in the car. These are the perfect like-father-like-son occasions for the coach to receive some "Van Talk" of his own.
Both Gordon Haywards laugh about that.
"He'll give me a pointer, 'Dad, what are you doing!? What were you thinking!?'" the 40-something Hayward said, chuckling.
"Once you get to be that age and you're still playing basketball, there's a lot of things that your body just can't do. It's pretty funny to watch him play," the younger Gordon said, teasingly. "His game's progressively slowing down at a rapid pace, so I've got to take it easy on him."
Dad is careful not to overstep his bounds with "Van Talk." Not surprisingly for an Indiana guy, he knows basketball inside and out, even assisting Gordon's Butler teammate Ronald Nored at Brownsburg last season. Still, he's fully aware that Tyrone Corbin, Sidney Lowe and Mike Sanders are his son's coaches. He'd never instruct Gordon to do something different than what he's told to do by the Jazz. Dad is a helpful mentor, but they're his son's bosses and it's important for him to maintain that level of respect by not interfering or giving contradicting counsel behind their backs.
"It's always about skill," the elder Hayward said. "It's not about strategy."
Gordon gets the distinct difference. "It's like a play-by-play of what I did well, what I could've done better, which is kind of cool."
"Depending on the play, it could be short like, 'Great space and shot.' Or like, 'Good energy for the first quarter,'" the Jazz shooting guard said. "Or it could be, 'You need to do this, this, this, this or should've done this instead of that.'"
In the do-this-instead-of-that category, the former NCAA poster boy admitted he'll sometimes drive too deep and try to force contact in hopes of getting to the free-throw line. His dad and coaches suggest that he mix it up by pulling up for a jumper, shooting a floater or dishing out to a teammate instead of venturing into referees-aren't-going-to-bail-you-out land where he's at a disadvantage.
"He's always like, 'Yeah, you're right,'" the smiling father said. "I told him, 'I don't want to hear I'm right. What I want to hear, 'Yeah, I know. I watched it. I'm going to go work on it, and I'm going to stop it.'"
Hayward continued, laughing, "I don't want to hear I'm right. That doesn't do anything for me. I know I'm right."
What's that saying about father knows best?
Dad summed up the standard advice given to his son: "Make the right basketball play."
"It's not about stats. It's not about scoring," he said. "It's about making the right decision, making the right play."
That constant input might feel overbearing and annoy some sons. Not Gordon. He knows his dad, the man who taught him how to shave and properly tie a tie, wants him to maximize his talent. The scrutiny and positive reinforcement will help him and his team throughout his NBA career. Most importantly, this relationship ritual is a continual reaffirmation of his dad's deep love and commitment for him.
"It's nice to have that," Gordon said. "For him to take the time to watch my games — every single game — and send me text messages is pretty special."
Early last season, Gordon was in a shooting slump and Mom wanted to help, too.
Forget about how the slender 5-foot-10 athlete used to avoid shooting the ball when she was Brownsburg High's starting center as much as she shuns on-the-record interviews with reporters.
"My buddy and I went and watched her. We used to yell 'Shoot!' every time she got the ball. She never shot the ball. She just got it and passed it immediately, even though she was a pretty good shooter," the elder Hayward recalled of his longtime sweetheart. "One time, they passed it into her on the inbounds. She turned around and passed it right back to the girl before she had a chance to step in."
Now you know where Utah's Gordon inherited his tendency to deferentially pass up shooting opportunities earlier in his career.
Another thing he got from his mom?
A cool-and-collected temperament.
Jody's favorite tennis player growing up was Bjorn Borg, a Swedish star known for being an emotionally steady and quiet champion — but also about as boring as that old van. One time as a kid, Borg threw a tantrum during a match. That didn't sit well with his mom, who locked up his tennis racquet in a cabinet and didn't let him play for a month.
"After that," Hayward said, "he just never had any emotion at all."
The Haywards' version of that story involved Gordon tossing his cap down in disgust while changing sides during a tennis match. Unhappy about her teenager's action, Jody gathered up her stuff, walked off and didn't come back. (Don’t tell anyone, but it's possible she watched the match from a distance.)
Parents were the only spectators, so Gordon saw her leave. He knew she was disappointed in his behavior. His dad, more of a John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors guy, said that experience "definitely had an impact" on Gordon's on-the-court comportment.
To wit, the Jazz shooting guard's demeanor during basketball games is similar to one of his favorite tennis players growing up — the unflappable Pete Sampras. Gordon didn't even realize he'd received the first technical of his life back in 2012 — for trying to get separation from then-Clipper Mo Williams, of all people — until he came to the Jazz bench and teammate Raja Bell told him, "There went two grand." He rarely bickers with refs, and he didn't even retaliate when Delonte West weirdly stuck a finger in his ear.
Going back to his slump last season, Jody wanted to step in and help restore her son's shooting confidence when he probably felt like throwing tennis racquets and caps because of his struggles.
Somewhat jokingly, his mom made this offer from Indiana: "I'll come out and help work with your shot."
Gordon's carefully worded response: "I'd love for you to come out."
He didn't mention the working-on-his-wayward-shot part.
Her husband joked with Jody, "You know you're not going out there to work with him on his shot."
She laughed. "I know."
Any excuse to visit your only son who lives 1,500 miles away, right?
Truth be known, Gordon and his mom would rather hang out, chat and watch Disney movies than fine-tune his shooting mechanics anyway.
Like his father, Gordon grew up playing a slew of sports. Basketball. Soccer. Baseball. Tennis. Video games. He even tried football as an 11-year-old.
"That was another whole story," Hayward recalled.
Here's why: Gordon was a "toothpick" (his dad's word) who played quarterback for a team that ran the option in a league of fifth- and sixth-graders.
"He got hit every single time," Hayward said. "You're either dropping back to pass or you're running or you're pitching. It doesn't matter, you're getting hit."
The problem with that, of course, is that toothpicks tend to snap rather easily.
"Every time he went down, I was just cringing because I was like, 'Oh my goodness, this guy, he's going to get hurt,'" Hayward said. "At that time, he was traveling AAU nationally. If he had any basketball future, it was going to go down the drain."
The end of Gordon's gridiron days — and any chances to end up on the Indianapolis Colts' roster — came about the time he made a painfully honest admission to his father.
"He said, 'Dad, you know, I really like football. It's a lot of fun. But it doesn’t hurt nearly as much when you watch it on television."
Hoping to avoid "Ambulance Talk," Gordon eventually focused on two sports in high school: basketball and tennis.
And he was good at both. Really good.
For a time in high school, Gordon and Heather were mixed doubles partners with dreams of playing tennis at Purdue, their parents' alma mater. As has been chronicled, Gordon was only 5-foot-11 as a high school freshman. He didn't have high hopes for a college career in hoops, let alone harbor NBA aspirations.
Some inspired "Mom Talk" convinced him to not give up on basketball when he considered calling it quits as an underclassman guard.
The rest is well-known Hayward history.
Gordon experienced a shocking growth spurt, shooting up to 6-4 as a sophomore and eventually hitting the 6-8 mark as a senior.
He became part of Indiana's rich basketball history, finishing his heralded high school career with a Hollywood-esque last-second layup to lift Brownsburg to a 40-39 win over Marion in the Indiana 4A state championship on the Pacers' home court in 2008.
He then became part of NCAA tournament lore at Butler, a college he chose in part because it was close to home (14 miles) and for its computer engineering program.
The Bulldogs' 2010 March Madness run featured a couple of "Van Talk" sessions in Salt Lake City after Butler beat favored Syracuse and Kansas State at EnergySolutions Arena to make the Final Four. It also included messages received in misery after his famous half-court heave ricocheted away from the bottom of the net as time and Butler's title hopes expired against Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium, only 15 miles from the basket in his driveway.
Whether he'd played in a buzzer-beating thriller or bubble-bursting heartbreaker, the parental insights followed.
"Van Talk's always fun when everything's going well," his dad said. "When things aren't going well, the last thing you want to do is have Van Talk."
Not surprisingly, Gordon's parents, ever mindful of his best interests, played pivotal roles in his decision to leave college after his sophomore season and pursue a pro career, leading to him being plucked up ninth overall by the Jazz three drafts ago.
A lot of factors played into Gordon's transformation into becoming an NBA player, including a ton of hard work, help from other coaches and teammates, many prayers, that fortuitous growth spurt, God-given athletic talent and hundreds and hundreds of those chalkboard chats and court battles with his dad, dating back to when he was a scrawny toddler.
There's something special about sports bonds between a father and a son — especially when sacrifice is involved and recognized.
"(My dad) influenced me in everything I've ever done. When I was little, he was my hero. He taught me everything I knew," said Gordon, who emulates his role models' frugality, pleasant personality and genuine respect for others. "He coached me in every single sport, whether it was something he was good at or not. He would always learn the game and try to instill those skills for me. He's been great for me."
Interestingly, their traveling tutorial tradition began in earnest when an 8-year-old Gordon and his team were bouncing around the Hoosier State to compete in baseball tournaments, not basketball.
"We'd go pick up some of the other kids and their parents. We'd all jump in the minivan and ride to the game," his dad said. "On the way home, we'd talk about things that we did, things we needed to work on, things we did well. We kind of joked about it, 'Now it's time for some 'Van Talk.'"
Dad figures there were times when his son might roll his eyes or not feel up to talking, but their relationship and mutual respect was strong enough that the younger Gordon listened and learned.
"He was always really receptive," Hayward said.
That was the case whether Gordon had gone 0-for-the-game or if it was a night during his rookie season when he'd outplayed Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
"Van Talk" will, no doubt, resume when the 2013-14 NBA season begins and the versatile athlete is expected to take on an even larger leadership role in a rebuilding period.
One session could even take place this Sunday in a Honda sedan on the way back to the brick house the Hayward family has called home for a couple of decades.
For his old man's sake, here's hoping "Little Gordon," as Grandma Hayward used to call him, takes it easy on "Progressively Slowing Down Gordon" once they get back into the car after their Father's Day game.
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