INDIANAPOLIS — Gordon Hayward began the day in his hometown by being teased about his Captain America nickname.
He ended the day a half-inch or so away from being a different kind of hero for the Utah Jazz.
Oh. So. Close.
The stakes weren’t nearly as high in Sunday’s 94-91 loss as they were four years ago when the then-Butler star’s last-second half-court heave bounced off the rim in the NCAA finals loss down the road, but Hayward had another heartbreaking 3-point miss at the buzzer in his hometown Sunday night.
Forcing overtime would’ve been the cherry on top of a fun homecoming day for Hayward.
Even four years into his NBA career, Hayward said this feels like more than just a business trip.
“It’s always nice coming home,” he said. “ We only come here one time and a lot of people don’t get to see Utah games, especially this year we haven’t been on TV that much nationally. So unless you have the NBA package it’s been a little difficult to watch us play. I’m just happy to be able to play in front of friends and family.”
He’s even happy to play with his teammates, who razzed him quite a bit while fielding questions from a larger-than-normal media scrum after Sunday’s shootaround.
“I think they realize what happened when I was here. Indianapolis is a special community to me,” he said. “I grew up here. I grew up watching the Pacers and stuff; they understand that.”
At one point during his interview, Hayward received a question from a guy who towered over the rest of the Utah and Indiana press.
While holding his iPhone out toward Hayward, Jazz small forward Richard Jefferson jokingly asked, “Can you tell us more about the Captain America nickname that’s been going around?”
Hayward laughed and then did something he never does with credentialed press members. He refused to answer the repeated question.
“The question was already asked, sir,” he said. “So, if you would’ve been here earlier, then you could’ve got that.”
“I’m sorry,” Jefferson replied. “I apologize for that.”
As the group laughed, Jazz trainer Gary Briggs teasingly got in another question, asking, “Is this a photo shoot also?”
Moments later, Jazz forward Marvin Williams joked, “Is this Gordon Hayward Day?”
Hayward scored 21 points and continued to shoot his way out of his slump before that final shot.
“It’s tough coming back to your home state. I know I’ve had tough games in Atlanta,” Jazz center Derrick Favors said. “He came out and played a big game. He almost tied the game up for us at the end. He had a big night.”
As you’d expect from Captain America.
“Oh my gosh. That’s all Richard,” Hayward said when asked about the recently acquired nickname, which he got after getting his All-Star break haircut. “That’s all R.J. just trying to be R.J. He’s trying to be funny.”
MILES APART: It’s about a 280-mile drive from Indianapolis to Milwaukee, and the distance might be even greater in the NBA standings between the league’s first and worst teams.
But after taking the Pacers (46-13) to the final buzzer, the Jazz will have to fight a completely different beast going into Monday’s matchup against the Bucks (11-47).
“They’re still an NBA basketball team, so they have a lot of talent and guys who can fill it up regardless of what their record is,” Hayward said. “If you let a team get going, it can be a long night, it can turn into a long road trip for us. We need (Monday) badly.”
The Jazz have lost both games to begin their six-game road trip.
“It shows you what we can do,” Favors said of Sunday’s strong showing. “Hopefully we can continue doing that against other teams, not just against the Pacers — come out with that same intensity, come out playing hard like that, come out executing and everybody be focused.”
BIG PLANS: Hayward was asked a variety of questions on Brownsburg High, Butler, his new leadership role, his USA Basketball invitation and, of course, his upcoming wedding to fiancee Robyn Van Vliet, another Indy native.
For those trying to make plans at home, this Hoosier State basketball royal wedding doesn’t have a concrete date set yet.
“It’s in the works,” Hayward said, grinning. “I’m letting her do all that.”
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