MAGNA – Jazz fans don’t come any bigger than Big John Sudbury. Any way you want to measure it – size: he’s 6-1, 320; loyalty: he’s been a season ticket-holder since the team moved to Utah in 1979; dedication: he’s missed 24 games in 37 years; smack talker supreme: opposing players have sought him out to compliment him on his commentary.
Sudbury and I go back to the beginning, when the Jazz moved here and I was writing sports for the Deseret News and he bought courtside tickets at the Salt Palace, right behind press row. I remember it like it was yesterday when the Jazz sold their former first-round draft pick Danny Schayes to Denver in 1983, year four of their Utah existence – back when the Jazz peddled players in order to pay the light bill – and Sudbury, in a fit of pique, put a “For Sale” sign on his seat.
But he was only bluffing. The sign said volumes about his emotion, much less so about his undying devotion.
So when I heard Gordon Hayward gave the Jazz the boot last week, the first person I thought of was Big John. In the franchise’s star-crossed history there’s never been a more devastating defection than Hayward’s – a player the team groomed for seven years, and then one wink from the Boston Celtics and, despite the fact Utah could pay him more money, he’s gone, leaving the team nothing in return. For the Jazz, it was the basketball equivalent of buying term life insurance.
Worse, Hayward left a team where he was the undisputed top player to go to a team where he’ll be in a supporting role.
How does a superfan react to something like that? When you live and die with the Jazz’s fortunes, where do you turn?
In Big John’s case, once the shock and awe wear off, you start thinking about what you’re going to say when Hayward, wearing Celtics green, returns to Salt Lake next season to play the Jazz.
He says he won’t yell traitor “because that’s personal and I wouldn’t do that.”
But when Hayward shoots and misses?
“I’ll probably say something like, ‘No wonder we let you go; you couldn’t make that shot when you were here.’”
“I’m glad it was you who left and not Joe Johnson, because now we have somebody who can make the big shots.”
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The hardest part for a diehard like Sudbury, even harder than losing 22 points a night, is the lack of loyalty.
Ever since drafting him as a rookie in 2010 and paying him $2.5 million to sign, the Jazz have nurtured Hayward, making him the focal point of the team, steering the offense to him, giving him everything he ever asked for.
In the end, all the Jazz got was a kick in the teeth and “a nice farewell letter in the player’s magazine.”
“There’s just so little loyalty,” laments Big John, “I’ve seen it in pro sports for so long, but I see it all the way to college and high school kids too – kids in my community aren’t loyal to Cyprus (High School) – so why should I expect anything different of Gordon Hayward?”
He consoles himself that he saw this coming.
Three years ago, after four seasons in the league, instead of taking the Jazz’s offer for a contract extension, Hayward chose to test the market as a restricted free agent. When the Charlotte Hornets responded with a four-year, $63-million deal, the Jazz were forced to up their price in order to keep Hayward.
“That year he got the offer from Charlotte, I was screaming to my wife or anyone who would listen, ‘Let him go,’” says Sudbury. “I didn’t feel he showed any loyalty to the Jazz at that time. The handwriting was on the wall.
“I’m not surprised he left this time. My hope was that he wouldn’t, but I’m not surprised he did.”
Another thing Big John has screamed to his wife or anyone who would listen: Hayward doesn’t make big shots.
“As much as he’s done to improve himself over the years, I’ve never had confidence in him making big shots,” he says. “That’s why I was excited when we got Joe Johnson, because that’s Big Shot Joe.”
As the sting of losing Hayward lingers, holding onto that thought will get Big John through the summer and fall – until he can deliver the message in person.