SALT LAKE CITY — It would have been an eventful night at Vivint Arena, if Gordon Hayward had been in uniform. He would have been back in the place that trained him as a professional, wearing a new color.
In which case I wouldn’t have wanted to be there.
I avoid awkward situations whenever possible.
Specifically I have no interest in blatant displays of boorishness. It would have been that. Salt Lake is the town that loudly booed former guard Derek Fisher when he came back as a Laker. While Fisher has seldom been accused of being altruistic, Jazz fans jeered him like he was Old Man Winter. Most uncivil was that infamous photo of a fan appearing to taunt Fisher by covering one eye — in reference to Fisher’s daughter, who had eye cancer.
In that sense, I’d rather watch Hayward’s return from the anonymity of my living room.
Instead, I was there live to see Boston beat the Jazz in a game that had plenty of the right kind of drama.
I understand feelings of betrayal fans have toward Hayward. They held out hope that, after the Jazz advanced in the playoffs, last spring, he would re-sign as a free agent. He kept them hanging until the late afternoon of July 4.
He didn’t notify the Jazz soon enough to allow quick action in the free agent market, and posted a thank you to Utah in the Players’ Tribune so fast it appeared pre-written.
Traumatic separation, I think they call it.
Hayward gets no style points from me on how he exited, but I don’t blame him for leaving. The Celtics have the second-best record in the East — without Hayward, or recently Kyrie Irving and other assorted pieces.
Hayward wanted a championship, and Boston is a clearer path. He couldn’t have known Donovan Mitchell would blow up, Derrick Favors would energize, or Rudy Gobert would be even more dominant. Especially he couldn’t have imagined Joe Ingles developing into such an effective starter.
Regardless, Hayward never seemed to particularly like Utah, but it wasn’t loathing or greed that drove him to Boston. It was logic. Now the Jazz are a playoff contender and look to be solid in future years without Hayward. Would they have been better with him? Probably, even with this year’s stars playing smaller roles.
All-Star players aren’t easily dismissed.
That’s why I’m glad Hayward didn’t appear Wednesday for the Jazz’s 97-94 loss to Boston. Neither he nor Utah need a reunion. They need distance.
Hayward wouldn’t have done anything crazy, like taunting after buckets. He doesn’t like awkward confrontations anymore than I do. But I’m certain Jazz fans would have booed his every touch and made it more personal than necessary. It would have looked like a small market with hurt feelings. Imagine that.
Fans booed Karl Malone when he left of his own volition and Deron Williams when he didn’t. That goes with the territory. But considering how the Jazz have played the season's second half, I think yawning at a Hayward return would have been more appropriate.
Introductions on Wednesday were like any other in the 41-game home season, a smattering of boos for Boston, but little else. The game was close and watchable. Jae Crowder, the former Celtic, made two 3-pointers in the third quarter to set up an 11-point lead. It was a good revenge story in itself, not the freak show a Hayward appearance would have caused.
But Jaylen Brown hit a 3-pointer with three-tenths of a second to lift Boston.
Utah doesn’t have a reputation for friendly fans in the first place. One national writer has told me Utah fans were worse than anywhere else — even Oklahoma City, where Thunder fans vilified Kevin Durant after his departure. Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers once characterized Jazz fans as “what you might expect if they had an annual convention for serial killers.”
That’s a throwaway line, but I hear fairly regular accusations that Jazz fans are beyond boisterous and loyal, and closer to mean-spirited, petty or worse.
Most other sports towns have been called the country’s worst by someone. But Salt Lake keeps coming up.
Utah actually has been having a good week. When Chris Hill retired as athletics director at the University of Utah, he mentioned how easy it is to live here. New Utah State coach Craig Smith rhapsodized about moving to Logan, calling it a dream come true. Donovan Mitchell tweeted a snapshot of himself looking out from above the Salt Lake Valley with the caption, “Love it here, man. God is good.”
He got over 23,000 likes.
That’s why it was useful not to see Hayward’s return and the accompanying fury. It would have ruined the good vibe far worse than a loss.
Utah’s license plates say “Life Elevated.” Sportsmanship elevated? It’s a thought.