SALT LAKE CITY — Countless text messages and social media mentions flooded Gordon Hayward’s phone notifications following his first official game with the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, Oct. 17.
One of them was from his former Utah Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert.
After watching Hayward suffer a gruesome left ankle injury against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2017-18 season opener, Gobert had to reach out.
“I think it was important to do that,” Gobert recalled. “We don’t talk a lot but when it’s important we do.”
Communication is now few and far between with Hayward and his ex-Jazz teammates. Although he played seven seasons in Utah, his free agent departure on Independence Day of 2017 through a The Players’ Tribune letter left fans heartbroken.
Hayward is expected to make his much-anticipated return to Vivint Arena in Celtic green and white on Friday, when Utah hosts Boston at 7:30 p.m. However, that is barring any unforeseen health concerns following the second night of a back-to-back in Phoenix with the Celtics medical staff closely monitoring him.
“People do what they want,” Gobert explained. “I hope he’s happy. We’re happy here and we’re just going to play basketball.”
Derrick Favors also said he texted Hayward after the learning the news of his decision to leave Utah for Boston on Independence Day of 2017, but they haven’t spoken since.
“That was it,” Favors said.
While many are anticipating boos from the fans in his first game back after spending seven seasons in Utah, Jazz players are trying to stay even-keeled despite the national buzz — at least with the media.
“I don’t know. It could be empty. I don’t know. You gotta see,” Favors predicted, before laughing. “It’s going to be just like any other game. The fans come out, they support in sold out games so it’s just going to be another game for us.”
Celtics All-Star guard Kyrie Irving is expected to miss the Jazz game to attend his late grandfather’s memorial service.
Utah snapped a four-game losing streak with Wednesday’s 117-102 victory against the Dallas Mavericks, behind Donovan Mitchell’s 23 points, seven assists and five rebounds after returning from missing the previous contest with a left ankle sprain. The Jazz capitalized off Dallas’ 25 turnovers with 31 points while leading by as many as 26 on the night.
“It was huge. After losing four straight, you kind of need that confidence going into Friday,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a grind on Friday and we’re fully aware of that but we know we can do it. That’s the difference, we always know we can do it and we went out there and did it and we’ve got to continue to do it and not just be satisfied that we did it today, we’ve got to be able to do it Friday and on the road.”
The success of Mitchell has been part of the healing process for Jazz fans post-Hayward as he led Utah back to the Western Conference Semifinals during his rookie season. Before heading to Boston, Hayward was coming off his finest pro season yet, also leading Utah to the second round of the playoffs in 2016-17, where he averaged a career-high 21.9 points and 5.4 assists while becoming an All-Star.
On the one-year anniversary Hayward’s announcement to take off, Mitchell decided to randomly visit some local BBQs near Salt Lake City this past Fourth of July and has been extremely active in the community.
Mitchell wasn’t around during the Hayward era, so there’s no hard feelings on his end and he isn’t entering this Jazz-Celtics contest with any preconceptions other than competitive basketball.
“I don’t know what to expect to be honest,” Mitchell said of Hayward’s return. “Obviously, he did so much for this organization, for this state. He’s a great player.18 comments on this story
“I think there was a rivalry between Boston before that anyway and I kind of felt that so this just adds to it but we’re going to go out there and treat it the same way,” Mitchell continued. “We’re not going to go out there and do something crazy. We’re going to stay with what we’ve been doing, build off tonight’s win and be locked in and focused.”
With that team mindset, Hayward certainly shouldn’t be expecting a text message from Gobert before this matchup. It’s important, but not that important.
“Gordon, he’s a good guy. It is what it is,” Gobert said. “Sometimes you make choices that you think are good for you and we’re not here to judge anyone. It’s just a game. We’re just going to go play basketball and that’s it.”