SALT LAKE CITY — Tuesday turned out to be one of the strangest and most painful days in recent Utah sports history.
The hardest part for Jazz fans to stomach, of course, was finding out on the Fourth of July holiday that much-beloved All-Star Gordon Hayward decided to declare his independence from the Beehive State.
“After seven years in Utah,” he wrote in a blog post on The Players’ Tribune, “I have decided to join the Boston Celtics.”
The Jazz publicly responded to the heartbreaking news Tuesday night with comments from owner Gail Miller, team president Steve Starks and general manager Dennis Lindsey.
"Gordon has been an important part of our Jazz family for the past seven years," Miller said. "While disappointed that he is moving on, we thank him for his contributions to the organization and wish Gordon, Robyn and their family well. We thank him for his play, his leadership and how well he represented the Jazz and the state of Utah."
This development, quite frankly, is one the Jazz organization and its fans have feared would happen ever since the Celtics hired Brad Stevens, Hayward’s old coach and close friend, from Butler in 2013.
It was made possible, in part, when Lindsey and management allowed Hayward to become a restricted free agent in 2014 after deciding not to meet the player's salary request on a rookie contract extension.
The Jazz opted to let Hayward test the market as a restricted free agent, and Charlotte offered him a deal that included a punch-in-the-gut, fourth-year player option. Otherwise, Utah would have had Hayward secured for another season at which point Boston might not have been able to lure him away.
That decision upset Hayward and, even though things have long been smoothed over, could haunt Jazz management as it now tries to replace its leading scorer and best all-around player.
The Jazz were hopeful going into this offseason that they had done enough to convince Hayward to remain with the franchise in the long term. The pitch Monday night in San Diego — a meeting attended by key front-office personnel and a handful of Jazz players — was one of trying to convince the 27-year-old to create a lasting legacy in Utah a la Hall of Famer John Stockton.
"The Jazz made a compelling case for Gordon to stay and managed the process well," Starks said. "A foundation for success has been established here, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to bring a championship to Utah. From our renovated facilities to our dedicated ownership, we are building a winning culture that will make Jazz fans proud."
Hayward's love for Utah — he was particularly close with assistant Johnnie Bryant and is fond of detail-oriented coach Quin Snyder — made the decision tough for him. He liked what he heard from the Jazz as well as what he'd been presented by the other spurned suitor, Miami.
Hayward opted to "take a deep breath," as his agent predicted, before announcing his decision on July 4.
And that's where things turned bizarre.
Hours before pyrotechnics illuminated the country’s sky, an ESPN report about Hayward being Boston-bound caused the sports version of fireworks on the internet.
Media members near and far, including from USA Today, ESPN, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, confirmed NBA writer Chris Haynes’s tweet that Hayward had reached an agreement with the Celtics. That caused Jazz fans to begin mourning the departure of an All-Star player who’d won their hearts over during the past seven seasons and who many had envisioned being All-NBA center Rudy Gobert’s playoff partner in crime for years to come.
But then ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Hayward hadn't informed the Jazz of his decision, and everybody tapped the brakes on the farewell story.
Hayward told people in his inner circle that he hadn't made up his mind yet — or told them to tell people that story to buy time for him to finish writing his blog — and confusion spread like wildfire around the sports world.
The Indecision, as some started to call it, took on a life of its own.
Memes were created starring Steve Harvey. People made jokes about Hayward and his previous endorsement deal with Bailey’s Moving & Storage. Old tweets that he'd made about being indecisive over humorous things were retweeted, including one from 2011 in which he wrote, "I can’t tell which fabreeze I should go with. #help."
People were curious when Hayward’s website (GordonHayward20.life) went down, when it was discovered that his personal trainer had followed multiple Celtics players, and when conflicting reports continued to surface about him supposedly being undecided and upset about the supposed premature/incorrect report even while, after the fact, it appeared he was simply trying to finish up his blog so he could break the news the way he wanted to break it.
The confusion was somewhat clarified Tuesday evening when he tweeted out a link to a carefully worded blog, titled “Thank you, Utah,” on The Players' Tribune.
In a long, well-written essay, Hayward tried to say all the right things even if his decision to handle things the way he did ended up breaking Jazz fans' hearts for the second time in one day.
Hayward thanked Jazz fans, telling them, “I really want you all to know that you mean the world to me and my family.”
He called Salt Lake City a “special place” where he grew up from being a 20-year-old kid out of college to becoming a man with a family of his own.
He thanked the Jazz organization, including the “first-class” Miller family, team president Steve Starks, general manager Dennis Lindsey, coach Quin Snyder, assistant coaches Mark McKown, Isaiah Wright and Johnnie Bryant, and massage therapist Doug Birrell.
For what it’s worth, former Jazz forward Jeremy Evans is the only player he listed by name.
“I was literally the last Jazz player left who played under Coach Sloan — and I always took that as a lot more than just some piece of trivia,” Hayward wrote. “That was something that truly made me feel like a part of the fabric of this franchise. And that fabric is something that has meant a lot to me, ever since.”
Unfortunately for the Jazz, it didn’t mean enough for him to continue what he started.
Hayward chose an easier path to becoming an All-Star and to making it further in the playoffs in a lesser Eastern Conference. He chose a storied sports tradition that included the likes of Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Paul Pierce, the Patriots, Bruins and Red Sox over Stockton and Malone. He chose the possibilities with All-Stars Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford over guys he's fought with in the past like Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles.
But the biggest reason by far?
Hayward’s relationship with Stevens.
Hayward said Stevens was the guy he counted on most when he made his decision to leave Butler as a sophomore after leading the Bulldogs to the 2010 NCAA championship game. Seven years after Utah selected him ninth overall and helped him transform into an All-Star, his trusted mentor was there to guide him through another tough decision.
“And I guess it’s pretty crazy,” Hayward wrote. “Because seven years later, I had to make an even tougher decision — and again, Coach Stevens and I found ourselves at a crossroads together. And again, he was the person I knew I could count on the most.
“And now,” he added, “I’ve decided to sign with the Boston Celtics.”
That was a tough blow for Jazz fans, including some who burned No. 20 Jazz jerseys and posted videos, some who vented in a variety of ways on social media and some who suggested changing the phrasing of the hopeful #stayward billboard campaign to #betrayward.
It now presents a tough challenge for the Jazz, who had done so much right this offseason to bring Hayward back and keep momentum going from their 51-win season and second-round playoff appearance.
Utah made a seemingly savvy trade for a pass-first playmaker, Ricky Rubio, in hopes of appeasing Hayward's desire to play with a quality point guard.
The Jazz agreed to terms on a four-year, $52 million deal with wing Joe Ingles, Hayward's closest friend on the team.
And they had room to guarantee him $172 million over five years while surrounding him with a deep, young and talented roster instead of a four-year, $133 million deal he reportedly agreed to sign on July 6 when the NBA moratorium ends.
Now the Jazz are scrambling to see one of their backup plans come to fruition. Reports after Hayward's signing claimed that Wizards small forward Otto Porter was an option, but he ended up signing an offer sheet with Brooklyn. Other reports say the Jazz are interested in veteran Rudy Gay, a talented scorer but one who's three years older than Hayward (30) and who suffered a torn Achilles injury in January.
While Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas celebrated Hayward's decision — he tweeted "Let's go get it @gordonhayward" with two shamrocks and a watch — the turn of events was obviously a blow for his former team.
Rubio tweeted a frowny face, and Gobert, a feisty Frenchman who doesn't hide his feelings, posted a video of himself singing to a rap song that included not-for-print words about disloyalty.
Not all reaction was negative. Some Jazz faithful credited Hayward for his seven years and for the considerate blog post, and one fan teared up while thanking G-Time in a video he posted on social media.
TNT reporter David Aldridge might have summed it up best for the Jazz.
"Nothing against the Cs/Hayward," Aldridge wrote on Twitter. "Just feel for Jazz and fans; they built first-rate (organization) from scratch and were just starting to reap the rewards."
Time will only tell if the grass indeed is greener, a Celtics shade of green, on the other side for Hayward.
"We are proud of the player that Gordon developed into with the Jazz, and wish him and his family the best of luck," Lindsey said. "Despite his departure, we still have a tremendous coaching staff and very good young core of players in place as we move forward."
Meanwhile, Hayward will move forward with a new (and old) family.
"That unfinished business we had together, back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA … as far as I’m concerned, all of these years later, we still have it," he wrote. "And that’s to win a championship."