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In time Gordon Hayward may grow out of his altar-boy looks and add heft to his lanky frame, an edge to his humble, agreeable manner and a list of celebrities to his speed dial. But at an NBA Draft Combine media session in Chicago this past weekend, the 20-year-old still seemed more the dedicated Butler sophomore engineering major he recently was than the NBA millionaire he soon will be. Sitting at a hotel ballroom table recently vacated by likely No. 2 pick Evan Turner, Hayward explained how he handled eight consecutive team interviews the day before ("I tried to be excited for each one")—and considered the strangest question he had fielded from a team so far. (Asked by the Jazz psychologist, "What does two and two mean?" Hayward, a math whiz, replied, "Four.") But to questions about what position he might play or what teams would be working him out over the next few weeks, he found himself repeating a phrase he couldn't have imagined uttering just a few years ago: "You'll have to ask my agent."
As "weird" as he admittedly felt saying that, it was probably the least surreal experience Hayward has had in the five years since the then 5'11" whippet-thin high school freshman guard sat on his bed in Brownsburg, Ind., rehearsing how he would tell his basketball coach he was quitting hoops to focus on tennis. (His mom, Jody, would persuade him to give it one more year.) Since then, so many unlikely things have happened that Hayward wrote in a letter to Jody on Mother's Day, "Can you believe all the I-can't-believe-it moments I've had in my life?"
In high school Hayward sprouted to his current 6'8" height, was a two-time all-state singles player and led Brownsburg High to the Class 4A state basketball title over favored Marion by making a layup at the buzzer. He got three basketball scholarship offers: one from IUPUI, one from Purdue, his parents' alma mater, and one from Butler, a small school in nearby Indianapolis.
Hayward chose Butler, in part because the Bulldogs' 6:30 a.m. basketball practices wouldn't interfere with his plans to get a computer engineering degree and because his twin, Heather, could play tennis for the school. As a freshman swingman he earned Horizon League Newcomer of the Year honors, with 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. As a sophomore this past season he improved his output to 15.5 and 8.2 and led the Bulldogs to the NCAA title game, literally coming up an inch short of beating Duke when his half-court heave bounced off the rim at the buzzer. In rare agreement the attending media declared that it would have been the greatest shot, the greatest upset, the greatest game in the history of college sports. But even shy of all that, it was unforgettable.
Hayward was suddenly famous around the country and mobbed by fans at his local church and McDonald's. The question was: Would he stay in school and make Butler a championship contender next year or leave for the NBA?
That decision is a tale in itself.
When Gordon Daniel Hayward was a grade-schooler, his dad, Gordon Scott Hayward, helped him compile a list of steps he needed to take to realize his dream of playing in the NBA—START ON SIXTH-GRADE TEAM reads one entry in faded red ink—but by high school Hayward saw that dream as far-fetched. "I was really small," he says. "It was hard for me to play with older guys because they would just abuse me. I thought maybe I should quit the high school team and just play at church with my buddies because the NBA didn't seem very realistic."
Hayward got taller and, aided by the dual demands of tennis and basketball, much better. The first person to suggest that Hayward had NBA potential was Butler coach Brad Stevens, who was blown away by the player's versatility, on-court savvy and fluid athleticism when he was recruiting him. "He was a guy who could jump up and dunk it after a change-of-direction move, off of either foot equally, and that's unusual," says Stevens. "And he always made the right basketball play. His decision-making wasn't affected by the situation."
Gordon Scott didn't give Stevens's NBA comment too much weight. "It was one man's opinion," he says. Yet last summer, as Hayward emerged as a star of the gold-medal-winning USA Under 19 world championship team, it became clear that Stevens was not alone in his judgment. "I got this sick feeling in my stomach because I realized I was not prepared for this," says Gordon Scott, a software engineer who likes to joke that he doesn't buy underwear without consulting Consumer Reports. When agents started leaving messages last fall, he decided to call them back, "to educate myself to understand the whole process."
But when Jody heard those same messages, she cried. "You hear all the bad things about the NBA, temptations and things like that," she says. "I didn't think he was spiritually strong enough to handle anything like that." She was also not convinced that he was good enough for the NBA. "Honestly, I didn't see it. Plus, I loved Butler so much—the team, the coach, the influences. I was in denial."