WALTHAM, Mass. — Gordon Hayward emerged from behind a door in the Boston Celtics’ practice facility on Thursday, a pair of crutches under his arms, a smile on his face. It’s been 16 days since Hayward went down with a gruesome ankle injury in Cleveland. The image resonated everywhere. Paul George called. Kobe Bryant checked in. Barack Obama dropped him a note. A well-known NBA All-Star suddenly became a universally recognized public figure.
“The first thing I saw was a picture of it, and I have a lasting memory in my mind to begin with of rolling over and looking at it,” Hayward said of the injury. “It was an unfortunate play.”
Indeed. A dislocated ankle and a broken leg ended Hayward’s season five minutes into it, and surgery thrust him into an uncertain future. Doctors say he will make a full recovery. When is less certain. “I’m putting zero expectations on myself in terms of a timetable,” Hayward said. “I want to get better today … that’s what I’m focused on.”
Talking about a traumatic event can be difficult. For Hayward, it’s therapeutic. He penned a 3,600-word blog post on Wednesday. He described the doctor realigning his ankle on the Quicken Loans Arena floor (“The most pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” he wrote), the throbbing pain he felt on the flight back to Boston (“I’d had some Tylenol, but nothing like hardcore pain medicine”) and the fear of a complication during surgery (“I was praying that it was going to go well”).
He talked about Brad Stevens, the coach, the friend, the driving force behind the decision to sign with Boston last summer. At the airport in Cleveland, Stevens insisted he be one of the four people needed to carry Hayward onto the plane. At the hospital, Stevens, bleary eyed, remained by his side. There are plenty of examples of strong coach-player relationships in sports. Stevens and Hayward’s is ironclad.
“As good of a basketball coach as he is, he’s a great human being and a great person,” Hayward said. “And he wants to include me still; he wants to make sure that I’m still part of this team and still helping the team.”
Hayward understands — this will be a long road back. There will be dark moments; there already are. “Daily, I still have negative thoughts,” Hayward said. “It’s hard not to, especially when you watch the games.” Boston will try to keep him busy. On Wednesday, he was back on the floor, firing up shots from a folding chair (“Just to be out on the court with a basketball, that was an incredible feeling, just to start that process,” Hayward said) while Stevens has been sending him film, effectively folding him into the scouting staff.
“I’m going to try to turn this negative into a positive,” Hayward said. “I think there are things that, as a player, I need to get better at, and now I’m going to have all the time in the world to work on it. Part of that is a mental game. Part of that is film study. Part of that is working on left-handed finishes when I’m below the rim. There are all kinds of things that I can do to try to help myself as a player, and now I’m going to have the time to do it.
“More and more through the rehab process I’ll be with the guys. I haven’t had a chance too much recently. Yesterday was one of the first times that I saw them and got a chance to be around them for a little bit. It’s going to be really important for my mental health to stay involved, still be a part of the team. As much as I can’t be out there on the court with them, I can be in the locker room, I can see different things on film that maybe they can’t see on the court, and I can help them. That would help me as well.”
The Celtics won’t move on, but they will move forward. Boston has won six straight since a shell-shocked team dropped the first two to start the season. Jaylen Brown has ratcheted up his offensive game, Jayson Tatum too, and a team that expected to be vaunted offensively has been grinding out wins with the NBA’s top-ranked defense. Hayward will watch from the sidelines, supporting the team now, working to be a part of it again on the floor next season.
“I’m on the road to recovery,” Hayward said, “And excited to attack that.”