When Gordon Hayward was a talented teenager on two different courts, he thought about dropping basketball to try to play college tennis (his better sport at the time). But then he grew to 6’8″ before graduating high school, and the rest is history.
Now, seven years since being drafted, the small forward is a first-time All-Star and the first Jazz player to receive that honor in six years since his former teammate Deron Williams. Hayward’s impactful upbringing in Utah, with the Jazz improving every year since 2013, includes becoming the first NBA player to sign an endorsement deal in eSports, a husband and father of two daughters, and diverse community leader in Salt Lake City.
In an extended conversation with the NBPA, Hayward shared insights on his All-Star involvement; tennis passion and playing doubles through the years with his twin sister, Heather; developing the creativity in his basketball craft; venturing into eSports; evolving as a father; and inspiring Utah’s youth in different ways.
NBPA: What does making the All-Star team mean to you in your career?
Gordon Hayward: It’s very rewarding to be selected by the coaches, just because I’ve put in a lot of hard work. It was definitely a goal of mine. But I didn’t ever really think growing up I would be an All-Star. The goal was always just to be in the NBA. And then to be selected to be on the All-Star team, that was pretty nuts considering almost giving up basketball because of tennis [more on this below].
NBPA: Do you think about using All-Star Weekend to expand your brand?
GH: That’s another big part for me as an individual. There’s a bunch of exposure for the Jazz and for me personally, so I’m definitely taking this opportunity. Hopefully I’m going to meet a lot of people and build my brand a little bit.
NBPA: What’s your favorite All-Star memory from watching through the years?
GH: One of the moments that I remember the most was T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] throwing it off the backboard [in the 2002 All-Star Game]. I remember when Jason Williams did the elbow pass behind his back [in the 2000 Rookie Challenge, which is now called the Rising Stars Challenge].
NBPA: What kind of flavor do you want to bring to the big game?
GH: I don’t really know what to expect. It’ll be my first one, so I’m just excited to be on the court to be honest—get a couple dunks, hit a three, something like that. I’m going in with an open mind and to have a good time.
NBPA: You mentioned that tennis almost took over basketball when you were younger. What factors played into your decision?
GH: Growing up, I was in basketball, football, soccer, baseball, tennis. And we had a minivan growing up, and my parents would just drive my sister and I to event after event. And I’m just really thankful for them. But once I got to junior high, I cut it down to just tennis and basketball, and I was definitely better at tennis in high school. And I thought about potentially just playing tennis in college. I luckily had a growth spurt and grew to be 6’8″, which really helped me out in basketball. And then once I was leaving high school, I was ready to just focus on basketball.
NBPA: With the quick footwork and court coverage needed in tennis, did you find that those skills translated to basketball?
GH: 100 percent. Tennis was great for my lateral quickness, it was great for changing directions quickly because points are pretty quick in tennis. You’ve got to move up and back, side to side, and I think that really helped me in basketball.
NBPA: How often do you play tennis now and what is your game like?
GH: I went into a charity event last summer here in Utah [called the Of Love Tournament that benefits juvenile diabetes research]. I was supposed to be one of the celebrity players for the event, but I wanted to enter into the real tournament. So I did and ended up winning one of the brackets. So I still got it a little bit [laughs]. And as you can imagine [because of my height], I’m pretty good once I get to the net. I do a lot of serve and volleying, taking charge.
NBPA: Do you still play with Heather?
GH: She doesn’t like playing me one-on-one [laughs]. I always get into her head. So we always just do doubles with my dad and her husband, who actually played on the tennis team with me in high school. Whenever we have a chance to play, it brings back old memories. She was my twin growing up, so we competed in everything that she could compete in, and the games that we play now definitely get a little heated. But it’s all good fun.
NBPA: Are you also a fan of pro tennis?
GH: I’m definitely a big fan. I watched the re-run of the Australian Open final and that was definitely special. I was a big Fed [Roger Federer] guy growing up and it was cool to see him finally get a win. It was his first [Grand Slam] win in five years. There was Federer-[Rafael] Nadal and then the Williams sisters. I don’t know if you could ask for better finals matches.
NBPA: Have you met any pros?
GH: At the charity event last summer, I met Ryan Harrison. And when I was really little, [my family and I] would go to a tournament in Indianapolis every summer, and one time my sister and I got a chance to meet the Bryan brothers right before they kind of took off. You definitely don’t understand how easy they make the game look when you watch on TV. Tennis is a whole other level watching it live—the spins [players] put on the ball, the force that they hit the ball with. It’s incredible.
NBPA: If there was one tennis tournament you’d love to attend, which one would you choose?
GH: I’d want to go to Wimbledon, just because of the tradition of it, and I’ve never played on grass either. So it’d be cool to get a chance to hit around.
NBPA: From transitioning from tennis to basketball, and thinking about where you are now in the NBA—seven years in and with your first All-Star appearance—how does your basketball journey up to this point reflect your early expectations?
GH: Growing up, it was a dream to play in the NBA. I always thought it was kind of a long shot. And then once I got to Butler, coach [Brad] Stevens, [who’s now with the Celtics], was the one who told me for the first time that I had a chance to play at the next level. Once I decided to leave [Butler after my sophomore year], everything happened really fast—pre-draft, the draft, summer league and the season—and I really didn’t know what my role was going to be. That first year [in Utah in 2010], I didn’t play that much. So I didn’t really look at an end goal. I thought, If I could just keep getting better each summer, the rest will take care of itself. So that’s kind of just been my focus, and I think I’ve done that so far.
NBPA: You play with great instincts: head fakes while remaining in position, balance on your shots off the dribble, slowing down the game into the paint and making reads that lead into backdoor finishes. I feel like you have at least one backdoor-cut-to-a-dunk every night. How have you developed your feel for the game?
GH: The backdoor cut is something where I’m able just to kind of instinctually read the defense, read when they’re overplaying a little bit too much. And I just give them a fake and go to the rim and [my teammates] throw [the ball] up. We have some good passers on the team. I worked on footwork and balance a lot last summer, and that’s really helped me when I get in the pocket. When guys are pressuring me a little bit, I’m able to give a shot fake and spin around, so it doesn’t make it as tough to get around people.
NBPA: What kind of training goes into finding a better balance?
GH: There was huge work put into that last offseason. I naturally have some pretty decent body control, but I was always standing up too much [with my shot]. When [the Jazz coaching staff and I] would watch film, I was standing up straight and my knees weren’t bent, and so I was knocked off balance a lot. So we worked on spins on one foot, spinning one way, spinning the other, and using both feet. We did some boxing last summer also to be balanced and to have good rhythm out there.
NBPA: How have you worked on your head fakes?
GH: It’s something that [the Jazz coaching staff and I] talked about in previous summers of finding easier ways to score, and watching some of the best scorers in the NBA. A lot of them are really good with fakes and getting people in the air, drawing contact and getting to the free throw line.
NBPA: Which top scorer have you watched the most?
GH: Kobe Bryant. He’s definitely burned me multiple times on head fakes before the move, after the move, you name it. His footwork was unbelievable as well.
NBPA: What’s the next step in your game?
GH: It’s working on how to close out games when the game gets close and the defense locks in. I’m working on how to get my shots off and get good looks. That’s something that you have to learn how to do as a player, and that’s something I need to get better at.
NBPA: Another craft of yours is video gaming, which includes your groundbreaking endorsement deal with HyperX in the eSports world. What lights up your eyes about this arena that makes you want to enter the business side?
GH: Growing up, it was another outlet for me to compete. And especially once I left Indiana [where Butler is based] and came to Utah, it was a way to connect back home with some of my buddies. And then as far as eSports is concerned, it’s already huge around the world. And it’s fun to be endorsed by a company like HyperX that’s so involved in that industry. I get to stream games using their headset and hang out with some of the professional video game players. It’s definitely professional in every sense of the word. They work really hard and are training eight to 10 hours at their craft.
NBPA: What’s your vision with getting further involved in eSports?
GH: I’ve actually wanted to own a team for probably the past four or five years. That’s something for sure I’ve been looking at. eSports is definitely the sports world of the future, and kids are playing video games at such a young age now with the technology that we have. And there’s a lot of money involved.
NBPA: What games do you like to stream?
GH: StarCraft, League of Legends and now I’m playing The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone and Overwatch. Halo was my big game back when I was in high school.
NBPA: What’s your setup like on the road?
GH: I bring my laptop and a mouse everywhere, and I’m good to go. The laptops now are so powerful. They can be so light, but also at the same time powerful.
NBPA: At home, you now have two young daughters with your wife, Robyn. How are you enjoying being a father?
GH: Bernadette is one and a half and Charlotte is seven months. When you become a father, it changes your life. It gave me more responsibility and it really did help me out with basketball. For one, it made me more of a professional, it made me have a better work ethic. And two, whether or not it’s a bad game or a good game, they’ll still be at home and they’re smiling. And there’s definitely nothing like the feeling when you walk in the door and [Bernadette] runs up to you and wants you to pick her up. It doesn’t matter how many misses you had that game—it makes you feel a lot better.
NBPA: Does your older one recognize you on TV yet?
GH: Yeah, my wife says that she’s just now being able to go watch the game. And she’ll see me on TV and she’ll point at the screen and say, like, “Dada, dada,” and smile. So that’s really cool. All of us FaceTime when I’m on the road.
NBPA: Overall, how are you enjoying Salt Lake City and connecting with the community?
GH: Salt Lake City has been tremendous to me as a player and they probably have the most supportive fans in the NBA, whether we’re good or bad. They seem to always fill up the arena. When I did the tennis charity thing last summer, there were fans that showed up and I got a chance to hit with one of them. And we get a chance to go into [children’s] hospitals and see the kids, which is probably my favorite thing that we do. We always do that around the holidays, so that always put things in perspective for you.