By Mark Milligan, Jr.
October 14, 2018
The past couple of seasons have given birth to the biggest Jazz/Celtics rivalry since the 1996 film, Celtic Pride, where two Boston fanatics kidnap a Utah Jazz superstar in hopes of helping the Celtics win the Finals. (You’ll have to see the movie for yourself if you want to know whether the Jazz win the championship!)
Of course, that was just fiction written into a script. However, in both cases Boston stole an All-star from Utah. The difference between reality and Hollywood, however, is that this current rivalry has been written better than any screenwriter could ever dream!
There are a number of storylines contributing to the rivalry. Last year, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Boston’s Jayson Tatum were two of the top three rookies, even getting in each others’ faces way back in the Summer League (ultimately ending with Tatum on his backside).
Both teams are also considered to have the best defenses with two of the smartest coaches in the NBA, and each are regarded as top-5 teams in the league overall. But by far, the most stirring story of the rivalry is one that has involved both Gordon Hayward and Jae Crowder long before Hayward left for Boston.
How It All Started
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of one of the best rivalries in recent Jazz history. On January 3rd, 2017, the Jazz lost to the Celtics in Boston, 115 to 104. At that point, Gordon Hayward was still a beloved Jazz-man, but rumors had started swirling around the league that Hayward was considering teaming up with his former coach at Butler University, Brad Stevens, on the Celtics. Bostonians had also heard the rumors and gave Hayward a warm welcome/invitation during the game, cheering the Jazz-man over their own small forward, Jae Crowder, hoping that Hayward would soon come replace him. Crowder didn’t take too kindly to it. So after contributing 21 points in a victory over Utah, Jae tweeted his disappointment, “Home team fans cheering for the opposing players now.. aw man ok… smh but good win fellas onto the next one!”
In response, many fans tweeted words of encouragement and support for their own player, while others chose to double down by tweeting comments such as “Hayward > Crowder” and that if he doesn’t like it then he should “step up [his] game.”
Gordon Hayward Took His Talents To Bean Town
Independence Day, exactly six months and one day later, Hayward announced that he would indeed don a green jersey the following season. Sure, that on its own would have been bad news but Jazz fans would have accepted it. It was how Hayward and his agent handled the decision that broke the hearts of Jazz Nation twice and almost left the Jazz more damaged than they could have been had he been a man and at least called Gail Miller (which he never did).
It is now suspected that Hayward had decided to sign with the Celtics a full year earlier. At the time, however, he held off announcing the decision for days, during which every other other valuable free agent was snatched up by other teams. Before it was discovered that the wait was nothing more than a marketing move that was hurting the Jazz with every minute that passed, many Jazz fans took the wait as a good sign because there was no way our beloved star would go and do something so damaging to the organization. Yet multiple leaks were being reported that GH had chosen Boston. At one point, Adrian Wojnaroski announced it as well – which felt like the final nail in the coffin. As if all of that wasn’t enough. Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, had the audacity to deny the reports and claim that they had not yet made an official decision, giving Jazz fans one more glimmer of hope before pulling the rug out from under them a second time through a Players’ Tribune letter that failed to acknowledge a single teammate or the organization’s part in helping him become an All-star-caliber player. The whole process was not only insulting, but it left the Jazz thinking they were going to have to restart the 4-year building process they had only just completed because he never gave them the chance to find a replacement.
While Jazz Nation was trying to pick up the pieces of Hayward’s train wreck of a decision, it was now Crowder’s turn to wait for an answer. For seven weeks, Crowder sat in NBA limbo wondering if the newest Celtic was going to be his teammate or replacement, all while dealing with the fact that his biggest fan and 51 year old mother, Helen Thompson, was fighting a losing battle with cancer.
On August 22nd, in a package deal for Boston to get Kyrie Irving, Jae was traded away to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Helen was unresponsive by then, but she could still hear, so Jae broke the news to his mother that he needed to leave for Cleveland. She died only minutes later.
Back in Utah, Jazz fans were broken-hearted and angry that their home-grown All-Star had decided to opt for a bigger market over the passion and loyalty they had invested for seven years, while simultaneously crippling his former team in the process. Even former teammates such as Rudy Gobert and former-friend Joe Ingles called Hayward out publicly for being disloyal and handling the departure so poorly.
The frustration burned deep, along with Hayward’s Jazz jerseys around the state. It was reported that a few particularly angry Jazz fans went too far by targeting Hayward’s family on social media and burning his jersey at his front door, forcing Hayward to call security. I can’t condone any of that and it certainly didn’t help Hayward regret his decision by any means. Insults about Hayward being LeBron’s b*tch eventually backfired when LeBron moved to the Western Conference, prompting Hayward to respond saying that the Jazz might be LeBron’s b*tch. Shots have continually been fired back and forth even until recently when Hayward pulled a Trey Lyles and made a slight against coach Snyder’s 3-hour practices – practices that helped Hayward reach his goal of being an All-Star, I might add. Coach Q’s response? “We believe in hard work.” You gotta love it.
Nothing Going Right
While Jae Crowder and the Utah fan base were each mourning for their different losses, Gordon Hayward was posing at photo shoots with Kyrie Irving and being highlighted across ESPN and other media outlets as the next “super team” to challenge Golden State and the Cavaliers for the championship. When the 2017-18 season began, the Jazz were desperate for a player that could score. The timing of Donovan Mitchell’s dramatic arrival couldn’t have been better. However, Utah’s season had a rocky start with a 19-28 record in late January due to having an inexperienced leading scorer, a brand new starting point guard trying to learn the system, a few more missing pieces to the team puzzle, and a significant case of the injury bug.
Jae Crowder’s season wasn’t going much better as he posted his worst points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per 36 minutes since his days in Dallas during the first half of the 2014-15 season (12.1 / 4.6 / 1.6 / 1.1 / 0.3, respectively). Body language, tone, and interviews all showed obvious signs of his frustration and discouragement.
Then again, at least his season was going better than his Celtic counterpart. Only 5 minutes and 11 seconds into his first regular-season quarter, Hayward leaped to catch an ally-oop pass from Irving and landed awkwardly, breaking his ankle in one of the ugliest injuries NBA fans have ever seen! So how did it happen? While simultaneously being hit in the air by a 250 lb. LeBron James, Hayward fell over the hips of his defender. Who was that defender? Believe it or not, it was Jae Crowder. See for yourself. Though, a word of caution. This injury is not for the faint of heart! If you listen, you can actually hear his ankle snap throughout the arena.
Yep! That was Jae Crowder, of all people, under that human avalanche.
The Next Chapter…
In a poetic turn of events, on February 8th – only a few months after Hayward broke his ankle falling over the very guy that Boston had booted in favor of him – the Jazz announced that they had acquired Crowder in a three-team trade that included Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson heading to the Cavs and Rockets, respectively. It was a significant moment that helped turn everything around for both the Jazz and Jae with the team ultimately reaching the second round of the playoffs and Jae rediscovering his love for the game. I would almost call it a happy ending except that 1) as much as Hayward might be the villain in this story, I wouldn’t wish that injury on any athlete, and 2) the story ain’t over.
This all might feel like a scripted drama, except we’re watching this ongoing story unfold in the real world! So when the Celtics visit the Jazz on November 9th, not only will it will be the first time that Hayward and his haircut will be back in the Vivint Smart Home Arena to face off against the team he ditched, disrespected, and left hanging, but he will also be defended by both his former BFF and Purple Mattress co-star, Joe Ingles, as well as Crowder, the player he replaced in Boston, who he tumbled over to end his first Celtic season before it began, and who now plays a significant role on the very team he left behind. You can rest assured knowing that both Hayward and Crowder will have that evening circled on their calendars. I would recommend you do too.
*Featured images thanks to ClutchPoints.com
*All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.