Gordon Hayward wasn’t a household name coming out of high school, but Butler head coach Brad Stevens knew what no recruiting services and few collegiate coaches seemed to gather: He had recruited a special player.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Stevens said of the day Hayward committed to Butler. “That was a big moment. I told our guys to take the rest of the day off and go golfing.”
While Stevens knew of his team’s fantastic potential, outside expectations for Gordon and Co. were low in his first season.
Gordon was an unheralded recruit who received just one scholarship offer from a power conference team out of high school. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs seemed destined for a rebuilding year after losing three of their four leading scorers from a 2007-08 team that went 30-4.
Butler was picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League for Gordon’s freshman campaign, and the team’s third straight NCAA tournament berth looked to be out of the question.
However, they quickly reversed those thoughts. Gordon was a starter from Day 1 in Indianapolis and showed his versatility with an 11-point seven-rebound debut. The Bulldogs won their first eight games, including a pair of conference wins. Hayward notched 12 rebounds, eight points and three blocks in a thrilling 50-48 victory over Cleveland State in Butler’s Horizon opener.
Gordon’s breakthrough performance actually came just a few games later in Butler’s first loss. The Dawgs traveled to Columbus to take on No. 21 Ohio State, and No. 20 led the way with nearly half his team’s points. He tallied 25 with seven rebounds, although he missed the potential game-tying three at the game’s end, as Butler fell 54-51.
Even in the loss, Gordon and Butler showed that they could play with even the biggest dogs on the block. The Bulldogs went on to win their next 11 games, including a road victory over No. 14 Xavier. After the game, Gordon praised the atmosphere provided by the Musketeers’ fans.
“This is an intense atmosphere,” he said of Xavier’s Cintas Center. “I’ve played basketball all my life and I’ve been in games like this, but this was different.”
While the venue and the opponent provided a stiff challenge, the rowdiness didn’t seem to bother the Bulldogs star. Led by Gordon’s 19 points and 10 rebounds, they boosted their NCAA tourney resume while notching their first win over a ranked opponent since 2007.
Butler wound up storming through Horizon League play at 15-3, capping the regular season with a second win against Cleveland State to take the regular-season title. However, the Vikings exacted revenge in the Horizon tournament finale with a 57-54 win. But with a strong resume, the Bulldogs still headed to the NCAA tournament, earning the No. 9 seed in the South Region, where they were matched up with LSU.
In his NCAA tourney debut, Gordon had a solid effort with 12 points and six assists, but in a 75-71 defeat, the Bulldogs couldn’t keep up with the Tigers, who were guided by a 30-point performance from future pro Marcus Thornton.
Although the Bulldogs were one-and-done in 2009, they would go much further in 2010.
After averaging 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds (both second on the team), Gordon was named the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year and first-team All-Conference. During that excellent debut season, Stevens—a brilliant basketball mind who now coaches the Boston Celtics—sat down with his star swingman and talked about the future.
“We sat down my freshman year, and he said, ‘I think you can play at the next level,’ ” Gordon recalled.
“It was always a dream of mine, but I didn’t really think that was going to happen. I wasn’t highly recruited. I wasn’t anything big in high school. That’s one thing he showed me, that it’s going to take a lot of work, but that I could get there.”
That process began in the offseason when Gordon was selected to the Team USA U19 squad, along with Butler teammate Shelvin Mack and several other future NBA players, including Tyshawn Taylor, Klay Thompson and Darius Miller.
On the talented roster, Hayward rose to the top as the squad ran through the FIBA U19 World Championship at 9-0, claiming the gold medal. Gordon averaged 10 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, the highest combined total on the team. The contributions earned him a spot on the tournament’s All-Star Five team.
After he led Butler to a surprise 26-6 finish in 2009 and starred on the USA’s U19 squad, the nation knew the name Gordon Hayward. Going into his sophomore season, he was named preseason All-Conference and All-American, while also taking up real estate on several preseason award watch lists.
It was a contrasting dynamic for Gordon and Butler as he entered his sophomore season. Now, with USA’s U19 international star leading the way, the Bulldogs began the season ranked No. 10 and earned invitations to several high-profile exhibitions early in the season.
Like the previous year, Butler tangled with Ohio State and Xavier, this time winning both games, but it also earned a spot in the 76 Classic tournament in California.
In Anaheim, the Bulldogs faced a tough slate, featuring No. 22 Minnesota, UCLA and No. 19 Clemson. In order, the Bulldogs fell to the Gophers, beat the Bruins and fell to the Tigers.
While Butler’s record took some damage, Gordon notched a pair of double-doubles in the losses to Minnesota and Clemson. He also hit a pair of game-winning free throws in the win over UCLA.
Shortly after the trip to California, Butler headed to New York for the Jimmy V Classic. In Madison Square Garden, Hayward starred yet again, tallying 24 points and eight boards, though the Bulldogs recorded their third loss of the season to No. 15 Georgetown.
Two weeks later, they met UAB and in Birmingham, they lost for the fourth time in the early going—a defeat that ended up as the turning point in a charmed season. Gordon attested later that the team might have bought in to its preseason hopes a little too much.
“It’s just something outside that kind of creeps in naturally,” he said of the team’s preseason expectations. “We went into the season with a lot of expectations, and to kind of fall behind a little bit was hard for us.”
Despite being in just his second season, Gordon was unquestionably one of the team’s leaders. After the Dec. 22 loss to the Blazers, he and his team took the holiday to regroup through practice and players-only meetings.
The result: Butler went on a tremendous tear. The Bulldogs won their next 18 games to finish the regular season at 26-4 and 18-0 in Horizon play. And this time, in the conference tournament, they left no doubt, topping Milwaukee then pounding Wright State, 70-45 to win the league title.
They were the only team to go through all of conference play undefeated and were granted the No. 5 seed in the West Region, where they met 12 seed UTEP in San Jose, Calif. for the opening round. The Bulldogs found themselves down six to the Miners at halftime, but stormed back vehemently behind a huge scoring effort from Mack to advance with a 77-59 win.
Meanwhile, 13 seed Murray State upset No. 4 seed Vanderbilt, but it didn’t necessarily make the draw any easier for Gordon’s squad. Murray was one of the most successful teams of the 2010 season and carried a 31-4 record into the game.
Much like UTEP, the Racers raced out to a four-point halftime lead over the Bulldogs. But this time, defense made the difference for Butler, and on the final play of the game, Gordon came through on that end with its biggest play, deflecting Murray State’s final pass to send Butler to the Sweet 16. As No. 20 attested afterward, it was a prototypical survive-and-advance tourney win.
“I think we just wanted it,” Gordon said of the win over Murray State. “I’m sure they wanted it badly, too, but we all just dug in. We did whatever we could to get the job done.”
The team assumed “The Butler Way” as its mantra—a defensive theme that carried it through the rest of the tournament. The Bulldogs were matched with No. 1 seed and Big East Conference regular-season champion Syracuse in the Sweet 16. There, the Bulldogs stifled a Cuse roster laden with playmakers. The Orange were held without a field goal for the first seven minutes of action.
While Syracuse did come back and make for an interesting finish, Gordon came through with three free throws late to ice the 63-59 win, notching a game-high 17 points plus five boards along the way.
When the Bulldogs moved onto the Elite 8, they were matched once again with another talented team—No. 2 seed Kansas State. And again, they needed their star player to pave the path. Gordon finished with 22 points and nine rebounds, both game-highs, but two of those points ended up bigger than the rest.
With the game tied at 54 and just over 3:00 left in the game, No. 20 circled around the K-State defense and made a backdoor cut to the rim. Guard Ronald Nored tossed an off-target lob to Gordon, who somehow hauled in the pass and banked home the go-ahead basket as he crashed to the hardwood.
Butler then locked down defensively, allowing just two points over the final three minutes. The 63-56 win sent the Bulldogs to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
The Final Four, held in Butler’s hometown of Indianapolis, featured the Bulldogs and three power programs: Duke, West Virginia and Michigan State, who had made a combined 25 Final Four appearances. Butler drew No. 5 seed MSU.
The Spartans, a defensive squad not unlike the Bulldogs, provided an incredible challenge, but once again it was Gordon who came through in crucial situations. The star sophomore notched a key layup under two minutes that gave Butler a four-point lead. From there, the Bulldogs held a 52-49 advantage with two seconds left on the clock. MSU’s Korie Lucious went to the line and knocked down one free throw but intentionally missed the second.
However, the rebound that was Michigan State’s only hope at victory was hauled in by none other than Gordon Hayward. The board was his ninth on the game to go with a game-high 19 points. As time expired, No. 20 marched up the court triumphantly, as the Bulldogs’ 25th straight win put them finally within reach of their ultimate goal.
“We’ve been talking about the next game all year, and it’s great to be able to say the next game’s for a national championship,” he said after the national semifinal victory.
In that next game, Butler was matched up with Duke, one of the most storied programs in college basketball history. While the Bulldogs were playing for the national title for the first time, it was title-game appearance No. 10 for the Blue Devils.
But when little Butler met with the juggernaut from the ACC, what ensued was one of the most thrilling title games in history.
The Bulldogs never trailed by more than five points, and while Duke held the lead through much of the contest, Butler was always within striking distance, always applying pressure.
Gordon notched a team-high 12 points and eight rebounds in the defensive struggle, including 8-of-8 shooting from the free-throw line, playing all 40 minutes of the title fight.
When it came down to the final three seconds of the 40th minute, Butler pushed itself within one point of the win. Duke center Brian Zoubek added another point from the free-throw line, making it 61-59 with 3.6 on the clock. He missed his second attempt and it was Gordon again bringing down a key rebound.
With Butler out of timeouts, No. 20 circled around the Duke defense and sprinted up the floor. He stomped on the halfcourt line and launched a clean shot. As the buzzer sounded, the ball arced up, hitting off the center of the backboard, then the front of the rim.
But the nearly legendary shot ended fell to the floor, leaving the Bulldogs just inches away from the national title.
Although the night ended in heartbreak, Stevens told the media that Gordon and the Bulldogs should look back with nothing but pride on their incredible run.
“I said yesterday that when you coach these guys, you can be at peace with whatever result you achieve from a won-loss standpoint because of what they gave — they gave everything we had,” Stevens said. “There’s certainly nothing to hang your head about. I told them in there, what they’ve done, what they did together, will last longer than one night, regardless of the outcome.”
In the aftermath of Butler’s phenomenal 2009-10 campaign, Hayward had become a national star across college basketball. He was a consensus draft-worthy prospect, but he also knew that, with several other key players coming back, Butler could make another run at the national title next season.
Hayward led the Bulldogs with an average of 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The fantastic season saw him named third-team All-American, the Horizon League Player of the Year and to the NCAA All-Tournament Team. Butler broke a school and Horizon League record with 33 wins.
After Butler’s incredible run was finished, Gordon was faced with what he called one of the most difficult decisions of his life.
The Bulldogs nearly matched that the next year, winning 28 games. They also made it back to the national title game, where they again fell to Connecticut—but No. 20 wasn’t a part of that run.
A FAMILY DECISION
Following the superb sophomore campaign, Gordon’s NBA stock had skyrocketed, leaving him and his family a decision to make.
As he said, it was one of the most difficult decisions that he has ever faced him—Should he leave behind his best friends and teammates at Butler to pursue his lifelong dream?
His mother, at least at first, said “no.”
“You hear all the bad things about the NBA, temptations and things like that,” Jody said. “I didn’t think he was spiritually strong enough to handle anything like that…Plus, I loved Butler so much—the team, the coach, the influences. I was in denial.”
She added on the drive home from Butler’s championship defeat to Duke, “If God wanted him to go to the NBA, he would have hit the shot.”
While his mother was a bit overwhelmed by the situation, his father, an engineer, took an analytical approach.
After the loss, Gordon Sr. replied to his wife, asking, “What else is he going to do, get Butler all the way back to the final and hit the shot?”
It was a question that would ultimately go unanswered, but it would remain on the minds of the Hayward family. But eventually, after analysis from dad and spiritual backing from mom, Gordon made his decision.
On April 14, 2010, he announced that he was fulfilling his dream of playing in the NBA—a dream he once thought would be nothing more than that.
“That’s something I wouldn’t have ever seen myself doing,” he said of the NBA. “That was my ultimate goal. That’s what I wrote down (with my dad). That was my dream growing up when I was 4 or 5 years old.
“We’ve accomplished some steps to reach the ultimate goal, and so we’ve accomplished all these steps, but I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be at this point.”
“He is certainly one of the better players in the country,” said Stevens. “He can make so many plays that lead to winning. And until you get to this point, people may not realize just how impactful his play can be. You know he’s going to be in the NBA, it’s just a matter of when. And you know he’s going to probably have a long career in the NBA.
The player and coach would eventually meet again in the NBA, first as opponents and later as part of something even bigger in Boston.