SALT LAKE CITY – As Gordon Hayward warms up in front of a small gathering of fans an hour before the Boston Celtics' play over Utah Jazz on Friday, a solitary kennel from the middle of the lower bowl screamed at him.
"Miss," the heckler shouted as Hayward toasted a jumper against a Celtics assistant coach.
The shot came through.
"Do it again," the heckler shouted.
Hayward's shot came through as well. A small smile seemed to flicker over Hayward's face. It could not be said with certainty if the smile was just a reaction to the shot or if he heard the interjection and appreciated the small victory.
The reaction was evident at both ends when Hayward was introduced just over an hour later. Utah fans dropped fury over Hayward's departure for a year in a deafening refrain from Buhrs.
And this time there was no question: Hayward smiled.
Hayward told the Boston reporters a week earlier that he hoped the year would ease jazz fans on his return. Of course, jazz fans were no milder – they shouted him "We do not miss you" on several occasions and devoted themselves to booing early and often. Equally clearly, Hayward had not expected that they would actually be softer.
So he smiled through.
"The warm-up was like buffing every time you warm up," Hayward said. "So that was kind of funny to me, but when you're in the game, you're not worried about it, that kind of thing disappears."
Hayward has not lied: Jazz fans have been thoroughly detained in Boston's layup lines, ready to unleash a chorus of displeasure every time Hayward touches the ball. It did not matter if he wanted to lie down or recover a teammate – the anger went through the building at every opportunity.
The excitement did not dissipate as the game progressed, though Hayward silenced it several times. His first shot was a layup in the transition from Jaylen Brown, which he finished clean. He later pocketed a pull-up iso sweater in half and defended Donovan Mitchell well in the second half. The loudest sound, of course, came when he was on the free throw line, but he finished 6 to 6.
Jazz fans, however, had reason to explode. Mitchell scored an iso-floater on Hayward in the second half. Jae Crowder, who replaced Hayward, missed the game with a triple corner to fourth place when Boston rallied.
"We all needed in the arena," said Crowder. "Thanks tonight, we appreciate that, we will continue to do it for you, man, thank you."
Jazz dropped confetti after that, a tradition after every victory. Hayward hugged Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio and made his way from the yard to the brief rest of the locker room. He took his time, seeming to pull himself together to collect himself for the flood of questions that he had to know he had come from the moment the timetable appeared and shortened his return for the 9th of November.
Some questions were predictable.
"Were you surprised by the buos?" (He was not)
Some were a little bit weirder.
"I do not know, I did not think so," Hayward said when asked if the game was like an ex-girlfriend.
As the press conference broke up, Hayward was bullied by another group. A usher shook his hand and thanked him. A ball boy greeted him. He hugged a jazz PR staff member. His name was called from every direction, and he stopped and spoke to many who asked him.
"It was good to see only the people coming in, some people in the arena, obviously the staff there and some players," said Hayward. "I wish we had won the game, but it was nice to see everyone."
Of course, the Celtics lost 123-115. They are 1-3 and frustrated about their defense. The offense has gone through unexplained dry periods. Hayward himself is still under himself – with an average of just 10.2 points per game at 39.4 percent shooting.
But Hayward could be excused if all the problems of the team and the end result of the game were on his list of priorities for one night. While the boos were still ringing and the confetti was still on the place he used to be the star, it ended with an evening he had expected since the player's tribune story, which was on July 4, 2017 thanked at Utah, was published.
Perhaps the most relevant, least bizarre question Hayward posed in his post-game press conference: Was this night a night he was looking forward to or feared?
"Something in between," Hayward said. "Above all, I was looking forward to seeing (people), I spent seven years here, so I built great relationships and looked forward to seeing some of these people, maybe a little bit afraid of the whole thing with my injury and everything else, it's been a whole year, we're focusing on our own thing, and I know jazz is focused on its thing too. "