By JON KRAWCZYNSKI and TIM REYNOLDS, AP Basketball Writers
Ricky Rubio flew halfway around the world to help Utah make its sales pitch. Miami had the red carpet rolled out, with plenty of staff and players around to do some wooing.
The Jazz and Heat made Gordon Hayward waver.
But Brad Stevens won the Hayward recruiting battle — again.
In 2007, Stevens talked Hayward into signing a letter of intent to play college basketball at Butler. A decade later, Stevens talked Hayward into taking a four-year, $128 million contract to join a Boston Celtics team that went to the Eastern Conference finals last season and thinks it should be better now for years to come.
So Stevens and Hayward reunite, coach and player, after their two seasons at Butler nearly delivered an NCAA title.
“This has been the toughest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my life,” Hayward wrote in his post on The Players’ Tribune announcing his decision on Tuesday night.
The Celtics took Hayward to Fenway Park on Sunday and talked to him about both the past and the future, Boston’s legacy in sports, the magical years led by Bill Russell and Larry Bird and Paul Pierce, and belief that a young core led by Isaiah Thomas is only going to keep getting better. The Red Sox were playing on the road that day, yet whatever Hayward felt visiting that baseball shrine clearly resonated.
And it should be noted that in a city that worships Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Hayward is on record saying he’s not a fan.
Maybe in time, that’ll change.
“There were so many great things pulling me in that direction,” Hayward wrote. “There was the winning culture of Boston, as a city — from the Sox, to the Pats, to the Bruins.”
Hayward’s three-day whirlwind tour started in Miami on Saturday, a day filled with players-only meetings in the lounge off the Heat locker room, examples of how players’ families — especially their kids — have their needs accommodated on game nights, even some discussions about the Miami real estate market.
Some chatted about tennis, a sport Hayward loves and one that gets plenty of attention in South Florida each spring when the Miami Open brings the world’s best players to Key Biscayne. And team president Pat Riley, coach Erik Spoelstra and others showed Hayward what they were thinking of what the 2017-18 Heat would look like with a new All-Star small forward.
Next came the trip to Boston, and then finally a flight back to San Diego for a meeting with a Jazz contingent that included owner Gail Miller, team president Steve Starks, GM Dennis Lindsey and coach Quin Snyder. They pitched Hayward on how they made moves via trade and free agency to surround him with the best possible mix of talent that would put the Jazz in position to contend in the powerful Western Conference for years to come.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Jazz surprised Hayward with a visit from teammates Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and Rubio — the newly acquired guard that Hayward has raved about for some time and who flew in from Spain just for the meeting with hopes that it would be a splash. Much like in Miami, the players met with Hayward privately to talk about what the Jazz could be like going forward.
“My meetings with all three teams during this process — Miami, Boston and Utah — were just unbelievable,” Hayward said. “They couldn’t have been more impressive. Each meeting left me convinced that the team I’d just met with was the right fit. ”
He found Butler to be the right fit in 2007.
He found Boston to be the right fit in 2017.
Those briefed on the Heat and Jazz meetings said both teams left feeling they made extremely strong cases. In the end, Hayward’s history with Stevens seemed to win out.
“Again, Coach Stevens and I found ourselves at a crossroads together,” Hayward wrote. “And again, he was the person I knew I could count on the most.”
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