There was already a lot of change for Gordon Hayward in 2017: A new team, a new contract, a new city, a new house.

But more than five minutes into his regular-season debut for the Celtics came the biggest change of all. Hayward jumped toward the hoop to catch a lob pass, getting knocked in two different directions and falling awkwardly to the ground. His foot bent in the wrong direction. His left ankle was dislocated. His tibia was broken.

The big changes had only just begun for Hayward. Multiple surgeries, a year of rehab and a lost season ensued. Nearly a year later, the 6-foot-8 forward held a press conference declaring himself ready to go for the upcoming season. But while the hope remains that Hayward will eventually return to form on the court, the events of the past year left him a changed man off the court.

Photo: David Salafia; Photo assistant: Jim Brueckner; Grooming: Leslie Shattuck/ Viselli Salon

“It was definitely a tough year, everything that went on. I think it made me a stronger person and I think it helped our family,” Hayward says. “I was moving to a new team, so I had new teammates, a new coaching staff, a new facility and just trying to figure out a new city. How do I fit in with my teammates on the court, off the court? How do I find different places for my wife to go to hang out and work out? Where are the girls going to go to school? Where are they going to find different places to play? And so all of that’s going on, and then I get injured, so it puts a wrinkle into it.”

Hayward had seen horrific sports injuries before: He was in the gym when Paul George broke his leg. He was watching on TV when Kevin Ware broke his leg in the NCAA tournament. He even recalls as a 12-year-old seeing running back Willis McGahee tear up his knee in the college football national title game. But he never thought it would happen to him.

“At the time, you think, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for this person.’ But then you move on and don’t think about the steps that it takes to get back to being who you were,” Hayward says. “I had a lot of time to think, so I thought about all that stuff.”

In the aftermath of the injury, Hayward received numerous phones calls and texts of support, but one still sticks with him as he mentally readies himself to return to meaningful NBA games. It was from San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, who had sustained a similar injury in a home-plate collision in May 2011. Posey sat out the rest of that year, but in his first season back he won the NL MVP and helped his team win the World Series.

“It’s nice to be able to talk to other athletes who had something similar. You get to hear what it was like during their recovery and what it was like the next season and how long it really took after being healthy,” Hayward says. “I’m not a baseball guy, but to get a chance to talk to someone who was really hurt by the injury, but then came back and played really well, really lifted my spirits.”

On the Cover: Gordon Hayward, photographed for the Improper Bostonian by David Salafia at The Auerbach Center in Boston; Photo Assistant: Jim Brueckner; Grooming: Leslie Shattuck / Viselli Salon; Boston skyline, photographed for the Improper Bostonian by J Heroun; Cover composite: Vanessa Yndra

Photo: David Salafia; Photo assistant: Jim Brueckner; Grooming: Leslie Shattuck/ Viselli Salon

In an effort to stay positive, Hayward also took up meditation. He developed a strict sleep schedule—not an easy thing with two toddlers at home. The Celtics set him up with someone to talk through the challenges, and his teammates stepped up, offering support and dropping by his house.

Before last season began, Hayward had connected with rookie Daniel Theis and his family, helping the then 25-year-old deal with the transition to the NBA after playing in German professional leagues for several years. Hayward invited the Theis family over for dinner and offered advice on dealing with coach Brad Stevens, who Hayward had played for during his college days at Butler. Then, a couple of months later, the roles were reversed. Theis was trying to guide Hayward through a difficult time.

“It was, for me, probably one of the worst moments of my basketball career,” Theis says of Hayward’s injury. “We just tried to give him some hope and told him if he needed anything, I was there and he could call whenever. At that moment, if you’re in that position, you just want nobody to talk to you.”

Theis and fellow big guy Aron Baynes were frequent visitors to Hayward’s house, stopping by to have dinner with their families or simply dropping in for a few minutes to check on their teammate. Sometimes they’d play cards or talk about life, but other times they’d talk specifically about basketball. Theis recalls that Hayward’s family was always at the ready to help Gordon, who also had trainer/friend Jason Smeathers living with him to keep his rehab on track. Theis, who suffered his own season-ending injury in March, imagines Hayward also learned to develop another characteristic.

“He probably got more patient,” Theis says. “You need help for everything in the beginning. If you want something to eat or drink, you have to ask for everything. If you have bad days—or you’re in a bad mood—it’s not easy for the family at home.”

During the past year, Hayward saw a lot more of his family than he expected. Rather than going on long road trips during the season—and stopping back home for a couple of days at a time—he saw his two kids every day. As much as he credits Smeathers for making sure he took the correct medications and did the proper rehab drills, he credits his wife, Robyn, and his kids for taking his mind off the injury.

“My girls had no clue what was wrong. They knew that I was hurt and had a boo-boo, so they were dressing it up with stickers. But they didn’t know and don’t understand, so that part was good because it was just normal being around them. ‘Let’s play hide-and-seek, let’s read a book, let’s watch Frozen.’ Different things like that,” Hayward says. “It helped me get out of my head.”

Some of those family moments got a little more attention than others, such as when Robyn shared the couple’s gender reveal for their third child on Instagram. The video went viral for Gordon’s nonplussed reaction to the news his wife would be having a third girl.

“I did not want to do the gender reveal, but my wife was insistent and she had it on camera and it went viral,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who thought it was staged and that I already knew what it was. I had no clue, and that was my genuine reaction. It’s good. I’m happy about it.”

After Robyn posted the moment on Instagram, Hayward’s social media was spammed with the phrase “Daddy’s Always Happy.” Eventually, he decided to embrace it and printed a bunch of gear with those same words. He’s now selling it, and the proceeds will go to the Massachusetts Society for Protection of Cruelty to Children. He’s even implored the TD Garden crowd to chant the saying at upcoming games.

Photo: Brian Babineau / Boston Celtics

But snapshots with his family weren’t the only draw to Hayward’s Instagram this year. After a clip of him shooting a basketball from a chair at half-court surfaced, Celtics fans yearned for any glimpse of progress in Hayward’s rehab. For a time, many even held out hope that he could return for the end of this past season, and those hopes only grew when Hayward posted videos on his social media and the Players’ Tribune website. ESPN started running a Haywatch segment documenting all of Hayward’s moves.

“I did see it, and I thought sometimes it was kind of comical and it was funny. Brad would go out and say, ‘Gordon is done for the year,’ and then I would release a video of me like doing drills and everyone would lose their mind, and it would be on Haywatch and all this,” Hayward says. “And Brad came to me the next day and was like, ‘What are you doing? Are you trying to make my job stressful?’ But we had good laughs about it. I think that’s just how it is in today’s world.”

Hayward admits that opening up to the public was hard, but he felt that the final product of documenting the work would be worth it: “I’d be lying to say it was easy. … If it was just me, it’d be one thing—but I have a family. So I was trying to have them not be so intrusive that it’s causing issues with my wife and the girls and things like that. But I think it’s going to be really, really cool.”

Behind the scenes, the rehab was a lot more monotonous. He was consumed with minor drills. One day, he’d balance on one leg for 10 seconds, and then up to 15 seconds—or he’d balance with his eyes closed for 5 seconds. But all Hayward’s progress came to a screeching halt when he had to have a second surgery in late May to remove the plate and screws that were put in his leg during the initial surgery after the injury.

“I was working everyday to try to come back. There was not much of a timetable that I was given. We had a basic timetable, but everything was like, ‘Depending upon how you feel.’ I kind of knew, when we were in April and I still hadn’t ran yet, that even if I was going to be able to miraculously run and jump that I still hadn’t played basketball at all,” Hayward says. “Once it was to the point where we were in the playoffs and I still hadn’t played at all, it was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to come back.’ And then of course, I had to get the second surgery.”

Photo: Brian Babineau / Boston Celtics

And so began the mental hurdle of having to rehab once again. By his own admission, Hayward is behind where he wanted to be as the season begins this October, needing a recent cortisone shot for a sore back. He is still finding his way on the court with a team that made an unexpected run in the playoffs last season without him, coming a win away from playing in the NBA Finals. Even if he’s back at 100 percent, fitting in still might take awhile.

“I think I was just finding my groove last year when I got hurt, so that’s going to be something I have to figure out, and it’s something we as a team have to figure out as well,” Hayward says. “Thankfully, we have one of the best coaches in the league and he’ll be able to figure out how to help us do that.”

The events of the past 12 months have forced Hayward to grow. He’s learned the power of
positivity—and how meditation and sleep can help. He’s gained patience. He’s become even more of a family man. He’s embraced the power of social media and marketing. But one obstacle remains:
Can he become a great basketball player again?

“Especially in today’s NBA with everyone moving and changing teams, an injury can change a lot. So it definitely puts things in perspective for me. It’s gotten me refueled, and reignited my passion for the game,” he says. “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say I’m going to be nervous about how I’m going to be in the first game. It’s been so long since I’ve played in an NBA game. Once I get out there and get going, my competitive juices will take over and it will be fine.” 

On the Cover: Gordon Hayward, photographed for the Improper Bostonian by David Salafia at The Auerbach Center in Boston; Photo Assistant: Jim Brueckner; Grooming: Leslie Shattuck / Viselli Salon; Boston skyline, photographed for the Improper Bostonian by J Heroun; Cover composite: Vanessa Yndra

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