In probably the most global professional sport of them all, racial profiling still exists, and the most recent victim is Butler product Gordon Hayward.
Not to confuse the point – the Indiana native has not had his civil rights violated or been antagonized by the legal system, but without a doubt, the talented small forward will be served an injustice by supporters of a league that has players representing more than 28 countries and territories.
In a sport that’s range is so expanse, the perspectives about its players pale.
Hayward, a 6-foot-9, 211-pound small forward, is probably not pounding the floor on this matter. After all, a little more than five months ago, he was trotting along in obscurity as a very good basketball player on a formidable mid-major team. Then March Madness began, and by the time the circus was over, Hayward and his Bulldogs were center stage under the big tent.
Butler may have fallen to Duke in the national title game, but the Bulldogs won in every other imaginable way. Hayward, especially. Though his half court heave to win the game barely missed the mark as the final buzzer blew, the sophomore’s NCAA tournament appearance was all net. Not only had the Indiana native become a national figure in basketball, he had created enough of a buzz that he decided to enter the Draft.
As to be expected with such a surprise player that had the nerve to be so captivating without being preordained by basketball experts, the reaction was uneven. Some onlookers begged for Hayward to withdraw his name from the Draft and avoid the biggest mistake of his career. He would go undrafted and miss the chance to take Butler back to the Final Four. Others were more optimistic, immediately crowning him a top-5 lottery pick.
Both extremists will be wrong and Hayward’s truth will land somewhere in the middle, most likely mid-to-late first round, though it wouldn’t be unrealistic to believe that he could make a run similar to the NCAA’s and improve his stock.
What’s intriguing about Hayward’s rise is that he was relatively the same player in the NCAA’s that he was all season. During the year, he averaged 15.5 points per game and 8.2 rebounds. His six games during March Madness mirrored this effort, as he notched 15.8 points and 7 rebounds a contest en route to earning the West Region Most Outstanding Player.
The story surrounding Hayward up to this point is satisfying. It will remain satisfying as long as we view him as a basketball player. But that, unfortunately, won’t be the case. Yes, Hayward is white.
And because of this, he must shoulder the absurd expectations, for one, that he will be the next Larry Bird. It’s not unthinkable that the 20-year-old swingman will have a respectable NBA career but to measure him against Bird right now goes without reason. The same was done with Adam Morrison in 2004 after he dominated college basketball at Gonzaga. Morrison not only did not live up to the expectations, he has faintly held on to his playing career in the NBA, currently sitting on the LA Lakers bench in street clothes.
It’s not unnatural for fans to want to see players from a shared background attain great success, particularly in sports where that group is the minority. For example, Venus and Serena Williams and Tiger Woods inspired an entire generation of blacks to fall in love with tennis and golf. Yao Ming, as well, can be credited with the wave of NBA support found in his native China. This trait transcends all sports, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. For further illustration, Alberto Salazar was revered by throngs of Cubans as he dominated marathons and long distance track and field in the 1980s, a rarity for Hispanic runners.
Essentially, wanting to identify with a celebrity is part of the lure. So it’s understandable for individuals to be in search of the next Larry Bird. Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash have been dominant in the league but have not filled this longing. Yes, the two NBA stars are white but because they hail from Germany and Canada respectively, they haven’t been as celebrated as someone from American soil.
And so, Hayward assumes this pressure, be it willfully or not. Like Bird, he was born and raised in Indiana. Like Bird, he stayed home to play college basketball. And like Bird, Hayward took a small program to the national championship game. These parallels are undeniable. But for right now, these are where the similarities end. Hayward likely wouldn’t shy away from wanting a career like Bird, not because he’s white, but because he was a great player.
It’s silly though to think that it’s fair to compare Hayward only to other white players. In reality, his game is closer to Josh Childress than to Mike Dunleavy, to Jeff Green than to Luke Jackson, and to Luol Deng than to Matt Harpring. Yet most references will have the Butler standout associated with players that share his racial roots. Disregard the notion that he doesn’t have the pure jump shot of Dunleavy, possesses greater handle than Jackson, and does not embody the strength of Harpring.
Hayward’s strengths, however, make him an interesting prospect. He is deceptively quick, sees the passing lanes well even when dribbling in traffic, finishes at the rim well after contact, shoots a potent mid range jumper, and rebounds aggressively.
These attributes fit well with teams picking at 17, 18, and 19. Since Hayward has a similar makeup as Deng, Chicago could build its second unit around the Butler star or play the rookie with the starting lineup in certain situations. Also, Miami should probably look hard at the small forward if he is still available at 18; the Heat are weak at that position and Hayward could realistically find himself in the starting lineup as the season progresses.
And either tragically or epically, Hayward could be there for the Boston Celtics at pick 19. The Celtics don’t have a true backup for Paul Pierce and with the 2008 Finals MVP now on the back end of his career, Boston brass would do well to have someone who could play well enough to shed some of Pierce’s minutes without sacrificing too much.
Hayward’s weaknesses are also apparent and the severity on how they are judged might be the only thing that has him waiting any longer than the aforementioned selections. He sometimes gets lost in a game, drifting rather than dominating, a point that has been raised often in the fact that he didn’t altogether shred the competition in the Horizon League. And while Hayward has demonstrated toughness when going to the hole, a question mark is still swirling regarding his ability to consistently finish at the rim amongst the league’s swarm of shot blockers.
Above it all, Hayward is an NBA player in waiting. And with that comes comparisons of all kinds. Kobe Bryant is compared to Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal to Wilt Chamberlin. Instead of folding under the constant scrutiny of being measured against their predecessors, these players were fueled by it, excelled and thus created their own legacies. Hayward might want to take a page from this script. He can’t control the barrage of comparisons, but he can control what he does with them.
– Patrick Green, DraftNasty.com staff writer, has been writing professionally for more than a decade. He is the author of two novels, Josie’s Missing Syllabus and Son Down; and while both works deal with topics beyond the athletic landscape, each exposes a social scope involving sports as an underlying theme. Green has covered high school, college, amateur, and professional football during his career, having written for newspapers in Augusta, Ga., and Charleston, South Carolina. To learn more about Patrick Green, visit www.greeninkpub.com.