BOSTON — Gordon Hayward still remembers the first NBA game he played against Kyrie Irving. Even though it was an otherwise unremarkable January visit from a young Cleveland Cavaliers squad, Hayward knew instantly that the then-19-year-old Irving was going to be special.
“I remember just thinking he had a couple moves where you’re just like, ‘Damn, this kid is going to be really good,” said Hayward. “And he was so young at the time. Just his ability to not only score for himself but create for others. And he was a competitor.”
That game planted the seeds of a friendship that put Hayward and Irving on a path to one day play together. It’s simply taken far longer than either could have imagined to truly see it bear fruit.
Four years after nearly joining forces together in Cleveland, and one year after their first season together in Boston was cut short almost as it started with Hayward’s season-ending ankle injury on opening night, you can sense the genuine excitement that Hayward and Irving have to finally play with each other this season.
And with the Cavaliers on the docket for the team’s final two preseason games, Hayward reflected this week on the near connection back in 2014 when he almost signed with the Cavaliers as a restricted free agent before LeBron James’ return to Cleveland squashed any such possibility.
But Irving had put a hard sell on Hayward.
“I remember it was one of the first times I’ve ever been on a private plane, so that was pretty cool,” said Hayward, who was in the final year of his rookie deal when Irving encouraged him to visit Cleveland at the start of restricted free agency.
“[The Cavaliers’] facility was amazing, I do remember that. They had a full-time chef. Not as nice [of a facility as Boston’s new Auerbach Center], but it was a nice facility. Then just the possibility of playing for another team. I think that was the biggest thing.
“That and getting the chance to maybe play with Kyrie.”
Irving and Hayward had further developed a relationship while playing USA Basketball together. They’d chat while getting up shots, or at ball signings and community events, all while daydreaming about getting an opportunity to play together outside of summer exhibitions.
It was Irving who hosted Hayward and his wife, Robyn, during that 2014 visit to Cleveland and pitched Hayward on the idea of making the Cavaliers relevant again together.
“His pitch was that we could build something together, being younger guys,” said Hayward. “But, at the same time, we had been in the league for a little bit, so it wasn’t like we were just like rookies. It was just building something from the ground up, basically.”
Former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin has said before that Irving had commitments from Hayward, Trevor Ariza, and Channing Frye to come to Cleveland. James’ return erased the possibility.
Hayward ultimately signed an offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets and the Jazz matched it to retain him. But Hayward admitted that, "The thought of playing with a young point guard like [Irving] was really enticing.”
Fast-forward to last summer and their paths unexpectedly cross again when, after recruiting Hayward to Boston in July, the Celtics made a late-August trade to acquire Irving.
Sitting at the podium together inside TD Garden, Irving and Hayward showed immediate chemistry with Irving famously telling Hayward, “It’s about to be crazy, G.”
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Irving, who has routinely gushed about finally getting to play a full season with Hayward, noted last week how he’s been watching highlight videos of Hayward in preparation for sharing the floor again.
The two players are clearly eager to see what’s possible on the court together.
"I mean, think about how life has come full circle for me and Gordon,” said Irving. "In 2014, I was his host in Cleveland when he was a restricted free agent. I met him and Robyn then and I think we are able to play together now, one year taken away from us. We’re just making up for lost time.
"He’s so talented, I’m a big fan. I was watching his highlights [last week] so I can’t wait to see him play. I’m so happy for him. I’ve been waiting to play with a 2-guard like Gordon. He’s even-keeled the whole game. You are able to throw it to him and he’s able to get you a bucket, but he’s smart too."
Hayward is excited to see how fast they can get chemistry again.
"I felt like last year we were just starting to find our rhythm before I got hurt,” said Hayward. "I think a lot of it is just when you’re out there, experiencing different things -- like things happen in a game that are on the fly that are not planned, you have to react to them. But then to see how he reacts to a certain situation, to see how I react, to see where he wants to normally do things, like everyone has tendencies and strengths, so most of it for me is just being out on the court.”
It’s been a long wait but Hayward and Irving both seem to think the partnership could be just as special as they envisioned all those years ago.