Determined Hayward takes aim at Team USA spot


It wasn’t just the coaches and players competing for a national championship. It wasn’t just the 70,000 college basketball fans inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis that 2010 evening.

It wasn’t just those who years before had come to adopt a big-screen shooter named Jimmy Chitwood as a folk hero and who believed that a true story about Midwestern values and a high school team from a small Indiana town in 1951 really could be duplicated at the collegiate level.

It was everyone.

We held our breath as the ball took flight from halfcourt, off the fingertips of Gordon Hayward and possibly falling through a net and concluding what would have been the greatest story in college basketball history defined by its greatest game-winning shot.

You could have erased the turnaround by Christian Laettner and Lorenzo Charles slamming home Dereck Whittenburg’s miss and Keith Smart’s pull-up jumper and Michael Jordan’s 17-footer against Georgetown.

Hayward’s shot would have trumped them all.

It looked good. On line. It looked in.

It hit the backboard, then the rim, then fell away and took with it all the hopes and dreams for such a storybook finish.

Duke beat Butler 61-59 in that national final, delivering Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski a fourth championship and sending Hayward and his Butler teammates the six miles back to their campus wondering what might have been.

Immediately, however, I adopted Hayward as someone to follow and root for at the next level, to see how his game would translate to the NBA, to wonder where a player who came so close to turning a Final Four into a movie might fit among the world’s best.

He does so pretty well, it seems.

Hayward and Krzyzewski are connected again, and yet in a far different manner than that championship game.

The latter has begun a third four-year journey as head coach of USA Basketball, and Hayward is a four-year pro from the Jazz hoping to play himself into serious consideration for a spot on the American roster at the world championships in Spain next year.

His most recent step toward such an opportunity came Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center, where USA Basketball ended its four-day minicamp with a Blue-White scrimmage before 9,513. The White won 128-106, a result not lost on a certain Blue player.

“We got smashed,” said Hayward, who had seven points and three assists in 23 minutes. “It was pretty frustrating. What can you do?”

You have to believe such competitiveness, and the fact Hayward played well all week, will earn him a serious look at one of 25 to 28 invitations to training camp here next July, from which 12 players will be selected to represent the U.S. at the worlds.

He is one of those 6-foot-8-inch wings whose ability to shoot with range would help any U.S. side in an international setting. His is a unique skill set, one where he was groomed to be a guard as a child but who never stopped growing.

He averaged a career-high 14.1 points for Utah last season, a former lottery pick whose game continues to improve and whose effort and basketball smarts never have been questioned.

“The primary thing about Gordon is that he’s a winner,” said Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski, here working with the USA Basketball staff. “Every coach would want a guy like him. He’s a terrific player, tough competitor, very skilled.

“When I studied him in preparation for the national championship game, you saw his versatility. You knew there would be NBA teams that wanted players like him in their organization. He is a coach’s dream.”

I’m not sure the dream translates to Hayward making the final cut next summer, because many of those NBA stars sure to be included didn’t participate this week, meaning available spots are few.

But he opened eyes here the past four days, proving again he more than belongs in such company.

“It was good for me,” Hayward said. “Being with the best, practicing with the best, only makes you better. I gained some confidence for sure and probably some respect. I got better this week.”

From the moment that shot left his fingertips at halfcourt in Indianapolis that 2010 evening, I wondered how Gordon Hayward might fit in the NBA. I stopped wondering long ago.

“I did,” Wojciechowski said when asked if he remembers holding his breath as that infamous shot took dead aim on the basket against his Blue Devils. “I did. And then I screamed loudly when it went off the rim.”

Even now, I can’t help thinking what it would have meant had it found net.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.