I’ve had the pleasure (or pain) of attending quite a few Jazz games this season. Wednesday night’s was the first since November that actually felt like a home game.
Jazz fans ignored the context of this final regular-season game—the first time in six years it won’t be followed by the playoffs—and focused on the action on the court. For the final two minutes, as the Jazz scored eight unanswered points to come from behind and secure the game, 107-103, the crowd was on its feet, sounding the incoherent roar that brands Utah’s as the loudest fans in the NBA. For once, almost no one left early to beat the parking-lot rush.
Fans forgot about the dismal home games they’d been witnessing recently. They ignored the fact that this was an inconsequential “rest” game for the Nuggets. They even looked past the awkward “Thanks, Jazz Fans” videos that were playing all night, in which players and staff thanked fans their support this season. (Most of the athletes kept their messages concise, but the resounding, almost verbatim theme of the clips featuring staff members—and Kyrylo Fesenko—was “Thanks for sticking with us this (terrible) season. Please support us next year. We’re gonna be so much better. Promise!”)
Instead, fans focused on Gordon Hayward, who scored a career-high 34 points and was the lightning rod for the electric atmosphere in EnergySolutions Arena. He’s come a long way since the 2010 draft, when Jazz die-hards booed his selection.
My husband started calling Hayward “The Commissioner” last fall (because his name is Gordon. Commissioner Gordon, get it? No? It’s from Batman) as a joke. The nickname has picked up a little steam on Twitter, and recently it’s started to seem less ironic and more fitting. With Williams gone and Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko on the bench, the Jazz are a younger team, and the cherubs are starting to stand out. Hayward, above all, has lost his gawky rookie newness (maybe growing his hair out from that unfortunate missionary haircut helped) and has started acting like an NBA player. Wednesday night, he also started acting like a leader.
And good thing, too. I heard third-hand this week that the Jazz plan to make The Commissioner the face of the franchise next season, replacing Williams’ stern, too-cool-for-school visage. Hayward just turned 21. Though it’s a bit of a gamble to bet your franchise on a player who’s so new to the league, Utah fans have fallen hard for Hayward and his clean-cut (white) looks, especially now that he’s earning more points than fouls.
Most people were betting that the Jazz would build the franchise around Al Jefferson, who has the face of a 45-year-old but is actually just 26. It was Hayward, though, who addressed the fans before the game and thanked them for the season. Last year, it was Williams who took the mic. (Remember back in October when Williams zipped a pass at Hayward’s face during a game, angrily yelled and clapped his hands at him and then made a public apology? It was all anyone talked about for days. Things in Jazz Town were so much simpler then.)
This year, the Jazz have an extra-long offseason to change and grow. Thanks to an impending lockout, it could be 2012 before they retake the court. Maybe the Jazz staff are right and next season (whenever it comes) will be better. It might still be the aftereffects of “Whoa! We didn’t get embarrassed at home!” euphoria, but I’m feeling pretty positive right now.
I hope I’m right. So should Hayward. After all, if he can solidify himself as Utah’s poster child, he will reach the glamorous heights of which all NBA hopefuls dream: a commercial for Bailey’s Moving & Storage.