CLEVELAND – The excitement surrounding Tuesday’s Opening-Night matchup between the Celtics and the Cavaliers quickly subsided with 6:45 remaining in the first quarter, when Gordon Hayward suffered a devastating fracture of his left ankle.
Emotions quickly shifted from fun-loving dislike for Kyrie Irving, to true and sincere concern for Hayward’s health after he fell to the floor along the right block of the lane, causing Celtics and Cavs alike to turn away in disturbing fashion.
Hayward leaped into the air in an attempt to corral an alley-oop pass from Irving, but he came in contact with LeBron James in mid-air, and with Jae Crowder, who was behind him, and suffered the horrific injury as he fell back to the floor.
Jaylen Brown finished a layup for the Celtics off of the botched alley-oop, and Hayward immediately called to the referees to stop play as he sat on the floor along the right block of the lane, holding his left leg in pain.
“I’ve had a few (injuries), and I’ve seen a few, and probably two of the worst ones, I’ve been in the game watching,” Irving said after the contest. “One was at (Team) USA (when Paul George broke his leg), and this one was tonight.”
Added a somber Al Horford, “It was hard to see.”
The previously-electric crowd fell to an eerie silence as medical personnel from both teams tended to Hayward on the court. After approximately four minutes, Hayward was taken off the floor in a stretcher with his left leg immobilized in an air cast.
The Celtics led 12-9 when the injury occurred.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that James, during game action, went back to the Cleveland locker room, where Hayward was being treated. Former Celtic Isaiah Thomas, who recruited Hayward to Boston, was also reported to have been with Hayward during the evaluation process inside Cleveland’s locker room.
Likewise, stars from all over the American pro sports landscape, including many NBA players, sent out tweets and prayers wishing Hayward a return to full health.
“It shows a brotherhood in the league,” Horford of the outpouring of support.
The injury, in open view on the court, was as gruesome as any that has occurred in recent history in American sports. The entire Cavaliers bench immediately turned away, as the injury was suffered about 15 feet from their seats, while Dwyane Wade, Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose, all of whom were in the game, all turned away and covered their faces after seeing Hayward on the floor.
Celtics players, meanwhile, first stood in shock, some with both of their hands on their heads, as they internalized what they had seen with their own eyes. Soon thereafter, as Hayward was being tended to, Celtics players could be seen consoling their other new teammate, Irving, with hugs in front of the bench. Irving was clearly shaken, and seemingly was placing some blame upon himself for throwing the pass that led to the injury.
None of Boston’s players, including Irving, spoke after the game of that particular moment, but they did touch on coming together as a team while Hayward was being treated.
“The first thing that we did was we brought everybody in on the court – we’re all dealing with a lot of emotions – to just kinda just make sure that everyone’s staying together, and just keep it going,” explained Horford.
“We prayed for him, for his health, and we just told each other we were going to stick together,” added Jayson Tatum.
The Celtics were clearly shaken in the immediate aftermath of the injury. They allowed the Cavs to rattle off a 23-9 run following the stoppage in play, and Cleveland pulled ahead by as many as 18 points during the first half.
During the second half, however, Boston bounced back and eventually took a lead, at 71-69, during the final 22 seconds of the third period. The teams volleyed back and forth from that point on, but the Celtics missed two potential game-tying 3-pointers during the final three seconds of the contest before falling 102-99.
Now Boston will fly home to host to the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night, on a night that was supposed to be a celebration of this new-look team that was constructed to challenge for a title right now.
Instead, all of Boston will have its heart torn between two places – first, thinking about Hayward and his family, and second, thinking about the game at hand– just as all of Boston and Cleveland were Tuesday night.