Any time his name comes up in the sports news cycle, I’ll get a text. It’s either one of my old teammates, my dad, or a random friend.
“Do you remember ...”
So when former Brownsburg and Butler Bulldog, Gordon Hayward, signed a 4-year, $128 million deal with the Boston Celtics, it gave me several opportunities to dust off my best story from an otherwise unremarkable career as a high school tennis player for Danville Community High School.
What makes the story interesting isn’t at all about the result of the match (that went about as expected) but instead how I ended up across the net from one of the state’s very best tennis players in a sectional final. No, what makes it interesting is the fact that I wasn’t very good in my own right.
Some quick background: high school tennis is divided into five matches for varsity and JV, you’ve got three singles players and two doubles teams and you rank them accordingly. Everyone else goes to JV. As a senior in high school, despite having played every single year, I was unable to crack the varsity lineup, relegated to the #1 spot for JV singles after mostly playing JV doubles to that point.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone in front of me was better and I never really developed the drive or competitive edge to try and beat those guys out. We’d have “challenge matches” once a week where you could play the guy in front of you and move up but the guys playing #2 and #3 varsity were both far more deserving of those spots and also two of my best friends. I played tennis for two reasons: to stave off obesity and because its schedule gave me the most flexibility to make it to rehearsals for the fall play later in the evening (ladies, please. I’m married). Those guys, on the other hand, were playing to win and practiced their asses off.
Shortly after our final regular season match in the fall of 2006, my senior year, our #1 singles player suffered a minor case of his appendix exploding and had to have an emergency appendectomy, knocking him out of the postseason. This obviously sucked for him and the team (he was a senior and very good) but I couldn’t help but feel a little excited for myself. I had never played in a sectional and now, in my final season, I was likely going to get an opportunity. As the #1 JV singles player, I was the first choice to replace anyone in the varsity lineup should they be unable to play. So no matter how our coach wanted to shuffle us around, there was an overwhelming chance that I’d be used to fill the gap.
So after a fairly normal practice two days later, the coach gathers us all up to explain his plan. Instead of bumping each singles player up a level, he’s elected to keep #2 and #3 in their usual spots and insert me into the #1 position. I thought he was joking at first, but his reasoning was incredibly sound. Your team wins by winning the most of the five individual matches your varsity lineup plays (three singles and two doubles), so if he were to bump all three singles players up a level, he’d have three guys playing, ostensibly, out of their depth when, instead, by just throwing me out at #1 as the unofficial sacrificial lamb, we still have four reasonable shots at winning three matches. We could win the state tournament without me ever having to a win a game.
On the bus ride up to Brownsburg, coach gives us the pre-match pep talk. He ends it by saying: “We know #1 is signed, sealed, and delivered, but we need two more of you guys to come through if we want to advance.” Everyone laughed, I took a bow. I was the literal definition of “just happy to be here.”
The first match against Plainfield followed the coach’s script exactly. I lost in convincing, but not embarrassing, fashion (2-6, 2-6) while the other two singles players and a doubles team picked up wins, sending us on to play the hosts and tennis juggernaut, the Brownsburg Bulldogs, lead by junior Gordon Hayward.
The highest compliment I could pay Hayward at the time was that I knew who he was. I didn’t follow high school tennis very closely despite actively playing it but I knew Hayward was great and likely would play tennis at the next level and perhaps beyond if he hadn’t grown almost an entire foot since he started high school and elected to go the basketball route instead.
Everyone gets to their courts and starts warming up. We come to the net when we’re finished for small talk prior to the match beginning. Gordon asks me where our #1 is, I tell him I successfully challenged and defeated each of the three guys in front of me and have taken over the program in a vicious coup, sending our former #1 into shameful exile. He tells me he heard he had gotten sick.
“There are a lot of liars out there, Gordon.”
As we take our places I notice he didn’t bother to remove his warm-ups. To his credit, it was a little cool that afternoon and also he didn’t need full range of motion to put me in a blender point-in and point-out. I was somewhat offended until he fired his first serve basically right through my torso.
You’re probably thinking “oh man, Kyle probably didn’t win a game that sucks” and I’m here to tell you it was so much worse than that. I didn’t win a point for the entire first set. Six games went by, and I lost all of them 40-love. If I cared enough about my athletic endeavors to feel shame, I would have been humiliated.
He serves to open the second set and I manage to get it back over the net. I don’t know if his mind drifted elsewhere or if he was feeling merciful, but his forehand came back a lot softer than usual, allowing me to charge the net and put it away down the line to take a point off him. Typically, this isn’t something a normal player would get too excited about, especially after getting turbo-blanked in the first set, but that didn’t stop me from leaping into the air, pumping my fist and screaming “OH YEAH” like some sort of deranged Kool-Aid Man.
Hayward’s response was cool. He just didn’t say anything and proceeded to beat me down even worse than he did previously, as if he could rack up enough embarrassing winners to get that point taken away from me. BUT HE COULDN’T. It was impossible to get that point back. I verified it with the IHSAA official on-site.
Side note: we did not advance out of this match. We didn’t come close. Brownsburg was very good.
So Gordon Hayward prevailed that day. But winning on a tennis court in high school doesn’t necessarily mean you get a better life than your opponent. Since that day, Hayward has gone on to make sixty million dollars playing basketball in the NBA and is signed to make almost twice that over the next four years while I drive a Mazda and have a giant pile of law school debt. So who’s the real winner here?
Actually, don’t answer that.
Also, Gordon, if you’re reading this, I CHALLENGE YOU TO A REMATCH. In the time since we last met you have morphed into a world-class athlete with tremendous hair and I have played tennis less than a dozen times. It’ll be great content. Email in bio, thanks.