INDIANAPOLIS – He's become the best player in this NCAA tournament, a sure-fire first-round NBA draft pick who has the Butler Bulldogs a win away from the national championship.
Still, success hasn't changed Gordon Hayward much.
On the eve of the biggest game in the school's history and amid a crush of positive press, Hayward is on an even keel, going through life the same way he did before all the accolades.
He went to church on Easter Sunday and said he was prepared to attend four classes on campus Monday before facing Duke for the title at Lucas Oil Stadium, just six miles away.
He credited his peers for putting him in this position and shied away from any and all commendations.
The only switch in his routine this weekend came after he worshipped. He signed autographs for fans … on their church bulletins.
"For me, things are no different," Hayward said. "I go to school and have the same friends and just hang out.
"I know that my individual success wouldn't have happened without my teammates. Right now, it's just all about Butler basketball. They sure do make me look good."
He couldn't appear much better.
An entire country has been gripped by the Bulldogs and their fresh-faced leader. Surely some axis has been altered? Sticking to the script, Hayward would only bite in the team context.
"We were talking about it, just kind of joking around," he said. "A month ago, we'd go to a restaurant and no one would say anything to us. Now we can't go out without being stopped, taking pictures. For us, we're the same people. Maybe some popularity has grown for us because of the Final Four and the national championship game."
There's no maybe about it.
Understatement suits the 20-year-old sophomore from Brownsburg, Ind. An All-American boy? Heck, this kid hasn't shaved since beating Kansas State in the regional final. Not that you would notice. They don't call him the Baby-faced Assassin for nothing.
He smiles and offers an aw-shucks shrug to every question, every attempt to get him to take a bow.
Hayward has become the poster child of this season's tournament, much as Davidson's Steph Curry did two seasons ago. Only he's taken things two steps farther than Curry.
Forget all the cheesy "Hoosiers" references and stories portraying Butler, winners of 25 straight games, as some sort of Cinderella. The real heartwarming story here is Hayward, a guy fathers would like their daughters to date, a guy they'd be proud for their sons to emulate. He could be making millions in the NBA next season, and, if there is any justice, even more as a product endorser. Milk would seem like a natural fit for him to pitch. Miller Lite, not so much.
For now, he's happy to be a regular college student. He has a 3.3 grade-point average and enjoys lounging at the dorm, challenging Shelvin Mack in an "NBA2K10" video game.
"He's a great teammate," Mack said. "He's willing to sacrifice for the betterment of us all. There's a lot of NBA talk, but he never gets caught up in the buzz."
It probably won't be long before Hayward will be playing on a real NBA court.
At 6-foot-9, he has guard skills, frontcourt size and underrated athletic ability. He has averaged 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds over the course of the tournament in leading Butler, enrollment 4,200, to the brink of college basketball's ultimate prize.
His incredible tournament run has only confirmed what some talent evaluators already knew. Hayward is a player with huge upside. He has been projected to go between 12th and 26th in the June draft if he chooses to leave school early.
Butler guard Zach Hahn said Hayward is in no rush to cash in on his skills.
"Gordon's an unbelievable person," Hahn said. "He's so humble, yet so passionate. I think that's what makes him special and separates him from a lot of people who think they are going to be professional athletes. Some of them are maybe a little arrogant, a little cocky. You can call it their swagger or whatever.
"Gordon never shows any of that. He shows that he's a little 5-year-old kid sometimes. He just smiles and enjoys playing basketball. I don't think he's focused on the future at all. He's just trying to win a championship."
Growing up in Brownsburg, population 18,850, Hayward learned the values that have become his core. His dad, Gordon Sr., and mom, Jody, supported their son's athletic endeavors. He teamed with his twin sister Heather on a highly regarded mixed-doubles tennis team.
A growth spurt that saw him soar from a 5-foot-11, 155-pound high school freshman to a 6-8, 185-pound senior changed the course of his basketball career. For a while, he considered eschewing hoops and pursuing a tennis scholarship. Instead he became a first-team all-state basketball performer and led Brownsburg to a Class 4A state championship. Shortly thereafter, he signed to play for Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.
Now an inch taller and 22 pounds heavier, he has a body better suited to pro basketball. That estimation comes from a pretty fair Indiana product in his own right, former Celtics great and current Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird.
"He's talented, quick off his feet and he can get to the basket," Bird said. "He didn't shoot the ball extremely well this year, but you know he can shoot. He could be a good player in our league. I know a lot of people are talking about him. He's going to be a good fit for a lot of teams."
Before that day comes, Hayward will play in front of a huge national TV audience and 70,000-plus on site. He hopes to deliver one of the most unlikely NCAA championships in the sport's history.
It's a safe bet he'll handle the hype in stride, just as he always has.
"I always dreamed that I would be here someday," Hayward said. "You sit out in the backyard and see yourself winning the game from the free-throw line or with a last-second shot. I don't know that [the dream] was ever to this extent. I'm just happy to be here and so proud of this team."
Pride never came off so humbly.
- Gordon Hayward