The questions are inevitable. Heck, sometimes they're the first things strangers ask Gordon Hayward, even before a more formal greeting.
"How's your ankle? Are you coming back this season?"
It has been roughly 150 days since Hayward underwent surgery on the fractured ankle he suffered on opening night in Cleveland. He estimates he has been asked about a possible return "thousands" of times, and you get the feeling he's probably low-balling it.
Hayward recently had the perfect opportunity to end all such inquiries. For the first time in five months, coach Brad Stevens all but closed the door on a possible return this season. All Hayward had to do was agree and say his focus was on next season. Everyone's expectations would have shifted to opening night 2018.
But Hayward refuses to close the door and abandon the one carrot that has kept him trudging forward amid the drudgery of rehab.
On Tuesday night, the injury-battered Boston Celtics host the Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul George, who has served as a poster child for recovery from a gruesome injury, will be on the opposite sideline, and it will make Celtics fans wonder again if Hayward could actually return this season.
While all indications suggest he almost certainly will not, the tiniest glimpse of Hayward's rehab routinely creates a buzz that ripples across the NBA. That attention spawned what has become affectionately known as the "Haywatch," with ESPN's Rachel Nichols concocting a "Baywatch"-themed segment on The Jump to monitor the latest on Hayward's recovery (often with graphics that have Hayward's face photoshopped onto David Hasselhoff's body).
The Haywatch has not lacked for activity. Here are some of the more notable moments and milestones from the past five months:
Oct. 18, 2017: Less than 24 hours after his injury, Hayward appeared in a prerecorded message on TD Garden's JumboTron before Boston's home opener. Wearing a hospital gown as he prepped for surgery, Hayward told fans, "I'm gonna be all right. It's hurting me that I can't be there for the home opener. I want nothing more than to be with my teammates."
Later that night, Kyrie Irving posted a picture of Hayward to his Instagram with the message, "We ALL got you brother, no matter what" and included a reference to 3/23, which ignited speculation of a possible return date for Hayward. It was quickly noted that Hayward and Irving share a March 23 birthdate.
Oct. 20, 2017: During a shootaround in Philadelphia, Stevens revealed how he phoned former Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel for insight on how the team handled George's recovery after his horrific leg injury with the U.S. national team. Stevens also detailed a visit with Hayward following his surgery and said, "We talked a little bit about how to approach the next five months with maintaining that positivity." The "five months" reference raised eyebrows, and Stevens stressed the next day that there was still no recovery timeline, but he did not expect Hayward back this season. Stevens then deadpanned, "But I got a lot of questions about [the time reference]."
Nov. 1, 2017: On the day he shed his hard cast and entered a walking boot, Hayward penned a 3,500-word blog entry detailing the injury, surgery and early days of his recovery. Wrote Hayward: "It's hard mentally to watch the games because I'm sitting here thinking, 'I'm not going to be able to help the team on the court this year,'" but he resigned himself to using his eventual return as motivation. Added Hayward: "I keep imagining what it's going to be like to step onto the floor at the Garden and make my regular-season debut as a Celtic. It's going to be a little delayed. But with each day of my rehab, I'll be that much closer to making it happen."
Nov. 2, 2017: In a sit-down interview with NBC's "Today," Hayward declared, "I'm going to be coming back better than ever." Later, while meeting with Boston reporters during a news conference at the team's practice facility, Hayward was asked about his hopes for a return this season. "I'm putting zero expectations on myself, as far as a timetable. For me, I want to get better today. Right after this, I'm going to do some rehab and do some chair shooting, and that's what I'm focused on."
Nov. 5, 2017: Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge shared a late-night tweet showing Hayward shooting from a padded chair inside a darkened Celtics gym. Two days later, Hayward posted his own version on Instagram, but this one showed him draining a half-court shot from the chair.
Nov. 16, 2017: Hayward sat courtside with Boston's assistant coaches for a game against the Golden State Warriors in which the Celtics rallied from 17 points down for their 14th consecutive win. Hayward later admitted that it was one of his first times out of the house since the injury, but he elected to rehab in the team's locker room during games moving forward.
Dec. 13, 2017: Hayward traded his walking boot for a small brace and video of him walking without aid at a community event in Boston spread rapidly on social media. Less than two months after his injury, it was almost jarring to see Hayward upright and walking on his own again.
Dec. 21, 2017: Hayward wrote another long blog entry detailing his rehab, but he avoided any mention of a return timetable. "It's all about making slow progress. Baby steps," he wrote.
Jan. 10, 2018: Ainge tweeted a photo of Hayward walking without a brace near a pool at the Celtics' training facility. During a conference call from London, Stevens tried to calm growing excitement while noting, "Nothing's changed with his timeline. This isn't, like, a huge ordeal."
Jan. 21, 2018: Looking to shake up a monotonous rehab routine, the Celtics encouraged Hayward to travel to his home in San Diego. There, his wife, Robyn, posted a video of Hayward making 3-point shots without jumping.
Jan. 23, 2018: Hayward traveled to Los Angeles to join the Celtics for a couple days during a back-to-back to start a West Coast trip. Before the first game against the LA Clippers, Hayward was filmed shooting 3-point set shots. The next night, Stevens said Hayward could be traveling with the team by March.
Jan. 27. 2018: Before a showdown against the Warriors, Stevens threw cold water on growing excitement about the videos of Hayward shooting. "He makes a lot of shots standing still. I mean, a lot," Stevens said. "Like, he's a heckuva standstill shooter now. And he's really good in a chair, too. But nothing new. We don't anticipate him being back this season."
Jan. 29, 2018: Hayward blogged again about the rigors of rehab, noting, "It's pretty monotonous, and it's not fun. I'm just trying to get through it." Hayward hinted at a slight hiccup in his recovery when he wrote, "Sometimes I take a small step back because my ankle didn't react well to the thing that I did the day before. And so we have to walk it back a little. That's the hardest part and the most frustrating part for sure."
Feb. 23, 2018: As the Celtics reconvened following an extended All-Star break, Stevens noted that Hayward was still ramping up on the anti-gravity treadmill and was no longer expected to travel at the start of March.
March 2, 2018: The Players' Tribune released a video of Hayward rehabbing that showed him shooting with small jumps. Hayward later dubbed those "baby jumps" but stressed that they are a long way from where he needs to be.
March 3, 2018: Stevens, peppered with questions each time a new glimpse of Hayward emerged, was asked about the Players' Tribune video and offered his most emphatic response yet that Hayward will not play this season. "He's not playing this year," Steven said before a shootaround in Houston. "I don't know what else to say."
March 9, 2018: During a community appearance at a Boston middle school, Hayward refused to shut the door on a possible return. "The hope is still there. ... My thoughts are that I take it day by day," he said. "And I said that from the very beginning, that's what I would do, not putting a timetable on it."
March 16, 2018: During a radio appearance, Ainge noted that Hayward recently endured a small setback in his recovery and said he was "progressing too fast." Ainge later clarified that it wasn't a "setback" but soreness that delayed Hayward's ability to ramp up on the anti-gravity treadmill. Before a game Sunday in New Orleans, Stevens echoed this sentiment while telling reporters, "We're doing a progression, and he had some soreness out of that progression. Probably a little bit predictable, based on how he's been working and everything else. There is going to be some soreness."
What's next for Hayward? He has slowly made progress on the anti-gravity treadmill and should soon be running on his own body weight. He posted a video of himself doing seated calf raises to his Instagram story. Once he can do those standing up, he'll be closer to graduating from baby jumps.
Hayward refuses to look much beyond those next check marks. His entire recovery has subscribed to Stevens' larger philosophy about how a team builds day-to-day without being overwhelmed by the big picture. Without that next-possession focus, these Celtics might never have recovered from the loss of Hayward.
Even as the Celtics stumble to the finish line of the regular season due to injuries, there's excitement about the team's potential as a top seed in the East. The team is resting Kyrie Irving to ensure that his knee feels well, Jaylen Brown should soon navigate the return-to-action concussion protocol, and Marcus Smart said Monday that he hopes to be back on the floor for the postseason.
Have Smart and Hayward talked about a joint playoff return?
"No, we haven't really discussed that," Smart said with a smile. "It's kind of touchy. Take it day by day."
Yes, the Haywatch continues.