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Could Gordon Hayward Tank Danny Ainge's Son's Congressional Campaign?

Tanner Ainge is seeking the Republican nomination in the special election to replace Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

You are aware of the state of play, but let's do a quick actor assessment just to get everyone up to speed.

The Utah Jazz have a promising young roster headlined by the talented wing player Gordon Hayward, formerly a fluffy and objectively duckling-esque college scorer who has emerged as a sleek, near-elite NBA scorer. Hayward will be one of the most sought-after free agents on the market this summer; the Boston Celtics, a team with a promising young core of its own and enough room under the salary cap to offer Hayward a max contract, are expected to be Utah's chief competitor for Hayward's services. Boston's general manager is Danny Ainge, a former two-sport star at Brigham Young and as close to a Utah sports legend as anyone born and raised in Oregon can be. One of Ainge's sons, Tanner, is seeking the Republican nomination for the Utah congressional seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz, who announced he was retiring from the House of Representatives in April to spend more time with his Grave Concerns. These are all things.


Now, without further ado: time for some motherfucking game theory.

Or, sorry. Sorry. That language is uncalled for and wholly gratuitous, especially in connection with an election featuring a fresh-faced and extremely conservative 33-year-old attorney who seems almost pathologically concerned with fiscal discipline, and if anyone was offended by that language it would certainly be regrettable to me. But, to get back to our story, there is a way in which Danny Ainge's pursuit of Gordon Hayward in free agency could, in what would surely be the most egregiously Caucasian version of the Butterfly Effect in history, wind up having an impact on the race for Utah's third congressional district.

On Tuesday, during an appearance on a Utah radio show, Tanner Ainge was asked whether he could work to convince his father not to sign Hayward away from the Jazz. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure I have a lot of influence there," Ainge said. "Ultimately, Gordon is going to make the decision. I hope he stays."

That was as far as he was willing to go; he was unwilling to speculate on whether his father signing Hayward away from the Jazz might hurt him with voters. Ainge later reiterated that he is greatly displeased with the "nonsense" in Washington, and believes that the federal government overreached dramatically in designating Utah's Bears Ears National Monument as a national monument.

Simply because Ainge was unwilling to speculate about how his father's pursuit of Utah's biggest and best-loved basketball star doesn't mean that we need to be as circumspect. While it seems unlikely that Utah Republicans will cast their vote based on what happens in the NBA free-agent market, it absolutely cannot be ruled out.

Ainge is one of three candidates for the Republican nomination. Taken in conjunction with his hard-edged rhetoric—it remains unclear whether voters are willing to tolerate a candidate who uses blunt terms like "nonsense"—it's not hard to imagine Ainge's opponents painting him as something of a carpetbagger, or a hapless servant of deep-pocketed and unaccountable elites sitting in well-appointed offices in Northeastern cities. The voice-over almost writes itself: Tanner Ainge says he's one of us—and here the camera pushes in on a black-and-white photo of the candidate—but when push comes to shove he won't stand up to the Boston elites hoarding draft picks and buying up Utah's most valuable athletes. The question, strongly implied if never quite directly stated, is a devastating one: Who does Tanner Ainge work for, really?

It's tough to know whether any of Ainge's opponents would be willing to go this negative, and indeed it might be easier just to focus on his incendiary "nonsense" comment and question whether a candidate that angry can really be trusted to represent the district. But while Ainge's famous name gives him a certain advantage, that advantage is not an uncomplicated one. If Danny Ainge succeeds in wooing Hayward away from the Jazz, he will have succeeded in adding an important piece to what may someday be a superb Celtics team, but he may well turn voters—the much-discussed, little-understood swing population of Republican primary voters who base their political decisions on NBA front-office decisions—against his son in the process. Hayward will make his decision, and Danny Ainge will do his job. Everything after that is in the hands of the voters.