INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana might consider changing its nickname.

Hoosier State?

On Friday night, it was the Hayward State.

Getting his first chance to play as a professional on the court he grew up dreaming of playing NBA hoops on, Indiana native Gordon Hayward was welcomed back with a hero's homecoming by appreciative fans at Conseco Fieldhouse.

"It's a dream come true," said Hayward, a lifelong huge Pacers fan.

"That was crazy," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "He's a rock star here."

That wasn't an overstatement.

Dozens and dozens of Indiana basketball fans showed their support for the former star of nearby Butler University by sporting Utah Jazz shirts and jerseys with No. 20 on the front and his beloved name on the back.

Hayward received a loud standing ovation when he made his first appearance in the second quarter and again when he came in the second half.

Heck, Pacers' fans even booed a referee loudly when Hayward was called for traveling.

And the arena roof about landed in the backyard of Hayward's childhood home in nearby Brownsburg, Ind., after the 20-year-old stole the ball and emphatically hammer-dunked it in the hoop with his left hand while soaring over Indiana rookie Paul George.

"It was, 'Wow,'" Hayward said of his special night. "Just wow."

Hayward was humbled and honored about how many of his Jazz jerseys he saw throughout the same arena where he won an Indiana state basketball championship with his high school team only three years ago.

"I can't believe how much there was," he said. "It was like everywhere you turned all around the arena there was (number) 20 jerseys and all of that — little kids and older people, everyone was wearing them. It was great to see that, and I'm really thankful."

The spectacle played out like Indiana's version of Jimmermania as far as spectator support went for the local-boy-does-good who led the Bulldogs to the NCAA championship game last year.

Between the support and the Jazz picking up a 95-84 win, Hayward was still floating while he did a postgame interview that had to be moved into the hallway because of the mass of media wanting to ask him questions.

Hayward's first Q&A session was the most special, though.

"After the game, I got interviewed by (ex-Pacer) Austin Croshere, who I grew up watching, so that was something special for me just all in itself," Hayward said. "To come back and play the game that I love and have dreamed to play my whole life is real special."

Hayward finished with just two points in 15 minutes but added three assists and a rebound to go with his highlight dunk.

"I'm excited for him. I'm glad he got out there," Millsap added. "He did a pretty good job, got him a dunk. That was great — good for the home fans."

PRICE IMPROVING: Ronnie Price missed his fifth consecutive game because of a sprained right big toe, which was injured against Chicago just over two weeks ago. The backup guard felt a pop and pain on the joint on the side of his big toe, duplicating an injury that hampered his left foot last season.

"It's the most annoying thing," Price said.

Last season, Price said it took him about 13 games before he could return to action. But his injury is healing, and he's on the verge of being able to return.

"Today has been the best it's felt," Price said after Friday's shootaround. "I'm getting some of my explosion back a little bit."

Price added with a laugh: "There are a lot of words I could use to explain it, but it's definitely getting better."

HIGH DEMAND: Hayward spent Thursday night with his old Butler buddies after the Jazz practiced at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where he used to train and play with the Bulldogs.

He wasn't sure if any of them attended Friday's game, though.

"A lot of them are poor college students, so I don't know if they had the money to buy the tickets," he said, smiling. "And I couldn't get tickets for all of the team, so I didn't want to give some people some and not others. But I know they were watching on TV for sure."

e-mail: jody@desnews.com

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