Last summer, Rudy Gay left money on the table because he wanted to join the San Antonio Spurs and experience their culture firsthand. After three and a half frustrating years with the Sacramento Kings, he opted out of $14.2 million to hit the open market. He was tired of the Kings’ lack of direction and poor communication, so nothing seemed more appealing than playing for the NBA’s model franchise.
This season, Gay worked his way back from an Achilles tear that occurred in January of 2017. The 31-year-old admits that he didn’t feel like himself for much of the campaign, but he did his best to remain productive, averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.6 minutes. He bought into the Spurs’ way, putting the team first and coming off the bench for the first time in his career. He felt his explosiveness start to come back in the playoffs, and he averaged 12.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals. He has renewed confidence entering this offseason and he’s excited to work on his game after spending last summer rehabbing.
HoopsHype caught up with Gay to discuss his experience in San Antonio, what he learned from head coach Gregg Popovich, how much longer he wants to play, the Kawhi Leonard drama that made headlines all season, his 2018-19 player option and more.
This was your first year in San Antonio. What was your experience with the Spurs like and how do they differentiate themselves from other NBA organizations you’ve played for throughout your career?
Rudy Gay: It’s like no other organization in the league. They are definitely family-oriented – there’s a family atmosphere and family is everything. On the court, it’s very different. It’s the epitome of team basketball. Everyone is playing for each other, and it’s always been that way.
They have so many talented veterans with amazing legacies, from Tony Parker to Pau Gasol to Manu Ginobili. What was it like playing with those guys and how did you bond with them over the last year?
RG: It was great. These are all-time greats, future Hall of Famers, so it was great to be around them every day and see their preparation, what makes them tick and how they play the game. There were some things I saw that I can add to my game. Pau is a great person. When I came into the league, he was my vet in Memphis, so I already knew him. But I got to know Manu and Tony, and I definitely tried to learn from all of them.
Gregg Popovich is one of the best coaches ever and his staff is loaded with talented coaches like Ettore Messina, James Borrego, Ime Udoka, Becky Hammon and Chip Engelland. What was it like playing for them and how much did you learn from them?
RG: They definitely know basketball! But when you play for Pop, you learn about basketball, but there are life lessons as well. Sometimes, we’d come to the gym and we’re talking about the team we’re playing next. But other times, we’d come to the gym and we’d all discuss politics or life or what’s going on around the world. He’s definitely one of those guys who make you see things a different way.
Was Coach Popovich different than you expected?
RG: Yeah, there’s a perception of him – how he coaches and how he acts – but it’s different when you’re actually around him. I wouldn’t say it’s totally different, but it is different. I think that’s the case with everybody, though. You think you know what somebody is like when you see them [from a distance], but they’re going to be different when you actually get to know them and spend a lot of time with them.
It was awesome to see you come back from the Achilles injury and be healthy again. I’m curious, though, have you given any thought to how much longer you want to continue playing? I know you’re only 31 years old, but have you given that any thought?
RG: Man, that’s a question I haven’t gotten before! Just thinking off the top, when you go through an injury like that and you work really hard to come back as quickly as I did, it can either go two ways: You can feel burnt out or you can feel hungry for more. Personally, I’m hungry for more. As far as how many years I have left, I don’t know. But I don’t feel like the end is near at all.
I’ve talked to many players who have had a serious injury like that and it seems like one of the most common reactions is that they appreciate things even more and don’t take anything for granted.
RG: That’s exactly how I feel. This season, I was so hungry to get out there and play. The last year, I was dedicated to rehab and getting back on the court. Now, I’m focused on getting better next season and being able to help my team even more. This summer, I can actually get in the gym and work on my game rather than spending all my time in rehab. I’m motivated to be an even better player next season.
You have an $8,826,300 player option for the 2018-19 season, so you could opt out and become an unrestricted free agent. Have you given any thought to that yet?
RG: No. Right now, I’m just watching these playoff games and enjoying it. When that time comes, I have enough people around me to help with that decision. Right now, I’m getting ready to go on vacation, man. I haven’t been on a vacation in years!
I hope you have a great time! What do you have planned?
RG: Well, first I have my son’s birthday party coming up. I’m not sure if I would call that vacation; that’s usually a lot of work (laughs). But then I’ll go wherever the wind blows. But only for a few weeks! Then, I’ll be back in the gym.
Entering this season, there was excitement about you and Kawhi Leonard, but you only got to play five games together due to his right quadriceps injury and your right heel injury. How frustrating was that, and do you think the situation regarding Kawhi was blown out of proportion?
RG: Do I think it was blown out of proportion? Maybe. But, I mean, when you have a team that is expected to compete for a championship, of course the media is going to be there and read into everything. I understand the media [side of things], but I definitely think it was blown out of proportion.
With that situation, it’s tough being injured. I know it was tough for him. It’s tough when you’re sitting out and knowing what you can do and not being able to contribute. I’ve done it! I’ve been there and had to sit out. Not being able to play basketball is hard. This is all we know. Being healthy is rare in this business. That’s why I’m taking this summer to get myself 100 percent healthy and become the best player I can be. I guess our timing was off, you know?
Were you able to talk to him at all as he was doing his rehab? Having been through something similar, were you able to give him any advice or talk him through this since you can relate to what he’s going through?
RG: Yeah, I have. I’ve talked to him and sent him pictures and stuff like that. We would talk back and forth. Like I said, I’ve been in that situation, you know? There’s really nothing others can say [to make it better]. You just work as hard as you can to get healthy. I hope he’s getting closer to that. I haven’t really brought it up or anything, but I hope he’s getting closer to that.
As we discussed, this is a big offseason for you because you are healthy and can focus on improving instead of rehabbing. When you’re training this summer, what aspects of your game are you going to work on?
RG: After being away from the game and having to focus so much on my calf and then on my Achilles, I feel like I was rusty. The biggest thing for me this summer is just getting back to being me. I didn’t feel like myself for most of the year. I was always taught that when you don’t feel right or your game is off, you can still hustle and play hard, so I always did that. But as far as my basketball game, that’s something I need to get back – just being myself.