WASHINGTON — Rudy Gay has never looked the part of an NBA vagabond.
In each of his four stops in what is now a 14-year career, the 6-foot-8 forward from Baltimore has been a model citizen, a player who has been high in production and low in maintenance.
It’s why, with Gay approaching the age of 31 and coming back from a potentially career-ending injury three years ago, the man running one of the league’s most successful franchises wanted Gay be part of its transition.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said that all NBA coaches want players like Gay in their locker rooms, drawing up plays for them to score rather than scheming defenses to stop them.
“You know who you fear. You know who you have to game plan for,” Popovich said in November when the Spurs played the Wizards in Washington. “He was always a scorer. He can get a shot anytime he wants because of his length. He just rises up. He’s a valuable scorer.”
So Popovich, who is also the team’s president and general manager, signed Gay before the 2017-18 season, as Gay was trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered midway through the previous season in Sacramento.
At the time, the Spurs were searching to find new leadership to replace the triumvirate that had won four of the franchise’s five NBA titles over a 12-year period.
Tim Duncan had retired two years earlier after a 19-year career. Manu Ginobili was going into his final season after a 16-year career. And Tony Parker was about to start his 17th year in San Antonio before finishing his career last season in Charlotte.
While the Spurs had brought in LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015-16 and still had 2014 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard at the time, Popovich thought Gay would be the perfect complement to what had the makings of another Big Three.
Leonard, who suffered a serious ankle injury in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, was sidelined for most of Gay’s first season in San Antonio and was eventually traded to the Toronto Raptors.
While Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, who was traded for Leonard, continue to put up solid numbers, Gay struggled at times after coming off the bench.
Gay said the transition to a new team and a new role is something that is finally taking hold.
“The adjustment wasn’t easy for me at all,” he said. “Your role is switched and it takes time to get used to it. It takes time to redirect your way of thinking. It takes a while to get familiar with coaches, players. It’s a tough job, not as easy as people may think. My role here is a little different than it has been with the teams before. I’m more of a veteran leader, not called upon to score points like I used to.”
Gay is still a productive offensive player, given that before Saturday night’s game, he was averaging 10.9 points per game while playing just 23 minutes a game. He’s only averaged fewer than 26 minutes once in his career — the year after he tore his Achilles.
But the transition still hasn’t taken hold for one of the NBA’s most stable franchises. While the Spurs have seemingly recovered from a franchise-record eight-game losing streak, their 11-16 record through Friday puts them 10th in the Western Conference. Popovich’s string of 22 straight playoff appearance is being seriously threatened.
Though his offensive game has not completely returned since the injury, Gay has found a new role. It’s not just about what he does on the court, but what happens during practice and in the locker room.
“I have a different responsibility,” Gay said. “I’m in there to keep everything in control and to make sure everything goes smoothly. Before I was the guy that did create offense and create things for my teammates. Just a big difference. The adjustment wasn’t easy.”
Popovich, who has seen several of his former stars make a similar transition during his quarter-century tenure with the Spurs, believes that Gay has done a great job in terms of meeting expectations.
“Every player goes through that, it’s no big deal,” Popovich said. “You’re not a rookie, a young guy forever. Your role changes. He’s been a great teammate, he’s been a good scorer off the bench for us. He’s been a positive force for everybody. He’s just been somebody that guys look up to because of his experience and ability to get along with people.”
Third-year guard Bryn Forbes said that having Gay as a teammate has helped in his own transition to the league.
“Rudy’s seen a lot, done a lot, just his experience and his wisdom is always great,” Forbes said. “He’s someone I’ve had a great relationship with so far. He’s helped me a lot. Just having those guys with that experience and knowledge is priceless.”
Compounding the adjustment was the fact that Gay was in the process of coming back from what is often a career-altering injury. Gay said it took “about a year” to feel comfortable that his Achilles was 100%. He took encouragement from one of the game’s all-time greats, Kobe Bryant, who suffered the same injury early in the 2013-14 season at age 35.
“It’s more mental than anything,” Gay said on the team’s stop in Washington. “You know that you’re going to come back healthy and be the same person, if not close to the same person you were. A lot of people have this injury and see it as a death wish for [playing] this sport. You can’t think like that.”
Gay said he has talked with Wizards point guard John Wall, who tore his Achilles in an off-court accident while out with a knee injury. Superstar Kevin Durant suffered the injury in last year’s NBA Finals with Golden State, and is sitting out the 2019-20 season after signing with the Brooklyn Nets.
"When you go through that injury, the act of having that injury always lingers in your mind,” Gay said. “What move did I make for that to happen? When you first come back, you’re guarding yourself. So once you get that out of your mind, you’re as good as you’re going to be.”
As Gay begins what is undoubtedly the home stretch of his career — unless he turns into the second coming of the seemingly ageless Vince Carter — he is beginning to think about his basketball afterlife.
“Obviously, I’m doing this now, but it’s only a matter of time that you’ll be able to play basketball for a living,” he said.
In August of 2018, nearly a decade after he started his own foundation based in Baltimore called Flight 22, Gay helped launch more than two dozen entrepreneurship programs for the city’s high school students in a partnership with EverFi, a Washington-based educational technology company.
According to his older sister, Yozmin, who left a career in education administrator five years ago in the Baltimore area to oversee the foundation and do leadership consulting, her baby brother has grown tremendously from being the “wet behind the ears 20-year-old" who was drafted eighth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2006 after playing two seasons at Connecticut.
“He was pretty much like the franchise at the time,” Yozmin Gay said. “To this day, they love Rudy, they really do.”
The night before the Spurs played the Wizards at Capital One Arena last month, Gay was in Towson for the soft opening for one of two locations of PickUp USA Fitness, a basketball-centric gym that offers regular fitness activities as well as referees for its basketball games. He was joined by a few teammates, friends and family members, including his father, Rudy Gay Sr.
“Just being from Baltimore, being able to bring something not just for kids but for the community, a safe place to play basketball, build your craft,” he said the following night in the visitors’ dressing room at Capital One Arena. “It’s basically one of those things I wish I had growing up and I brought it to the city.”
Said Yozmin Gay: "He really wants to build that wealth in disadvantaged communities. … Leadership is provisional, and for an athlete, sometimes we don’t grow in leadership until we have that experience that forces us to grow.”
Eight years older than her brother, Yozmin Gay said that Rudy’s evolution came naturally. It was the way he and his siblings, who range from Gay, the youngest at 33, to 47-year-old Eric Gay, were raised by their parents, Rudy Sr., a musician who was part of the 1970s R&B group Ace Spectrum, and Rae, an educator.
“He was always tapping into something,” Yozmin Gay said of Rudy. “When he was ready, he said, ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ He always studied before he did. Talk about the world and leadership and organizational development. Sometimes you’ve got to sit back and watch the experiences of other people before you move.”
Gay doesn’t appear close to retiring from basketball. Though his numbers are down, he sees the value that his experience brings to a team like the Spurs. Though far down the list among active NBA players in terms of games played, Gay doesn’t measure his contribution as he once did.
“I’m out there trying to be consistent and be a good leader for the young players,” he said. “Everything in this sport comes from within, what type of player you are, what type of leader you are. It’s all in you, you just have to figure out how to get it out of you.”