Through the Wire


Originally published in SLAM 171

by Adam Figman@afigman

Rudy Gay is in a familiar setting experiencing unfamiliar hesitance.

“Hey,” he says. “Do you, uh, mind if we use the medical table?”

A staffer in Archbishop Spalding High School’s athletic department nods, cracking a polite smile at his reluctance. “Of course.”

“Thanks. I’m Rudy, by the way. I used to go here.”

“Oh, I know,” she says, widening her grin. “I got here the year after you left. I’ve heard all about you.”

Rudy’s here in the trainer’s room at Archbishop Spalding, a private high school located in suburban Severn, MD, about 15 miles outside of Baltimore, trying to get some post-workout stretching in. As far as high schools go, this one is beautiful, a sprawling facility with huge, well-groomed athletic facilities where students come to practice even when school is out of session. On this scorching hot late June afternoon, the 26-year-old Gay is here with his personal trainer, Dustin Gray, working out—in the weight room, then the gym—beginning the slow grind of prep for next season, Gay’s first full one with the Toronto Raptors.

Earlier in the day, the two begin in the weight room, where they complete a series of basic warm-up exercises that leave the 6-8 forward drenched in sweat. They then hit the court, working on everything—post moves against an imaginary defender, floaters in the paint, pick-and-rolls, a series of three-pointers. Whenever there’s a break and Gay pauses to catch his breath, Gray makes him shoot a pair of free throws. On the other end of the court, a team of high school girls practices, a partition blocking their view of Gay and Gray’s session.

“We worked out the whole month of June,” Gray says. “That’s starting early for a guy that’s been in the League that long. He’s in the gym because he wants to get better, and he’s in the weight room working because he wants to get stronger and more explosive, so I think all of that comes back to setting the standard [for the Raptors]. He wants to be the leader and he wants to take this franchise to where it wants to go. He understands that it starts with him.”

Though this will be the first time he’ll spend the majority of the offseason staying in his apartment downtown, Gay’s been attached to the Baltimore area almost his entire life. He was born in Brooklyn—a fact that has somehow evaded all of his personal bios, including the one on—where he lived on Bergen Street in Crown Heights until his family moved to Maryland when he was 2. He grew up in Dundalk, MD, with his mother and three sisters. (Gay’s father, Rudy Gay Sr, split with his mother and remained in Brooklyn, parking cars for a living and visiting occasionally; his brother, Eric, didn’t live with the rest of the family, either.) “It was basically my sisters beating me up all the time,” Gay laughs, lying on the medical table as Gray works on his legs. “Being the only guy in the house, I had to be tough.”

He played baseball initially—centerfield, some first base—but as his height shot up, his focus transitioned to basketball. He hooped for an AAU squad at the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in east Baltimore at age 13, dunked for the first time in seventh grade and played on varsity at Eastern Technical HS in Essex, MD, during his ninth and 10th grade years. Gay then transferred to Spalding after both figuratively and literally outgrowing the competition. The difference was stark. “[Spalding] is a private school,” he says, eyes scanning the trainer’s room. “In Baltimore, private schools are just better—academically and athletically. This place really changed me. You come from a public school in Baltimore to a private school out [in the suburbs], there’s more people who have goals, so much more to lose.”

Yet Gay remained close with his friends from the inner city, some of whom were guys with a lot less to lose than he had. His impending basketball career became a shield—people from the neighborhood knew not to mess with the kid who could someday make it from B-More to the L, just as the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Sam Cassell, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis did before him. At times, Gay would be out with his boys when some trouble would sprout up; his friends would make sure he was long gone before anything went down. “You’ve gotta go home,” they’d say. “We don’t want you out here.” He’d leave.

Still, the issues that plagued Baltimore were unavoidable. “I’ve had family members that have been on drugs,” he says. “I’ve had friends and family members shot, killed.” (According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Gay’s cousin Triq Austin was murdered in Baltimore in 2007.) “How’d it affect me? I had to make it. I had too many people just pushing for me.”

One of those people was Richard Austin, Rudy’s grandfather. Richard had worked for three decades at Bethlehem Steel, and with Rudy Gay Sr living primarily in Brooklyn, Richard became the main male presence in Gay’s every-day childhood life, instilling in him a work ethic that he’d one day carry to the NBA. “The craziest thing about it was he knew absolutely nothing about basketball,” Gay says. “Nothing.”

Gay rocketed up the high school rankings after a dominant performance at a Nike Basketball Camp the summer between his junior and senior high school years and signed with UConn to play for Coach Jim Calhoun, who called Gay “Truck” due to his resemblance to the aforementioned Lewis, the original “Truck.” “I know [Gay] has greatness in him,” Calhoun told Sports Illustrated in 2005.

Following two strong years at UConn, Gay was selected eighth overall by the Rockets in the 2006 NBA Draft and immediately moved to the Memphis Grizzlies. He put up great stats his first few years in the Bluff City—averaging 20 points per game during his second season, an average he’s hovered around (but has yet to top) in every season since—and signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the team in 2010. And though the Grizz finally saw Playoff success in ’10-11, it took place while Gay was sidelined with a dislocated left shoulder.

Gay received a bunch of negative press over the course of his last couple of years in Memphis, mostly centered around his inefficiency as a scorer, tendency to fire up ill-advised mid-range jumpers and overall inability to take his career to the next level. When the franchise’s new ownership (which was frank in its desire to cut costs) hired analytics-minded John Hollinger to be its Assistant GM, most figured it was only a matter of time until Gay was shipped out of town. But many, including Gay, figured the group would get one more shot at a post-season run. “It was frustrating because we had put so much into that team,” he says. “We had all sacrificed so much to be a team and make it work together, and we thought we would at least get another season.”

He was napping in Oklahoma City on a late January afternoon when he woke up to a call from one of his close friends. “So you’re in Toronto now, huh?” his buddy asked. Turning the TV to ESPN, the swingman quickly realized it was true. He jetted back to Memphis to pick up some of his stuff, then headed straight to Toronto at 5 a.m. the next morning—and, in an unexpected attempt to take his mind off the trade, played for the Raptors that night.

There was no sappy goodbye conversation with Memphis coach Lionel Hollins—who had become something of a mentor figure for Gay—or even much of a discussion whatsoever. “It was kind of awkward,” Gay says. “We both knew what we wanted to do and what we wanted to make out of the season. The fact that I wasn’t [going to be] there was awkward.”

Hollins would make his feelings about the deal clear, telling reporters, “When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget.” Of course, the Grizzlies and their coach would quickly adjust and go on to make the Western Conference Finals, and the consensus has been that Memphis has few regrets about the move. Gay thinks they should. “I still think no matter what the numbers say, they would’ve had a better chance [to win a Championship] if I was there.”

This much we do know: The Grizzlies preferred to dump the ball into the post at the beginning of every possession, and with big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol clogging the paint, it was undeniably difficult for the lanky Gay to drive his way to the hole and utilize his full spectrum of athleticism. Often, the team would run a play focused around Randolph or Gasol, and when the play broke down and with the shot clock running out, the ball would find Gay with a couple ticks remaining, forcing him, as the team’s primary one-on-one playmaker, to throw up a difficult look.

Not that any of this stands as an excuse for what was—as Gay openly admitted to us—simply a poor shooting season. He sank 32.3 percent from deep and an even worse 31.2 percent from 16-23 feet from the hoop, per, which would explain why Gay and Gray have placed long-range shooting on the top of this summer’s agenda. “If he can knock [the three-point shot] down consistently, everything is gonna open up more,” Gray says. “Being a threat from out there will open up situations off of close-outs and they’ll have to play him differently off ball-screens. It’s gonna open up the court for him much more.”

Meanwhile, despite a less-than-ideal end to his time in Memphis, Gay felt immediately welcomed in Canada. “It was just like getting drafted all over again,” he says. “Having the crowd behind me and just checking in the first time to kind of a standing ovation—it was good. Especially when you get traded, it’s like the end of an era, but they welcomed me and made me feel like it’s the beginning of a new one.” The Raptors closed the season by winning 17 of their final 33 games, not really much to brag about, but a ratio that could probably help a team reach the Playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference if sustained over a longer period of time.

One advantage he’ll have heading into next season: He recently had an operation to correct the vision in one of his eyes, an issue that was first reported back in March in the National Post. “I did have vision problems,” Gay confesses, sitting up on the trainer’s table after Gray finishes stretching out his muscles. “Actually, it was terrible. I could hardly get my license.” The National Post reported that he refused to wear the contact lenses he desperately needed, which was correct: “I have a stigma about that stuff—I can’t put anything up my nose and I can’t touch my eyes. I think that just comes from me growing up seeing people on drugs—I got over my stigma of needles, but I couldn’t do any of that other stuff. I couldn’t wear contacts. I wore glasses, sometimes.”

Gay finally had the operation to clear up his sight early this summer. “It wasn’t even a regular operation,” he explains. “It was some kind of crazy operation that took a lot more time to heal than I thought. It sucked. They had to patch it up [after], and I had to take eye drops, all stuff that I hated. But I had to do it. It’s crazy because as much work as I’m putting in working on my shot, if I come back shooting [a better] percent from the three-point line, everybody’s gonna say it’s ’cause of my vision, not the hard work I’m putting in.”

We only witnessed one late June afternoon, but it appears that said hard work is already underway. Gay and Gray have plans to get after it all summer long, improving with work not just on the court, but off it; Gay often makes specific film requests, and Gray delivers him footage of some of the NBA’s best moves, like Kobe’s face-ups and Chris Paul’s pick-and-rolls. Gay also acknowledges that he’ll need to take on a leadership position in Toronto, a role he never fully grasped in Memphis, and Gray preps him by gifting him books by leadership-specialist John Maxwell.

Assuming Toronto’s new management does decide to build around Gay (a possibility far from guaranteed; trade rumors have been and will most likely continue to circulate), he sounds plenty prepared. “Leaving Memphis? Yeah, it sucked. But I’m glad with where I’m at. I’m glad I have a chance to help with guys like JV [Jonas Valanciunas] and DeMar [DeRozan]. People come up to me and say, like, ‘You can be like T-Mac! You can be like Vince Carter!’ And I’m like, I don’t want to be either of those people. I want to be me. I want to make my own rules and do my own things.”

Back at Archbishop Spalding, in the middle of Gay and Gray’s workout, a teenage boy—a student at the high school whose sweat-drenched athletic attire implies he may have just finished a practice elsewhere on campus—peeks through the gym door’s window and takes in the scene. Then he pushes open the door and looks around, seemingly waiting for someone to tell him he can’t be here and needs to leave. Gay and Gray continue to work unbothered, and a reporter sitting a few feet away doesn’t seem to mind. The kid stands quietly for a minute, then plops down, focusing intently on the NBA player training a few dozen feet away.

In about 15 minutes’ time, a handful of the boy’s friends will come through that same door and watch Gay fire up three-pointers; the boy will then grab one of his buddies’ shoulders and whisper, “a real-life NBA player is right there, playing on our court!But for now, the wide-eyed youngster just sits, his stare following Gay as the Raptor works on different ways to score the basketball in the low-post.

A substantial portion of the game of basketball can be broken down into clear, measurable mathematics, certainly at least a little more than Gay is willing to admit. The expression on that boy’s face, though—that fascinated, starstruck gaze he had sitting against a padded gym wall in suburban Maryland, watching local product/real-life NBA player Rudy Gay simply exist on the same court where he has gym class and plays with his friends after school—no analytic could ever calculate the value of that.