‘I could have never imagined this’ — The Undefeated

At around 2 a.m. on Dec. 18 in Salt Lake City, Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz landed at home after playing their final preseason game in Los Angeles. Waiting at the private terminal was new Jazz owner Ryan Smith, who had some life-changing news for a groggy Gobert.

Smith presented the 7-foot-1 center with a five-year, $205 million extension.

An emotional Gobert quickly accepted it before pausing to reflect on his incredible journey from a late first-round pick out of France in 2013 to the highest-paid center in the NBA.

“I really appreciated the moment because it shows that he believed in me and that this organization believed in me,” Gobert told The Undefeated on Monday. “For me, it just motivates me even more to bring a championship to this city.”

The NBA All-Star reflects on his achievement with The Undefeated, in his own words.

I could have never imagined this.

My mom, my sister, my brother and my niece were all in town, as was my agent, Bouna Ndiaye. We had dinner as a family at my home to celebrate. We opened a very good bottle of wine. We just really enjoyed this moment and took time to just reflect, and also at the same time, project about the future.

There was a lot of emotions, especially to be able to share this moment with my family.

Growing up as a Black kid, and sometimes in a white family, there were some challenging times. When I was a kid, my mom told me that when I was born, some family members didn’t want my mom to bring me. They didn’t want my mom to come to visit their house because she had a Black baby. And for me just now being able to look back and see all the things that happened, I’m just even prouder of my mom and how she overcame all the challenges that she had to face in her life. And at the same time, she always protected me from all of that negativity, and she always made sure I had great values as a human being.

I was this young kid that did not have much, but was just dreaming about hopefully becoming an NBA player one day. And that’s why, when I look back, I just feel grateful for the people that always believed in me and my dreams, and all the struggles.

Me, my mom, none of us would have ever imagined that one day I would be here right now. But they always all supported me and believed in me. And it really helped me to just keep getting better, step by step, learn from all the deceptions or struggles, and always use that as fuel.

I wanted to be selected in the young professional basketball academy in France, and I got rejected when I was 16. I wasn’t even part of the (under-16) French national team.

Then when I got drafted 27th, and my first year I wasn’t playing, I went to the G League.

Just all the struggles.

Looking back, I think that’s what made me, and that’s what defines me. And this is just the story of my life. I always had to work harder than everyone and keep my head down.

I was able to find the confidence and the strength deep inside of me to make me go even harder in the tough times, and knowing that I had just a strong belief and motivation to prove to people that was wrong. And anytime I had doubts, any time of deception, I always told myself that the best way of going through that was to work harder, and that became who I am.

I would say thank you to my haters. We all have our struggles. We all have our challenges. But it’s always great to have people that remind you that you can be better than you are now.

I’ve never said I was perfect in many ways, but I know where my heart is. I know that when I look at myself in the mirror, I know who I am, and knowing I’m going to get better and better as a player. But more importantly as a human being.

It’s been an incredible journey. Being able to continue this journey, and do it in the place where I feel like home, I am just really grateful.

Salt Lake City really felt like home right away for multiple reasons. The Jazz, the organization, really made sure that I had everything I needed, and they put me in touch with great people that were able to help me and to make me feel like home.

Then the landscape and nature. It’s really something that grounds me, and all the crazy things happen in the life of an NBA player, it’s great to have somewhere at home when you can breathe, and you can enjoy calm. For me, it’s always been something that I valued.

There’s never been pressure regarding the money. I always put pressure on myself to be the best I can be every single time I step on the court. And that’s really what drives me is to be able to look back at the end of my career, and not look at how much money I made, but look at the journey and what I was able to accomplish, and the lives I was able to impact in a good way. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s what drives me to be the best I can be every single day.

Obviously, it’s a great achievement. But it just motivates me to take it to the next level even more, work even harder, and also to prove to all the people that always have something to say that it’s only the beginning.

My goal was to really focus on the team and to get better, and if there was a possibility that we didn’t sign the contract extension agreement before the deadline, there was a possibility I would have explored free agency. But for me, the most important thing was to trust the signs and be somewhere where I feel like I’m happy, I feel like I’m valued and I feel I could win the championship.

I’m excited to continue this journey, I want to say climb the ladder, and to do it with Donovan [Mitchell].

All the things that happened between me and Donovan, within our team and also in the world, I think it really helped us to understand each other better. And now I’m really sure that – and I’m speaking with my heart – we know we can win together, and I want to win with Donovan.

I don’t know if there are even words to describe what it would mean to win the first NBA championship in Utah. What it would mean to me, to the people, my family, to my teammates, to the organization, to coach Quin [Snyder]. To all the people that also supported me, and all the ones who also doubted.

I think at the end of the day, when something looks impossible, you’re always going to have people that remind you of that. The day you accomplish it, everyone can only respect you for that. That is the way I see it, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to stay here. It’s because I think that winning with Utah will carry more weight than joining someone else, and it would make the story even more unique.

I want to have an impact not just on the court, but have a huge impact on people’s lives. I started doing Rudy’s Kids Foundation three years ago in order to be able to impact and change a lot of kids’ lives, and I believe that we’ve been able to impact thousands and thousands of lives. But now I really want to keep increasing all the projects, all the help that we do. And hopefully when that day comes when I’m not there anymore, I will have put a big positive change into the world.

The advice I would give to a young kid is just don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot be something and you cannot accomplish something. And you don’t have to argue. You just have to keep working harder. Keep working harder behind closed doors. Never doubt what and who you can become.

You don’t have to worry about the rankings. You don’t have to worry about the projections, what the people are going to say about you and the comparisons. People are going to always compare you to other guys. Everyone’s different. You are your own, and you can become whoever you want to become if you believe it.

Liner Notes

For more remarkable stories about sports in 2020, please watch “2020: Heroes, History and Hope,” a primetime look at an unprecedented year, airing at 8 p.m. ET on December 24 on ESPN.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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