Since Rudy Gobert entered the NBA in 2013 as the 27th overall pick of the Utah Jazz, he has been known as an affable French import, a 7-foot-1 “Stifle Tower” — with a remarkable 7-foot-9 wingspan — who won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards anchoring his team’s elite defense.
But after Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus — the news filtering into Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, where the Jazz were set to take on the Thunder on March 11 — he became known as something else: the NBA’s patient zero.
The league followed the news by suspending its season, and the rest of the sports world soon followed. Then footage emerged from two days earlier, when Gobert jokingly touched all the microphones and recorders in front of him on a table at a media gathering. He was vilified. Reports then surfaced about a growing rift with teammate Donovan Mitchell, who later tested positive for the virus. After a hiatus of nearly five months, the NBA returned in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, where the Jazz lost a thrilling first-round series to the Denver Nuggets, with the incident seemingly in the rearview mirror.
But the image of Gobert at that makeshift news conference, of the Jazz and Thunder rushing off the court after the Jazz center’s positive test result, helped define an unprecedented 2020, a year explored in depth in 2020: Heroes, History and Hope, a year-end special airing Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. ESPN’s Lisa Salters sat down with Gobert, who talked about his family, why he fell in love with basketball and why he won’t let that news conference image define him.
LISA SALTERS: The last time that we saw each other, we were in the bubble, it was in July and everyone kept saying we were in the safest place on earth. How does it feel to be back on the outside? Our country is worried again, your country is on lockdown … how’s it feel to be back out in it?
RUDY GOBERT: Personally, it was great to be back home, to be able to see my family that I haven’t seen for so long. Obviously, the situation is a little different than the last time I came to France, but people are doing their best, and, you know, hopefully we get out of this very soon.
SALTERS: I was just reading some stuff about you that I didn’t even know. I didn’t know your dad played ball. Where’d you grow up?
GOBERT: So I grew up in a town called Saint-Quentin, a small town about two hours north of Paris. My dad went back to Guadalupe when I was 2 years old, so I grew up mostly with my mom and my brother and my sister. I started playing basketball at the age of 12, and after that, my goal was really to try to get to the NBA.
SALTERS: How would you describe your relationship with your mom?
GOBERT: We’re very close. She’s always been there for me and I’ve always been there for her, and I will be like that forever, even when there was a lot of distance, when I was a kid, when I went to a basketball academy and I was only coming home on the weekends. And then when I was 15, I went to Cholet, in a basketball academy, but where I was only coming back once every two months for a few days. So, you know, it was really tough for her, but she always supported my dreams, supported me, and she always did whatever she could to make sure that I was happy as a kid.
SALTERS: When you first started playing, what do you remember?
GOBERT: I remember playing at the club. You know, I was 12 years old. I did a lot of sports before, a lot of boxing, track and field, pingpong, karate. But I kept switching sports again and again. But when I started basketball, I really felt I wanted to go deeper. And I was having fun. I didn’t know about the NBA. All I knew was the movie “Space Jam,” and I didn’t know the rules.
SALTERS: What is it about basketball that made you passionate about it?
GOBERT: There’s so many things. It’s not just physical, it’s not just technical. It’s a team game, you know; you have to try to have an impact on your teammates. It’s so many factors that it makes it — you can’t get bored playing basketball. I mean, one game of basketball, there’s so many, so many moments when you can impact the game, and there’s the competitive aspect of it. And just also, the fact that it’s fun to do. Both those things together really, really made it pretty exciting for me.
SALTERS: When did things change for you and you realized, “I’m not just OK anymore, I’m starting to really get good at this”?
GOBERT: Probably when I was 17, 18. We have national teams in France — the under-16s French national team, we have the under-18 and then under-20. The under-16 national team didn’t even call me. Usually, they made a preselection of 20 or 25 players, supposedly the best in the country, and I wasn’t even in those — I wasn’t even called. I got called in under-18 for the first time, because the big, the big man, was injured. So I got lucky. I got called and I ended up playing in the European Championship and I ended up being the best player on the team at the competition. And that’s probably when my name was starting to appear in some mock drafts.
SALTERS: Where were you on draft night? And who was with you?
GOBERT: My mom was with me, my brother, my sister, my agent, my little niece. So, you know, the whole family came from France to be able to live this moment with me, and it was just a great moment to be able to share that with my family, and for all of us, it was the first time in New York. So it was a great experience.
SALTERS: What did your mom say to you when she hugged you after you were drafted?
GOBERT: I think she was crying. She cries a lot. She was very emotional, but I don’t think she said anything when she hugged me. But after that, she was reminding me, she was telling me that she was proud and she was like, “You were right. You told [me] that many years ago, and you did it.”
SALTERS: You were selected as an All-Star for the first time this past season. But I also know that you had really hoped to have been an All-Star in 2019, and you were emotional about it when it didn’t happen. Why did that mean so much to you?
GOBERT: When you put your heart and your soul into something, sometimes there’s going to be disappointments, and when I started talking about my mom and the conversation that we had, I’m going to get emotional. You know, people probably thought that I didn’t have emotions because I’m this 7-foot guy that doesn’t smile a lot and all that, but I do have emotions. You know, like every human being. And that day, they just came out.
SALTERS: This year, 2020, has been like none other. When I say the word “coronavirus” to you, what do you think?
GOBERT: I think everyone in the world right now has that word in the front of their mind. You know, it’s something that we hear about every day. It’s something that really affected our lives, indirectly or directly. So it’s something that we are all going through right now, and hopefully, we turn the corner pretty soon.
SALTERS: What did you know about it before you tested positive?
GOBERT: I mean, I knew what I saw on the internet, which is a lot things, and a lot of things are true, a lot of things are not true, so you try to rate the true from the false, but usually, until people around you or until you experience it, you never really know what you’re going against.
SALTERS: I think it was March 10 when you said you felt like you had a cold, a runny nose, something that’s happened a million times before. Take me through that day.
GOBERT: That’s how I felt the first day, for sure. Just waking up with a little cold, light fever, just like I had 1,000 times before in my life. And I’m a guy that when that happens, you just work through it. You work it out and then a few hours later, you’re feeling fine and you’re able to play the game.
SALTERS: So what happened next? How did you know that you had it?
GOBERT: When I tested positive.
SALTERS: Yeah, but you went somewhere. I think I remember you said you went someplace to be tested because you were in Oklahoma City. You had to go somewhere to be tested?
GOBERT: Yeah, so I tested for all the viruses the day before, and the next morning, when we found out that I tested negative for the flu, the medical staff and all of us thought it was better for me, it would be smart, to see if it wasn’t the coronavirus. And we went to the Oklahoma City Medical Center and got tested for it.
SALTERS: Yes, now I remember. I remember you saying that you were scared. Why were you scared?
GOBERT: Just all the unknowns — a lot of things, and there still is, a lot of things that we don’t know about this virus, and even less at the time. And being the first professional NBA player testing positive brought a lot of thoughts in my mind. It was, you know, just looking at stuff and wondering if you’re going to be OK, if you’re not going to be OK. Thinking about my family that wasn’t able to be with me. It was a lot to process at the time. But once I was able to sit back and also realize that it wasn’t just me, the whole world was going through that, and some people were losing their jobs, losing family members … I mean, it was just a tough time for all of us.
SALTERS: Tell us about calling your mother and telling her that you tested positive.
GOBERT: So when I found out that I was positive, the first thought that came to my mind was I need to call my mother and make sure that she gets the news from me. It was really important for me to tell her — that she hears my voice and she actually knows that I’m doing OK. She was asleep at the time because of the time difference. So I kept calling, kept calling, until she ended up answering. Because I told myself that I didn’t want to go to sleep until I had told her and that she was able to hear my voice.
SALTERS: And what was her reaction?
GOBERT: I mean, her reaction was — she cried a little bit, but she was happy to know that I was doing OK. I tried to reassure her and tell her, repeating to her that I was doing fine. It’s hard for me to imagine how tough it was for her, but I do my best to talk to her every day and make sure that she knew that I was OK.
SALTERS: And then we find out later that night that the NBA decides to suspend the season. What did you think when you heard that?
GOBERT: I thought it was great. It was great that the NBA reacted as fast as they did because just having thousands and thousands of people in a closed space, next to each other, while having way more people testing positive … it was really the smartest thing to do to try to save as many lives as they could.
SALTERS: Right after you tested positive, there was a lot made about the mic touching in the press conference. What do you want people to know about that?
GOBERT: That it came from a good intention. It was the first day that we found out that the media was not going to be able to interview us, right next to us, and, you know, we obviously didn’t know as much as we know now, and I only did that to try to liven the mood a little bit. It was, of course, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do it.
SALTERS: How long did it take for you to feel better?
GOBERT: It took a long time. I mean, it took probably, to be really, really better, a month, but I was trying to talk to my family every day, trying to really help others. You know, educate people, educate as many people as I could to try to make sure we can get through this.
SALTERS: When you got back around your NBA brothers again in the bubble, what were they saying to you about you having the virus?
GOBERT: Some guys were asking me questions about my personal experience, my symptoms, how it felt, how did I deal with everything that was going on. A lot of good conversations.
SALTERS: There were a lot of questions about you and Donovan [Mitchell]. How was your relationship? He may have felt some kind of way because he also tested positive for the coronavirus. How did you and Donovan work that out?
GOBERT: When you look back at it, there was a lot of fear. It was a situation that was really unusual for every single person on this planet. We had conversations as grown men, and we told each other what we had on our minds. And the end of the conversation was that our goal was to win a championship together and, you know, I thought it was really mature from both of us to come out of the conversation like that. I said many times, relationships are never perfect. There is some up, there is some down, but as long as you stay true to one another, you stay honest and respectful to people around you, that it’s really about being the best you can be.
SALTERS: That first game back, when you guys all came out onto the court, the Black Lives Matter sign is on the court, they played a social justice video, when all you guys got down on a knee and linked your arms together, the national anthem starts playing. What was that moment like for you?
GOBERT: It was powerful. It was really a message of unity. And it’s a message that we really wanted to show the world.
SALTERS: How has this year changed you with everything you’ve had to go through?
GOBERT: You know, I believe that every experience in life is a learning lesson. Whether just a game that you lose or something bigger, like a virus, anything that happens to you I think changes you. And I believe that this year had an impact on everybody’s life — and, of course, mine. Everyone’s been affected by this and hopefully, like I said, we will come out of this, we are going to be happier and better than we’ve ever been before.