Since Rudy Gobert became the 27th man in 2013. Selected by Utah Jazz when he entered the NBA, he is known as an inviting French importer, a 1.80m Stifle Tower-1 – with a remarkable wingspan of 1.80m – which has won several Defensive Player of the Year awards and anchors his team’s defensive elite.
But after Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, the news spread to the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, where the Jazz will play on the 11th. Get the hell out of here. It became known as something else: NBA patient zero.
The league reacted to this news by suspending the season, and all other sports followed quickly. Then came the footage taken two days earlier when Gobert jokingly touched all the microphones and tape recorders on the table in front of him during the media event. He was vilified. Then a growing gap was reported with teammate Donovan Mitchell, who later tested positive for the virus. After an interruption of nearly five months, the NBA returned to the bubble in Orlando, Florida, where the Jazz lost an exciting first-round series to the Denver Nuggets, with the incident seemingly happening in the rear-view mirror.
But the image Gobert gave at this improvised press conference, when he fled the venue after a positive test at the Jazz Center, helped to define an unprecedented year 2020 that will be explored in detail in 2020: Heroes, History and Hope, special broadcast Thursday at 8pm. And on ESPN. ESPN’s Lisa Salters talked to Jobert about his family, why he fell in love with basketball and why he doesn’t want the image of the press conference to define him.
SALT LICKER: The last time we saw each other in the bubble was in July and everyone said we were in the safest place in the world. How does it feel to be on the road again? Our country is in trouble again, your country is wary… how does it feel when it comes back?
RED GOBERT: For me personally it was great to come home and see my family that I hadn’t seen for so long. Of course, the situation is a little different from the last time I was in France, but people are doing their best and, you know, I hope we get out of it soon.
SALT GRASS: I just read something about you I didn’t even know about. I didn’t know your father played. Where did you grow up?
GOBERT: So I grew up in a town called Saint-Quentin, a small town about two hours north of Paris. My father returned to Guadeloupe when I was two years old, so I mainly grew up with my mother, brother and sister. I started playing basketball at the age of 12, and after that my goal was to really try to get into the NBA.
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SELLERS: How would you describe your relationship with your mother?
GOBERT: We’re very close. She’s always been there for me, and I’ve always been there for her, and I’ll always be there, even though there was a great distance to travel when I was a kid, when I was at the basketball academy, and I only came home on weekends. And when I turned 15, I went to Cholet, to the basketball academy, where I only went a few days every two months. So it was very hard for her, but she always supported my dreams, she supported me, and she always did her best to make me happy when I was a child.
SOLI: What do you remember when you first started playing?
GOBERT: I remember playing in the club. You know, I was 12 years old. Before that I did a lot of sports, boxing, athletics, table tennis, karate. But I kept changing sports. But when I started playing basketball, I felt like I wanted to move on. And I had fun. I didn’t know the NBA existed. I only knew the movie Space Jam and I didn’t know the rules.
SALT GRASS: What fueled your passion for basketball?
GOBERT: So many things. It’s not just physical, it’s not just technical. It’s a team game, you have to try to make an impact on your teammates. All these factors come into play…. You can’t get bored playing basketball. I mean, a basketball game, so many, so many times when you can have an impact on the game, and there’s a competitive aspect to it. And also the fact that it’s fun. Those two together were very, very attractive to me.
SALT GRASS: When things have changed for you and you realize I’m not only good anymore, I’m really starting to get good?
GOBERT: I think back to when I was 17 or 18. We have the French national teams – the French U-16 national team, we have the French U-18 national team and then the U-20 national team. The U-16 team didn’t even call me. They usually select 20 or 25 players, supposedly the best in the country, and I wasn’t even there – I wasn’t even called. I first got married before I turned 18. I was hired at the age of one because a big, strong man was hurt. So I got lucky. I was called up and ended up in the European Championship and I became the best player of the team in that league. And that’s probably when my name appeared in some productions.
Fault! The file name is not specified. When Gobert climbed the ladder of the French clubs, he started to move in the direction of the NBA. The 20th. In December, just three days before his eighth season, Gobert signed a five-year contract of $205 million with Jazz, the largest contract for a center in NBA history. Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
SALT GRASS: Where were you the night of the trip? Who was with you?
GOBERT: My mother was with me, my brother, my sister, my agent, my little niece. So, you know, the whole family came from France to share this moment with me, and it was just a great moment to share with my family, and for all of us it was the first time we were in New York. So it was a great experience.
SALT GRASS: What did your mother tell you when she hugged you after you were called?
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 then she reminded me that she was proud, and she was: You were right. You told me years ago, and you did.
SALT GRASS: Last season you were elected All-Star for the first time. But I also know that you really hoped to become an All-Star in 2019 and that you were very moved when that didn’t happen. Why was this so important to you?
GOBERT: When you put your heart and soul into something, sometimes disappointments arise, and when I start talking about my mother and the conversation we had, I get emotional. You know, people probably thought I didn’t have emotions because I’m an 0-year-old man who doesn’t laugh much and stuff, but I do have emotions. You know, like all people. And that day they left.
SALT GRASS: This year, 2020, it’s no different. When I say the word coronavirus, what do you think?
GOBERT: I think everyone’s got that word in their heads right now. We hear that every day. It’s something that has really affected our lives, directly or indirectly. So that’s what we’re all going through right now, and we hope that will change soon.
SALT GRASS: What did you know about it before you tested positive?
GOBERT: I mean, I knew I saw on the internet that it was a lot of things, and a lot of things are true, a lot of things are false, so you try to distinguish the true from the false, but generally you never really know what you’re getting into until the people around you or until you experience it.
SALT GRASS: I think it was the 10th. Mars, when you said you had a cold, a runny nose, something that had happened a million times before. Tell me about the day.
GOBERT: That’s how I felt the first day, sure. I just woke up with a little cold, with a slight fever, like I’ve had a thousand times in my life. And I’m a man who, when it happens, just works on it. You practice, and a few hours later you feel good and can play the game.
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SALT GRASS: And then what happened? How did you know you had it?
GOBERT: When I tested positive.
SALT GRASS: Yeah, but you went somewhere. I remember you said you were going somewhere to get tested because you were in Oklahoma City. Did you have to go somewhere to get tested?
GOBERT: Yeah, so I tested for all the viruses the night before, and the next morning, when we found out I was negative for the flu, the medical staff and all of us thought it would be best for me to see if it was a coronavirus. So we went to the medical center in Oklahoma City and had it checked out.
SALT GRASS: Yeah, I remember now. I remember when you said you were scared. Why are you scared?
GOBERT: These are unknowns – a lot of things, and they still are, a lot of things we don’t know about this virus, let alone right now. And as the first NBA professional to test positive, I have a lot on my mind. It was, you know, just looking at things and thinking if you’re okay, if you’re not okay. I thought of my family who couldn’t be with me. It was a lot of work at the time. But once I was able to sit down and realize that it wasn’t just me, but that the whole world was going through this, some people lost their jobs, family members…. I mean, it was just a difficult time for all of us.
Fault! The file name is not specified. After Gobert tested positive for a new coronavirus in March, he knew he had to name the only person who supported him and his basketball dreams for as long as he can remember: his mother. @rudygobert27/Instagram
SALT GRASS: Tell us how you called your mother and told her you were HIV-positive.
GOBERT: When I found out I was HIV-positive, the first thing I thought about was calling my mother to make sure she got the message. It was very important for me to tell her that she could hear my voice and knew I was okay. She was sleeping at the time because of the time difference. So I kept calling and calling until she answered. Because I thought I didn’t want to sleep until I told her, and she could hear my voice.
SALT GRASS: And what was his reaction?
GOBERT: I mean, his reaction was… She cried a little, but she was happy to know I was okay. I tried to reassure her and tell her I was okay, and tell her I was okay. I can’t imagine how hard it has been for her, but I do my best to talk to her every day and make sure she knows I’m okay.
SALT GRASS: And then that same night we learn that the NBA decides to suspend the season. What did you think when you heard that?
GOBERT: I loved it. It’s great that the NBA has responded so quickly, because just having thousands and thousands of people in a confined space, side by side, when so many others test positive … It was really the smartest thing to try to save as many lives as possible.
Fault! File name not specified. On the 9th. In March, at a press conference, Gobert jokingly touched all the microphones in response to the competition’s new guidelines on social distance from the media. Two days later he tested positive for VID-COVID-19. A few hours later, the NBA suspended the season. ESPN
SALT GRASS: Immediately after the positive test result, there was a lot of talk about the microphone attack during the press conference. What do you want people to know?
GOBERT: That she was born with good intentions. It was the first day we found out that the media couldn’t interview us, right next door, and, you know, we obviously didn’t know as much as we do now, and I did it to try and lighten the mood a little. Of course, if I could turn back time, I wouldn’t.
SALINE: How long did it take you to feel better?
GOBERT: It’s been a long time. I mean, it probably took me a month to really, really get better, but I tried to talk to my family every day and try to really help others. You know, training people, training as many people as possible to make sure we can get through this.
SALT GRASS: When you were in the bubble around your NBA brothers, what did they tell you about a virus?
GOBERT: Some people have asked me questions about my personal experiences, my symptoms, how I feel, how I deal with everything. Lots of good conversations.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Relations between Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell have been strained during spring and summer by Mitchell’s own positive tests. But they represent two pillars on which Utah Jazz hopes to build an eternal contender for the championship. Chris Schwegler/NWAE/Getty Images
SALT GRASS: There’s a lot of questions about you and Donovan. [Mitchell] How’s your relationship going? Maybe he felt something like that because he also tested positive for the coronavirus. How did you and Donovan work it out?
GOBERT: When you look back, there was a lot of fear. It was indeed an unusual situation for every human being on this planet. We talked like adults and told each other what we had in mind. And at the end of the conversation it was said that our goal was to win a championship together, and, you know, I thought it was very mature of us to come out of the conversation like that. I’ve said many times that relationships are never perfect. There are ups and downs, but as long as you stay true to yourself, honest and with respect for the people around you, it’s really about being the best you can be.
SALT GRASS: In this first game, when you enter the field, the Black Lives Matter panel is on the field, they play a social justice video, when you all kneel down and tie your hands together, the anthem begins to play. What was that moment for you?
GOBERT: It was powerful. It really was a message of unity. And that’s the message we really wanted to convey to the world.
SALT GRASS: With everything you’ve been through, how has this year changed you?
GOBERT: You know, I believe that every life experience is a lesson. Whether it’s a simple game you lose or something more important, like a virus, everything that happens to you changes you, I guess. And I think this year has had an impact on everyone’s life…. and mine, of course. It has affected everyone and I hope, as I said, that we will get through it, that we will be happier and better off than ever.