“It’s been a tough few months, both mentally and physically”: Rudy Gobert is ready to Focus on Basketball, But Even That Won’t Be Easy

Rudy Gobert, the first NBA athlete to test positive for COVID-19, could not bring himself to check his social media comments for weeks. He was well aware of the scarlet letter he carried with him as the NBA and the sports world shut down around him as news of his test result was revealed on March 11. He was the face of the country wide shutdown of sports and couldn’t bear the thought of it.

Just days prior to Gobert testing positive, he seemingly mocked the virus, touching all of the reporters phones and microphones during a press conference.

He meant it as a joke, a show of solidarity when media protocol changed and social distancing was enforced. But, it simply looked as if he was being callous toward the pandemic. He tried to make amends, apologized publicly, and donated money. The avalanche of criticism continued. The virus affected him physically, leaving him without a sense of smell. His relationship with Mitchell has been widely talked about to the point of Gobert being the subject of trade rumors.

“It’s been a tough few months, both mentally and physically,” is how Gobert put it on a Zoom call with reporters last week. “When you have the whole world judging you and threatening you, it’s not easy as a human being. At the same time, people judge on perception they get and they don’t know you. At the end of the day, I can’t control perception. But I can control my actions, and that’s what really matters.”

As the NBA restart looms in three weeks, Gobert, an All-NBA candidate for the Jazz, will finally be able to play basketball again. But let’s not act like the return of play will make things easier on Gobert.

The threats still linger. The nasty messages on social media, the speculation on his relationship with Donovan Mitchell, and overall shame of his action pre-diagnosis all remain.

One of those issues could be dismissed on day one in Orlando. Gobert and Mitchell have already said everything is history and they are ready to play ball. A simple address to the media can put all the speculation to rest. The Jazz duo want to bring a title to Utah.

Beyond the Covid questions, Gobert and the Jazz have another issue looming over their heads.

Gobert’s Future in Utah

Gobert’s future in Utah is a bit murky. He is eligible for a supermax contract, one that could put the Jazz in a position to make some difficult choices. Gobert is the best rim defender in the league and vital to the Jazz success. But at the same time he plays a position that is being phased out. He can’t shoot the ball, and is slow on his feet. So do the jazz want to give him the supermax and limit their cap flexibility going forward?

If the Jazz elect to hold off on signing Gobert to the supermax extension this offseason, it opens Gobert and the organization up to a season of questioning. Are they going to bring him back? Does Gobert feel slighted and take his talents elsewhere as he becomes an unrestricted free agent? Can the Jazz afford to lose their second best player?

All of these things will loom large over Gobert and the Jazz after this NBA restart and compressed offseason.

Gobert is aware of the business side of the sport, and understands that discussions of his future will take place. Gobert has dealt with ridicule for his entire pro career, so he knows how to navigate it. As of now, Gobert has made it clear he wants to be in Utah for a longtime.

“I’m very happy in Utah,” he said. “I love being here. Number two, I want to win. As long as I feel like we can win, that’s something I take a lot of pride in. Yes, it’s not perfect. Yes, things have happened. But I don’t plan on leaving right now. I plan on winning a championship in Utah. I don’t think about money, I think about being happy and trying to get better as a person and as a basketball player.”

Jazz are Unified and Focusing on a Title Run

Everything mentioned above has been placed on the back burner as the return to play nears. Everyone is healthy for now and Gobert has smoothed out any rough patches with his teammates. Head coach Quin Snyder feels that the team is in a good place.

“I feel like given what everyone has been through in this break, there are so many things that give perspective,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said in his own Zoom press conference last week. “There is a perspective that is created. We feel like Donovan and Rudy are in a good spot. Guys have been working out. We are about to play again, and that helps everyone. I think the real enthusiasm right now is about playing basketball.”

The guys in the locker room have given Gobert a second chance, a deserving one. But his importance to the team’s success is probably fueling that forgiveness. Gobert is averaging 15 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks per game this season, leading the Jazz in PER. He was an All-Star for the first time in his career, and he has a chance to make All-NBA for the third time in his career.

The Jazz are hoping time away from basketball gives Gobert — and the rest of the roster — renewed energy when the league restarts. The thinking is you don’t know how much you miss something until it’s taken away from you. I can’t speak for the rest of the roster, but Gobert’s actions signify that he appreciates the game more than ever.

“When all of this was going on (COVID), basketball was the last thing on my mind. But, I’ve had a lot of time to get my mind and my body right. I’ve had a lot of time to process what’s happened,” Gobert said. “It’s been a process and I feel like I’m in a good place. I’m happy to be back with my team. I’m ready to go out there and try and win a championship.”

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