When it comes to moving on from an injury, Rudy Gay has been there before.
He missed the end of the 2011 season because of a separated shoulder and missed what would have been his first appearance in the NBA Playoffs. He watched in street clothes as his Memphis Grizzlies pulled off a first-round upset as the No. 8 seed.
Gay’s family was in town for the playoffs and he took them to dinner, putting on a brave face for those who could see through his disappointment the most.
He can’t remember the name of the Memphis restaurant, but remembers how he found empathy from an unlikely place.
Gay asked for the check and was told someone had already paid the bill. The opposing coach, Gregg Popovich, came over and gave some words of encouragement.
“I wanted to play so badly, and he felt for me,” Gay said. “Honestly, I didn’t know if Pop liked me before then. But I’ll never forget the way he cared. And I didn’t forget that when he called.”
The call came on July 1, the first day of 2017 NBA Free Agency. Gay said he wasn’t expecting to hear Popovich on the other line, asking him to come help the Spurs. Hearing Pop’s voice again couldn’t have come at a better time.
Gay has been one of the league’s most prolific scorers, as four players have averaged at least 15 points and 5 rebounds in each of the last 10 seasons. Two are LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. The others are Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge and Gay.
Although he has averaged double figures in scoring for his entire career, he appeared in one playoff series in that time.
He’s also recovering a torn Achilles in January that caused him to miss most of the 2016-17 season. As he enters his 12th NBA season, Gay plans to come back “stronger than ever.”
It’s up for debate whether this is the second act of Rudy Gay’s career or the third or the fourth. According to Gay, there’s no question it will be his most determined.
“It’s a do-or-die point in my career,” Gay said. “I wanted to be with an organization that’s known for winning and can help me raise my game to the next level. So where else are you going to go?”
The injury happened on a baseline drive in Sacramento, as Gay had to be carried off the court.
Gay said the first thing he did was cry. In the following days, he did research on Achilles injuries, while blocking out anyone who mentioned that the injury is a “death wish” for athletes.
Gay contacted Kobe Bryant and Wes Matthews, who both came back from torn Achilles in recent seasons. Even 25 years ago, Dominique Wilkins played seven more seasons of professional basketball after he ruptured his Achilles.
“My initial reaction after the injury was ‘I’m doomed’ to be honest,” Gay said. “But a couple of days after, I felt more motivation than I’ve ever felt before. It put my whole career into perspective and I felt like I had to do something.”
Gay was immobile for the first four months after injury, using a knee scooter for the first two months.
It was the longest he’d gone since childhood without playing a game, running through a lay-up line, or even jumping.
Time away from basketball was equal parts torture and therapy. Every day without dribbling somehow gave him more resolve.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my life, not just my career,” Gay said. “I didn’t want to just be healthy or just be able to play, I want to be great. That took a lot more sweat and a lot more time.”
Given all the work he put in to get back to basketball, Gay was going to make the next phase of his career count.
San Antonio appealed the most to Gay’s competitive drive. He is 31 now, a proven veteran who only wants to talk about all he has left to prove.
Gay has appeared in seven career playoff games. Regardless of injury, he spent May watching from home for another season.
Since Gay’s rookie season, the Spurs have played 153 postseason games.
“I’ve always been a competitor, and it makes me wants to be a part of something great,” Gay said. “There are a lot of things you want to do with your career or on the basketball court, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Numbers don’t mean anything if you don’t win, so you have to make the right decisions in your career. That’s why I’m here.”
Gay and Aldridge were in the same rookie class together and have known each other since then. “He’s motivated to come in here and win,” Aldridge said. “That’s his whole focus and he’s dialed-in.”
Gay played with Pau Gasol in Memphis and has had plenty of matchups against Kawhi Leonard in recent seasons. With the Spurs, Gay finds stability he had long been seeking.
Popovich will be Gay’s 11th head coach in the NBA. Gay had four head coaches in the past four seasons with Sacramento.
When Popovich called in July, Gay was ready to answer.
“This really was an easy choice for me,” Gay said. “There’s a great history in San Antonio, and I want to contribute to it.”