SAN ANTONIO — Having spent time in Memphis, Toronto and Sacramento in a 13-year NBA career, new San Antonio Spurs forward Rudy Gay views this latest opportunity as his first shot to contend perennially for titles.
Gay spent some time with ESPN.com to discuss his rehabilitation process from a torn left Achilles tendon, what he brings to the Spurs, and why he opted out of a $14.2 million contract in Sacramento for the 2016-17 to take $8.4 million in San Antonio:
Michael C. Wright: How’s the rehab process going?
Gay: It’s great. I actually worked out today. I’m fully cleared to do everything. I’m fine now. The team, it has its own planning with me. But I’m ready to go. I’ll definitely be ready by camp.
Wright: So, why opt out of $14.2 million to come to San Antonio as a free agent for a little more than half of that for the 2017-18 season?
Gay: Looking at my career, it’s just time to win. That’s what it’s mostly about. I’ve been in this league for a little while now, and I haven’t gotten out of my career what I wanted. Coming to a place like San Antonio, it just seemed perfect for me.
Wright: It has been proved over the course of your career that you can get buckets, but in your mind, how does that fit in with San Antonio’s style of play?
Gay: I’ve talked to [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich], and we’ve had a couple of conversations. My game is one thing. But when a team wants to sign you, and you sign with a team, they have their own vision for you. So obviously, I want to take my game to another level. And if anybody knows how to do that, it would be Gregg Popovich.
Wright: What’s that next level?
Gay: Who knows (laughs)? As you said: I’ve been known to get buckets, and I’ve had that stigma of just being a scorer. But I think there’s a lot more to my game. I think I can show that here in San Antonio.
Wright: From your conversations with Popovich, is there a certain role you and the team envision?
Gay: Yeah, we’ve talked. The game is changing a lot. It’s all about positional basketball. The more guys that can play different positions, the better. So that’s pretty much it. There’s not too much to talk about. You have your teams like Golden State, Houston, who all have guys that are switchable. I think I can bring that to this team.
Wright: Did you get a chance to watch the Spurs during the playoffs? If so, what did you think?
Gay: For sure, I did. This is a team that’s traditionally great. Obviously, this year, a couple of injuries came into play. Who knows what would have happened? They would have made a better fight [if not for the injuries]. But I do honestly think the Warriors were just on another level this year. They’re a great team.
Wright: You took all of your free-agent meetings in Austin. What was the tie-in there?
Gay: I have a kinesiologist I’ve been working with that’s in Austin. Picking a team is great. But I don’t think any of this matters without me being healthy. So, I think that was the biggest thing.
Wright: Spurs fans are basketball-savvy. They know your resume on the court. What type of guy are you off the court, because you’ll be coming into a locker room that I’d describe as being very eclectic, maybe even strange?
Gay: (Laughs) Eclectic? I don’t know, man. I pretty much can fit in anywhere. I don’t see myself as having a problem in that locker room. Strange is good, though. Strange just means people aren’t scared to show how they feel, what they want. Hopefully it’s not weird. Strange is not bad. Weird is crazy (laughing). Maybe I can teach them some things.
Wright: You’ve been around a long time, and you talked about winning earlier. But when you’ve played this long, when does the winning start to overtake the financial aspect of all of this?
Gay: That’s the thing. When I got into the league, it was about winning first. There are a lot more what-ifs that come into play now. But always for me, winning has been the first thing. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to deal with losing. But I’ve always seen myself as a winner or a smart basketball player. The financial thing, I think winning comes first, and everything else will follow.
Wright: Pop is probably one of the most socially-aware coaches in the NBA, probably in all of professional sports. How does playing for a guy like that resonate with you?
Gay: Even before signing here, I had the utmost respect for him. I’ve heard such great things about him, with that being one of them. You want to play for somebody that you respect on the court and off the court. That’s a guy you’d want to go to battle for, a guy that’s not afraid to say how he feels on the basketball court or off the basketball court.
Wright: I asked that because you’re a Baltimore guy, and given all the things that have happened out there over the years, I figured Pop’s social awareness would resonate. Speaking of Baltimore, didn’t you build some playgrounds out there for the city?
Gay: Yeah, I built a couple. For me, it’s just you have to start from the beginning in Baltimore. That’s anywhere. Anywhere there’s trouble, you’ve got to start from the beginning, and I saw that. The kids didn’t even have a safe place to play. I saw that and just thought I could at least do that for now. But there’s a lot more work to be done in that city.
Wright: Do you still have your basketball tournament out there?
Gay: Yeah, actually my basketball tournament [the Rudy Gay Basketball Tournament] is coming up in August. I had been searching and trying to do things around the city, and that’s just my way to raise money for different things. I have a charity, but I’ve always been very direct in what I wanted to give back to. You know how some people [want to take care of] the Boys & Girls Club or this or that? Well, that’s cool. That’s cool. But personally, I’d like to see that this computer lab is getting done, or these kids now have [what they need]. Actually, with building those jungle gyms in Baltimore, I had kids working to build them and they actually got salaries for that. Situations like that … OK, obviously, there’s a lot of drug dealing. There’s a lot of killing. There’s a lot of gangs in Baltimore. That all stems from a sense of hopelessness and a sense of struggling. If you can give kids an actual face and a positive way to make money, that keeps them off the streets. I did things in Memphis [with hospitals], in Toronto. I was a little busy in Sacramento (laughing), a little distracted. But that’s one thing I wish I would have done more of while I was out here.
Wright: Having switched teams so many times and having worked in so many different environments, is there a perfect way to come into a new locker room and sort of find your own niche without stepping on anyone’s toes?
Gay: Just be yourself, and be a professional. That’s one thing I’ve always done. When I get into a new locker room you be a professional, do your job, and then everything else will follow.
Wright: You’re already in San Antonio spending time with the team. Got a bucket list on some of the things that you want to do in the city?
Gay: Win a championship.