Alex Lowry

For Rudy Gobert, the journey matters most

The Utah Jazz center embraces his small-town French roots as he eyes greatness
by Aaron Falk

SAINT-QUENTIN, France 

The black Mercedes van cruised through the streets of the sleepy town, over brick and stone, toward the outskirts where the highway cuts against golden fields and intersects with Rue Raoul Huguet. When the driver finally stopped in front of a drab government housing project—six stories tall, a block of glass and concrete—the long leg of the town’s most famous son emerged from the vehicle.

“It’s for people who don’t have a lot of money,” Rudy Gobert said. “I grew up here. Some of my friends had big houses, some didn’t. But I was really happy here. I wouldn’t trade it.”

There used to be a basketball hoop around back, where he would play, but it had been torn down. The apartment on the second floor, the two-bedroom unit he shared with his mother and older brother and sister, was empty, too.

Still, it meant something to Gobert to be standing there outside the building he once called home.

It was mid-July and the Utah Jazz center was at the end of a weeklong stay in his hometown, a 90-minute drive northeast of Paris.

“It’s good to come back,” he said. “A lot of memories.”

And those memories are important.

Because for Rudy Gobert, nothing matters more than the journey.  

July 13, 2018

The Palais des Sports is a familiar place. Growing up, Gobert came to the arena to play pingpong, just one of the faces at the end of one of the dozens of tables in the basement of the building that is as much community center as it is a professional sporting venue.

On his first night of the trip, he was now the main attraction.

For the past four years, Gobert has returned to Saint-Quentin for his annual summer camp. Banners with his name and photograph hung from the walls in the gymnasium. Fans in his Utah Jazz jersey craned their necks to spot him. Those fans started to gather on the court after the camp’s all-star showcase game came to an end, hoping for a picture and an autograph wjulith the hometown hero—the newly crowned best defender in the National Basketball Association.

“It’s not a big city. Most people know each other,” Gobert said. “Once someone becomes a little bit famous, they’re very proud. It’s great. It’s great to come back and see that people are watching me from a distance.”

He signed for more than an hour—jerseys, pictures, an object one man said would be launched into space on a satellite—until the line had dwindled from hundreds to just a few.

As he posed for one of his last photographs of the night, Gobert reached down and tousled the woman’s blond hair.

“Rudy!” she protested.

He grinned and waited until just before the camera clicked and then, with a mischievous look on his face, he messed up his mother’s hair once again.

Corinne Gobert worked as a hairdresser, raising three children by herself. Until Gobert was about 10 and his older siblings left for school, he shared one of their apartment’s two bedrooms with his mother.

“For my mom, it wasn’t easy,” Gobert said. “She sacrificed a lot for me to be able to do the things I wanted to do, for us just to eat.”

She worked long days and money was sometimes tight. Their bond, though, was tighter.

“He knows how hard it was for her at first,” said Alexis Rambur, Gobert’s friend and the director of the camp. “I think he has this all the time in the corner of his head.”

When Gobert won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award a month earlier, his acceptance speech started with a hope that the subtitles would be accurate for his mother watching back home. Now, with a multimillion-dollar contract that has made him the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, Gobert relishes the chances to repay his mother.

“She deserves it from me,” he said. “She’s my mom and she deserves everything from me.”

July 14, 2018

Isaiah Wright has been there for Gobert since his first day in Salt Lake City. Back in the summer of 2013, the day before Gobert’s predraft workout with the Jazz, Wright was there to stretch out the 7-foot center and prepare him for his audition.

“He was very long and almost looked a little giraffe-like,” said Wright, now the team’s head strength and conditioning coach. “He had some big knee sleeves that he didn’t even fit into.”

Now, in a small high school weight room, Gobert is transformed.

He has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle to his frame since he came to the NBA, but there is still more work to be done.

“Last year was a little rough having a couple of injuries,” Wright said after one of Gobert’s workouts. “So we’re really working on lower body strength. We want to create that foundation where his legs can take him through an entire season.”

Gobert feels a bond with Wright, a trust he says is rare.

The same is true for his relationship with Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen, who has worked with Gobert since his rookie season. Back then, Gobert’s game was raw and playing time was limited. Jensen was always there for him to work, to go over film, to talk.

“I got to spend a lot of time with him,” Jensen said. “He wanted to play and he was frustrated. It was before he kind of blew up. It’s easier to build a relationship and to demand more.”

Wright, Jensen and team massage therapist Doug Birrell have come to France each of the past few summers to work with Gobert—to lend a hand at his camp and to show him just how important he is to the franchise.

“The side effect of all of it is you get to know him a little better,” Jensen said. “I think when you see where he came from—he came from humble beginnings—you see how important this is for him.”

It is important, and it’s something Gobert envisioned before anyone else.

Sometimes—in an exaggerated, rolling, northern French accent—he mocks the coaches who overlooked him, who said he didn’t have the talent to make it in basketball. Even when Cholet coach Jean-Francois Martin picked a teenaged Gobert to join their academy, he wasn’t sure he would pan out. His teammates at Cholet had their doubts, too.

“I didn’t know what to say,” recalled Baptiste Quetineau, a friend and former teammate who now coaches at Gobert’s summer camp. “He has everything to learn in basketball. The first thing I think about him is, ‘How can he learn everything?’”

Gobert benefitted from a growth spurt that transformed him from a wing to a 7-foot center over the span of three years. He also benefitted from a tremendous self-belief. He was a first-round selection in 2013, but famously chose No. 27 for his jersey as a reminder of how many picks it took before a team finally made the right choice and drafted him.

Still, Jensen’s initial hopes for the rookie were modest.

“I was just telling him, ‘If you can make your free throws and learn the verticality rule, you’ll play in the league for 15 years,’” Jensen said. “That’s what I used to promise him. But he, more than anybody else, saw what he was going to be.”

Gobert sees even more to come.

He now has the Defensive Player of the Year Award he’d coveted since he arrived in the NBA. (“It’s in my house, a little trophy room. It’s sitting there waiting for his friends to come.”)

He envisions All-Star appearances. (“I feel like I’m the best Rudy Gobert I’ve ever been.”)

He sees a championship trophy.

And if any of that happens, what will be the most meaningful is how it happened. Gobert has often been asked about leaving Utah, joining one of the so-called “super teams.” He’s said no. That he wanted to build something.

“I have a lot of pride,” Gobert said. “I might win a championship. I might win two or three. I might not. The journey to get there is, for me, the most important. People say, ‘Oh you’ve got a ring? How many rings you got?’ If I want a ring, I can go to the jewelry store and buy a ring. What’s most important is what’s behind it and how you got it.” 

July 15, 2018

The Utah Jazz are the most international squad in the NBA. It has become an important part of the fabric of the team. This summer, Brazilian point guard Raul Neto and Swiss forward Thabo Sefolosha both made appearances at the camp in Saint-Quentin.

“There’s culture in sports,” Sefolosha said. “I think the culture in Europe is a little different than the one in the U.S. when it comes to basketball. Obviously, a lot of us coming to the U.S. from different places, we bring a different kind of game with us.”

“I think the international culture on our team is special,” Neto added. “We’re going to dinner every night. Even the American guys, Donovan and Royce, they go out with us. We get together after games. It makes a difference on the court.”

Today, though, is all about France.

Today is a national holiday even bigger than Bastille Day.

Today is the World Cup final.

The biggest parties will be in Paris. But instead, Gobert is in a Saint-Quentin classroom darkened by French flags made of paper. He slides into a plastic chair among dozens of kids from his camp and fixes his eyes on the projector screen ahead.

Allez Les Bleus!” the kids shout.

The room erupts in cheers when France goes up 1-0 early on Croatia thanks to a penalty. They groan when French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris’ blunder gives a goal back. Ninety minutes of action later, they break out into song as champions of the world for the first time in two decades.

“It’s amazing,” Gobert said. “Twenty years ago, I was 6 years old. It’s something we all remember as a country. To be able to do it again is just amazing. I’m just proud of being French today.”

There’s a lot Gobert should like about his country’s side. This French team features a young, breakout attacking star, a stiff defense, and an underdog mentality. You could draw parallels to Gobert’s own team if you wanted.

“I think at the start of the competition, not a lot of people thought they were going to do what they’ve done,” Gobert said. “But they’re a great group. They’ve got a very good coach. And the whole country is behind them.”

That night, the Champs Elysees in Paris was filled with a million fans. In Saint-Quentin, it seemed all 60,000 of the residents filled the streets. They climbed high up on the bronzed statues of Monument de la Défense de 1557, stopping traffic through the heart of the town. They marched, flares and flags in their hands. They sang and they shouted.

“Obviously it’s soccer,” Gobert said, “but when you see the whole country, you see Paris, you see the streets are stormed, it makes you want to do the same.”

July 16, 2018

Inside a sweltering gymnasium at Lycée Condorcet, a sprawling high school on the north end of Saint-Quentin, campers are working on some basketball fundamentals: passing, dribbling, and understanding the near impossibility of scoring on the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Even the youngest campers aren’t spared from Gobert’s rejections as he swats basketballs all over the gym.

Four years ago, there were maybe 50 children at this camp. Now there are more than 200.

“I do it to give back to my hometown, to inspire the kids that are from here,” Gobert said. “Doing it in my hometown is a way to give back to the city.”

Rambur, the camp’s director, grew up playing basketball with Tony Parker. When they were children, Parker had a dream of playing in the NBA. When Parker told his friend, Rambur was confused. He had never even heard of the league.

Now the kids at Gobert’s camp sport jerseys from all over the NBA: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and, of course, Gobert.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger,” Rambur said. “Tony, Rudy, these guys create a path.”

That’s only part of the legacy Gobert hopes to create.

As dusk settled over Saint-Quentin that night, Gobert arrived at the Champs Elysees. The park, across the street from the Palais des Sports, has a stage for music, goals for soccer, and the basketball courts Gobert has visited since he was 6 years old.

“It has always been a big basketball town,” Gobert said. “Even when I was a kid.”

When Gobert’s father, Rudy Bourgarel, played for Saint-Quentin, the team was in France’s top division. Even when the team has been relegated to the third division, fans fill the arena.

As Gobert walks onto the playground courts, his 7-foot presence draws attention. Kids wearing the jerseys of France and Paris Saint-Germain stop and surround him.

“They don’t know who I am,” Gobert says, listening in on some of their conversations.

But that doesn’t stop him from making some new fans.

“You want to see my soccer skills or my basketball skills?” he asks.

He strikes a soccer ball and pings the post. Another shot misses wide. In the distance, Neto, his friend and teammate, taunts him.

Basketball was the right choice.

And by the time Gobert’s playing days are done, he says, he wants to be the best from France to ever do it.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “I’m going to make my own story for sure.”

July 17, 2018

On the morning of last day in Saint-Quentin, Gobert bounces from gym to gym on the high school campus.

From high above in one of the adjacent housing projects, a man shouts out his name—“Rudy!”—and Gobert waves back to the man in the building much like the one he once called home.

“I think I was always happy with what I had, with the people I had around me,” Gobert said. “I knew that when I got older, I was going to be able to succeed and have whatever I needed. I was happy, just happy to be surrounded with great people.”

Now Gobert is living that dream.

For lunch, he picks a nice restaurant and is seated at a table in a courtyard filled with flowers.

“When I was younger, it was too expensive,” he says of the place.

Today, he orders for the entire table. He orders what he wants—nearly every appetizer on the menu, steaks and frites, and beef tongue to trick his friends and coaches into eating.

Throughout the meal, people stop and ask for photographs. One of them, he thinks, was a classmate from his childhood.

“There are a lot of people that never thought I was going to be the guy that I am now,” Gobert said when asked about the requests for photos and autographs. “Now when I see them, it’s fun to see how people are. I don’t think they’re being fake. I think now they just see me from a different eye.”

Each trip back here is the same but different. There are more eyes. More milestones to measure the distance of his journey.

After lunch, Gobert loads into the black van and heads to the outskirts of town, to the drab, six-story housing project where he spent his youth.

He points to a window from a unit on the second floor. The place is empty but still filled with memories.

“It’s weird I don’t live there anymore,” he says.

Corinne Gobert’s name is still on the list of residents near the front door, but she no longer lives there. Earlier in the summer, Gobert bought his mother a new house. She moved to Paris.

It’s a funny thing, though. His mom keeps coming back. She misses home.

Her son will keep coming back here, too.

Rudy Gobert has heard all the jokes about Saint-Quentin. Some call it the Cleveland of France. Gobert’s Parisian driver puts it another way: “It’s like Salt Lake City if you are from New York, no?”

“If I didn’t grow up here, I don’t think I’d be where I am today, to be honest,” Gobert said. “But I did grow up here. I spent most of my life here. It still has a big place in my heart. I wouldn’t trade it. It’s part of my story.”