Dime Magazine Rudy Gay Feature: La Familia
*This feature can be found in the latest issue of Dime Magazine on newsstands now*
The man in the front passenger seat shifts his weight as we pull up, then starts talking again.
“I know exactly when it was,” Devin Ferguson says as he adjusts the fit of his hat. “I know exactly what he did…”
They were 11. It was a rec league game. The ball was drifting out of bounds outside of the three-point line. Rudy Gay caught up to it in the corner, cuffed it with his left hand, and threw it at the rim backwards. It went in as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
“I’ll never forget,” Devin says, chuckling. “It was me and this boy named Kenny Allen, and we was like ‘he going to the NBA’. I swear to God.”
Everyone steps out onto a couple of neighborhood basketball courts. A community center is to your left, and the ocean is so close you could throw a basketball into the water. Young kids are playing a casual game on one of the hoops, stopping every 20 seconds to look at us. Is that…? They seem to be asking themselves. There are shouts from the parking lot. People know he’s here. They see the cameras, the crew of people and that one really tall guy. But no one’s overbearing. This is his home. Earlier in the afternoon, we walked across a street towards Sollers Point Tech High School and people drove by as if this was nothing.
By this point, it’s about 7 p.m. You’ve been outside for three hours. When you first got to Dundalk, a suburb just southeast of Baltimore, your shirt was sticking to your back in the heat, and yet you could feel the slightest breeze coming in off the water. Now, the humidity is leaking, and the sky is reaching for darkness.
The camera crew takes us towards the far basket. It’s empty. Nearly all of the white is chipped off the backboard. The rim is bent up angrily and it’s hard to tell whether it’s warped or just broken from too many dunks. There are ugly cracks running on the cement from the basket’s base to the free throw line.
This was the hoop where the crew used to play when they were younger. Too small to ball with the big boys, even with Rudy, they were always sent to this broken, 10-and-a-half foot rim with the nasty breeze coming off the ocean. Now we’re the ones banishing little kids to this rim, they all joke.
Back in middle school, Devin and Rudy used to walk over here every summer morning and shoot thousands of jump shots. Drills in the heat.
As 13-year-olds, they once had a game at J.W. Wright in Baltimore County, losing to a team they should’ve beat. Afterwards, Rudy came charging after Devin.
“Why you ain’t giving me the ball? You the point guard. You supposed to get me the ball…”
Devin said he couldn’t get it past half-court. Everyone was too tall for him. The defense was too tight. He couldn’t get it to the team’s star player in his spots.
“That’s your job! You’re the point guard!”
“You’re the best player on the team! Come and get it yourself!”
Devin mocked Rudy, telling him that he wasn’t Jesus Shuttlesworth, the cult figure born from the – at the time – recently released movie He Got Game. It went on and on. Devin jokes the exchange was like Kobe telling Derek Fisher to give him the ball instead of Bryant getting it himself. “We were 13!” Rudy laughs.
At 9 a.m. the next day, they made up by hitting that blacktop with the broken rim. The next year, they beat that same team by 40.
”Well,” Devin remembers, “it turns out he was Jesus Shuttlesworth.
We came here because Rudy wanted us to see his family. Not his blood – although his mother, Rae, his father, Rudy Sr. and his grandfather, Richard Austin, played major roles in his development. His fam. The crew. From Ashwin Ferguson – the light-hearted man who’s been cutting his hair and driving Rudy and his friends around Baltimore since seventh grade – to Ashwin’s son, Devin to their friend, Patrick to Gay’s cousin, Kylin to the tiny gym at Sollers Point Tech, the red brick high school where none of them went to school but all of them played. Upon entering the Fergusons’ living room – a room with a red patterned carpet, a glass table sitting in front of the couches, a TV switched to ESPN and “Jazz Sessions” pictures lining the walls – it’s almost like we’ve been put in a time machine.
“As they grew up, the house was theirs,” Ashwin laughs as he cuts their hair in the kitchen. “The house was more theirs than mine.”
Waiting to get his own shape up, Rudy is pissed. He missed the first episode of Entourage’s final season last night.
“That’s my show,” he says to no one and everyone. Someone jokes they’re the Baltimore Entourage. It fits. They were all so tight as kids, many people assumed Ashwin was the father and they were all his sons. On weekends, they always went roller-skating at Skateland.
“On New Year’s, that’s where everybody was,” says Gay’s cousin, Kylin Sims. “If you missed New Year’s, it was like ‘Pshh, what’s wrong with you man?’”
Rudy still comes back to Dundalk as often as he can, back to where he’s treated normal, back to where it all began before the summer in high school when he went from top 20 in Baltimore to top five nationally.
“There weren’t a lot of basketball influences,” Gay says of his childhood. “I went out there and did my own thing. If I couldn’t do something, I would just go practice it. I remember I couldn’t dunk so every time I went to the gym I tried to. I couldn’t shoot, so I changed my shot on my own at least three times. I couldn’t dribble, I worked on that.”
He still does. Since his rookie season, Gay’s scoring, playmaking and defensive numbers have all nearly doubled, and last season, he averaged career highs in nearly every other category outside of his 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds a night. But there was no basketball this summer. Not when he missed out on the best ball the city of Memphis has ever seen, not when he missed out on what could’ve been his defining moment. An accident took all that away.
He spent the hottest months at Athletes’ Performance in Phoenix, Arizona, doing work with Pilates and free weights to regain the range of motion and activate the shoulder’s smallest muscles. If it was up to him, he’d already be going all-out, but the doctors say he won’t be back to 100 percent until late October.
“I couldn’t even do this,” he remembers about the initial injury, raising his arm just above his head. Ah, yes. The injury.
Sunday. May 15, 2011. That was when Memphis finally missed Rudy Gay. It took them long enough. They survived for a while without him. Three months to be exact. But it all caught up to them in a Game 7 season-ending 105-90 loss to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“The worst part about missing the playoffs is the fact that I’ve been with this team five years now, and I’ve been on the team when we were nothing,” Gay says. “People came in and basically beat the Hell out of us. They beat the Hell out of us every night, and we struggled to get 20 wins.”
On the night of February 15, Rudy Gay posted up Philly’s Evan Turner, taking two hard dribbles before turning over his right shoulder and going up for a shot in the lane. Turner slapped down at the same time and upon impact, Gay immediately winced and collapsed in pain, his hands clutching his left shoulder, his body cradling his left arm.
“I knew something was wrong,” says Gay. “But it was one of those situations where you didn’t really want to believe it. It was ‘Okay, I’m going to go back in the locker room, and they are gonna do something and I will come back out.”
Doctors called it a left shoulder subluxation. It became a season-long question: when will Rudy come back out? That question eventually brought the answer the Grizzlies didn’t want. Gay wouldn’t be coming back out, the notoriously fickle multiaxial shoulder joint forcing him to sit out the rest of the season.
Memphis had won 12 of their last 15 before Gay went down, and were 23-12 since plodding through the opening six weeks of the season. With Gay watching in a sling, an upset of the top-seeded Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs convinced the public the Grizzlies didn’t need him, and that Memphis was better off trading their best young player. Zach Randolph compares Gay to LeBron James, and yet there were calls to give up the recently turned 25-year-old.
The night of Game 7 in Oklahoma City proved how much they need him. Memphis squandered away a chance to advance because they couldn’t make or find shots, scoring 34 first half points and shooting under 40 percent for the game.
“That’s what we were missing in the playoffs, a guy like Rudy,” the point guard, Mike Conley remembers. “We needed a guy that could create his own shot and shot over top of people the way he can and make plays the way he can.”
Even now, he can only participate in non-contact drills because of his shoulder. The Grizzlies are holding team workouts at the University of Memphis this month but Gay is only a spectator during full-court runs.
Once, a cornerstone. Now, a slight unknown. Gay’s talent is undeniable, but how will his return affect the team? Gay says his role changes every year. Before he was hurt, he made the plays in close games. No one knows what will happen now. Even the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook says he’s not sure what’ll happen.
With Rudy watching from the sidelines, it was his teammate Zach Randolph who became the story of the playoffs, and the inside game the focus. Some might not expect a seamless transition back to what it was. Z-Bo does.
“I don’t look at it like he’s the number one guy or Rudy’s gonna be the number two guy or Marc is gonna be the three guy or I’ll be the two guy or Rudy will be the two guy,” says Randolph. “We are gonna play team ball.”
His 6-9 teammate echoes that.
“I don’t think it’s about me fitting in at all,” Gay says. “Everybody on the team knows me, and they know what type of player I am. They know how I can help the team.”
It wasn’t too long ago Gay was just another decent player on a bad team. Some didn’t think he could coexist with O.J. Mayo. The two of them took a lot of shots on a team that was going nowhere. But winning thrusts you into the spotlight, and Gay is poised to take the next step.
“I think Rudy knows he’s good now, but I don’t think also he knows how good he can be,” his former UConn teammate Marcus Williams says. “Sometimes he may get content with how he is, but his talent is through the roof.”
Young players always appear to progress but often, they just get more opportunities, more minutes and more shots. Gay actually has improved. He shot 40 percent from behind the arc last year, and over 80 percent from the line. His 47 percent shooting was a career high. He’s always trying to get better, saying, “I don’t think Bill Gates sits around and just counts his money. He’s looking at his next move.” Late in games, Gay’s a killer. Ask LeBron James. In a November win, Gay hit a pull-up jumper in the Miami star’s face at the buzzer.
“He’s a guy that can get his own shot,” Dallas’ Jason Terry says. “When you have a guy that you can throw the ball to – and he’s another one, in the fourth quarter, close game, he’s looking to take and make that shot. You can’t let him catch the ball. He’s just a player who’s a superior athlete in this league. There’s not many like him, being able to get his own shot and then using his athletic ability. Bar none he’s tops in the league.”
Gay will have to learn to fit in and stand out all over again. It’s a new team now. The players have tasted success. They all want more.
“I think he can make them real good,” Washington’s John Wall says. “I know Rudy well. If he comes in with the mindset to just work hard and be himself and just let his thing go with the flow, they can be a really talented team.”
No one believed all this was coming. Not the owners or the front office. Not the fans, and certainly not the players. They won 44 combined games during Gay’s first two seasons, and then traded away a franchise cornerstone for one of the biggest draft busts of all-time. The crowds were dead. The franchise was moving in circles. Relocation rumors circulated. When they traded for Zach Randolph less than two years after giving up Pau Gasol for financial reasons, then brought in former star Allen Iverson for all of three games, there were no surer signs that ownership was in flux. Gay constantly thought about leaving.
“There would be times I didn’t know whether I was gonna be there or not, or even if I wanted to be there or not,” he says. “It was one of those situations. But I’ve seen progress in the city and with the team. As soon as that happened, there was no way I could leave that.”
Now two years later, Z-Bo has developed into a leader, Tony Allen into a fulltime starter, Marc Gasol into one of the best young big men in the game, the front office into spenders, the coach, Lionel Hollins, into a genius, the fans into supporters and Rudy Gay into the piece that promises to bring it all together.
“Man, that’s exciting to know that Rudy Gay is coming back,” Randolph says. “The way that we clicked this year and played together without him… so when he comes back, we are going to be that much better. A lot better.”
To take that next step, going from a playoff team to a title contender, the one so few teams have actually made, you need two specific things, Terry says. One, the right personnel. You need the talent, and the parts have to fit. And two, everyone must buy in, from the players on the court to the top of the organization. It’s easy to go from being average to good…
“But to be great,” Terry says, “you have to do it together and you all have to be on the same page. And then the basketball gods have to be shining down on you. It all has to line up.”
By sunset, we’re off to Jimmy’s Famous Seaford, a restaurant on the other side of town. 11 of us cram into a long table in the center of the room and start eating. Stuffed salmon with crab. Steaks. Crab Bruschetta.
“Get the crab cakes,” Rudy tells me. Everyone says they’re heaven on a plate. All these guys used to go crabbing off the pier. They know seafood. Rudy gets oysters, but can’t finish them because the appetizers were too good.
The food is melting my taste buds while Rudy’s crew is laughing. He’s telling stories like the one about meeting Dennis Rodman out at a club when the Worm didn’t know who he was. He can chuckle about it now.
It’s been a long road for Rudy Gay. From sitting out on Ashwin Ferguson’s front porch with his friends as a teenager to becoming the centerpiece in one team’s future championship plans, it’s always been about family. His people.
Ask his good friend and former teammate Ronnie Brewer about family. Brewer and Gay came into the NBA in the same 2006 draft class. When they were at a pre-draft party, Brewer couldn’t get in because he didn’t have a collared shirt. Gay took off his own button-up shirt for Brewer to wear inside.
“And Rudy, he always tells me, ‘We gotta be good friends. I gave you the shirt off my back,’” Brewer says.
That connection is what the players hope separate the Grizzlies from other teams that came and went too quickly. They’re a scrappy, hard working, once-ridiculed bunch, bound together by years of criticism and slights. Memphis is Gay’s family now and their future rests on how high he can soar.
“I think anything can happen,” he says. “All it takes is hard work and dedication. The most dedicated team usually wins, and that was Dallas this year. I think there’s no reason why it couldn’t be us next year.”
He admits last season still dominates his thoughts. What would’ve happened had I been healthy? What if I could’ve played in the playoffs?
“But I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and maybe I needed this,” Gay says. “Maybe this is one of those things that can take me to the next level.”
He hasn’t made an All-Star team yet, but it’s coming. “It’s only a matter of time,” says Conley. He hasn’t earned the respect of the national audience yet, but it’s coming. The Grizzlies aren’t considered contenders yet, but they’re coming. It’s all coming. Fast. And Rudy wants the juice.
“Honestly, I just want the respect of the players,” he says. “I just want the respect of my teammates. The other players in the league, I want them to say ‘Oh Rudy is a bad MFer.’ You know what I’m saying? That’s what I want people…when they think of me, think of me as a bad MFer.”
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