Heart of Gold: Rudy Gay
words by: iman n. milner
Rudy Gay is a wildly athletic funny guy with quick wit and a great smile who was taught to be a man by his grandfather and given a chip on his shoulder by his hometown of East Baltimore. He stands at 6’8 but appears approachable and friendly and he’s uncharacteristically transparent for a young superstar athlete: I had no trouble getting him to open up about fidelity, love and feeling responsible for his family though being the youngest of 4 children. But more impressive than his list of accomplishments–among them being his 2011 honors given by the college that made him a household name–is what seems to be a heart of gold. Gold here doesn’t stand for the pristine gleam of perfection we often associate with the element but yet the resistance to corrosion, the subtle strength and the overall value. I’d say that heart was given to him on the same streets that have been famously documented for their problems with drug trafficking but he’d say it was his mother’s watchful eye, the love of his three older sisters and the loyalty of the best friends he’s had since childhood.
A childhood he says left him with a sense of responsibility, longing and a will to fight to win.
Growing up in the aforementioned rough part of Baltimore, Maryland, Rudy Gay was raised by his mother who was left to raise her four children alone when her marriage dissolved. ” I grew up with a chip on my shoulder”, he says, ” I was concerned with taking care of my mother, my sisters and myself. I became the man of the house–when I was way too young to even know what that meant”. Though sharing a similar story as many of the young men he came up with, thankfully, he had an out. His grandfather, Richard Austin stepped in to teach young Rudy everything from how to dress to how to stand up for himself in the neighborhood. In his younger years he admits he wasn’t interested in being some playground legend. Basketball wasn’t on his list of goals and he didn’t want to rough it out on the concrete courts like most of the other kids. There was; however, another sport that had his attention. “Baseball”, he says with a reminiscing chuckle, “baseball was my focus, I was pretty good at it. But when I got to high school I got taller and I realized a lot of the stuff that people do on a basketball court comes easy to me.”
So his focus shifted.
By his senior year at Archbishop Spalding High, Rudy was regarded as one of the top 10 players in the country and reminded many in his hometown of another kid from Maryland—Reggie Lewis, anyone? As his game progressed, offers rolled in for him to attend some of the greatest basketball programs the US has to offer and for a kid who’d never been away from home the all new prospect of starting college somewhere new was daunting. To this point he’d been the protector for the women in his house and leaving his mother behind in Baltimore wasn’t an idea he entertained, “I didn’t want to leave her”, he says. His mother’s support and reassurance that she could handle things in his absence gave Rudy the push he needed to join Coach Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut. While there, Gay maintains that what he learned about basketball came secondary to what he learned about himself. “I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t gone there, I didn’t really have anyone to turn to so I had to confront things about me that I never even thought about”, he explains, “and really it was the first time that I only had to think about me and what I needed”. Calhoun’s well documented no-holds-barred personality forced the young kid from Maryland to develop a “set of priorities” that would ultimately help him to become the premiere player he is today.
But right at this moment, he’s not in Coach Calhoun’s locker room. Not on the court and definitely not in Baltimore. He’s in Downtown LA with our staff and his agent, whose doubling as his driver for the day. He’s in cutoff shorts, a relaxed tee and an understated black chain that he’s tucked underneath his shirt. We talk about his recent honor at his Alma mater and he teases that the moment made him feel old but that the blessing of being recognized wasn’t lost on him. He makes jokes with our makeup girl about not making him up too much because he has to be able to show his face back home after our story drops and taking a look around the room—none of the women have taken a breath since he walked in.
When we switch gears to talk about his love life he playfully answers, “do I have to comment on that?” before saying that his on and off again relationship is in the air but that his experience growing up with three women taught him valuable lessons on what women want. “They want you to be there for them and be respectful but also be able to put your foot down”, he pauses before finishing, ” I hope that doesn’t make anyone mad. I guess what I’m saying is that they want you to take the lead and steer them in the right direction but be smooth about it”. Being a 25 year old NBA superstar has to have its perks when it comes to the romance department but for a man who prides himself on loyalty, fidelity is still a core principle—though, “mistakes happen, nobody’s perfect”, he says. Perfection is not his strong suit but he’s a believer in time being the best gift anyone can give to someone they love. “When you have the status a lot of us have, people confuse love with being willing to throw money and gifts at someone. That means nothing to me. And to be honest a person who loves you shouldn’t just be ok with material love, that’s not real.”
His perception of reality is perhaps what keeps him humble and always giving back. The story of his “Dream Dinner” with 10 year old St. Jude Children’s Hospital patient Cortavius moved many and Rudy’s ongoing involvement with the hospital, on his own accord, is commendable. Gay says that it was a visit to St. Jude’s upon arrival to Memphis that helped put his influence in perspective. “Before I even went to the gym in Memphis, I stopped by St. Jude’s and to see all those little kids being strong and how happy me being there made them, I know that I mean a lot to some people and I know that God put me in this position for a reason”, he explains.
But though the patients at the children’s hospital were happy to see the hoops star, the city of Memphis wasn’t exactly elated about him or the Grizzlies organization. The city of Memphis had rallied behind the college Memphis Tigers basketball squad and had grown tired of the 20-82 victories per season that their professional team had to offer. With that monkey on his back and then the loss of their star player, Pau Gasol in a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, a then 19 year old Rudy took the reins of the team and proved himself to be a valuable asset. “You’ve got to stay hungry”, he says, “a lot of guys in this league, like myself, come from nothing and then we’re given so much. Usually it takes some time for you to make the right decisions. I was at least 7 years younger than all my teammates but I didn’t have time to act like a kid, I had to step up.” And he’s stepped up as a leader of that team for the last 5 seasons in which Memphis has become the surprise team in the Western Conference to watch. His maturity on the court aside, Gay admits that he’s still searching for Rudy outside of basketball. Having prided himself on not fitting in, he’s come to a place in life where a question like “who is Rudy Gay?” can be hard to answer.
“You spend your whole life trying to be different and then one day you look back and realize you don’t really know who you are”. Though he may not be sure who he is completely, he’s very clear on how he wants to be remembered. Like many athletes he wants to be a champion but his hope is that he’s remembered more for his work ethic and his willingness to always give 100%. A couple hours later, we’re all done with Rudy who’s off to get drills in before he heads to Las Vegas for Olympic tryouts. He dresses back into his casual look, thanks everyone for their time and makes it a point to say he’s always available should any of us ever need anything before flashing his boyish grin and leaving.
I quickly surveyed the room to see if my staff was wearing the same sincere look of gratitude and appreciation that I was sure had crept on to my face…and they were. Because we’d all detected his absolute sincerity. We all got to see a little piece of his heart—the golden heart made strong by circumstance and made priceless by a man of value.
photos by: brittney roughton
Stylist: Seth Brundle
MUA: Sidney Milan
To buy the EDGE Print issue with Rudy’s Article and photos :