After several years of struggles, Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay reigniting his career


After several years of struggles, Rudy Gay’s career seems to be again taking flight. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo)

After spending the past few summers recovering from a shoulder injury, enduring trade speculation and becoming the enemy of basketball’s analytics movement, Rudy Gay has had the chance to experience something different this offseason. With a grand, but somewhat unnecessary, gesture from the Sacramento Kings and an unexpected turn with Team USA, Gay got to feel valued again.

Gay was unlikely to opt out of a contract that will pay him $19.3 million next season but the Kings still made an impassioned plea in June to convince him to stay rather than become an unrestricted free agent. Fans greeted him at Sacramento International Airport with signs and chants of “Rudy! Rudy!” while Kings General Manager Pete D’Alessandro and Coach Michael Malone presented a plan for the direction of the franchise.

“It was good,” Gay said of the Kings’ successful pitch to stick around. “After two tough seasons, it was good to know that they wanted me there, not just for now, but for long [term].”

Gay was roughly two weeks into his offseason workout program in August when Kevin Durant backed out of his commitment to Team USA, only a few days after Paul George suffered a devastating leg injury, and he got a call from Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé telling Gay to reach out to USA Basketball.

“He’s pretty direct when he wants you to do stuff,” Gay said with a laugh about Ranadivé.

But the desires of an ambitious owner weren’t enough for Gay to become a surprising late addition to try out for the 12-man roster. Gay needed the backing of USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Though he wasn’t on Team USA’s 28-man talent pool for international play released in January nor the 19-man roster announced in July, Gay had history with the program after helping the United States win gold at the 2010 world championships in Turkey. Gay said he reached out to Colangelo “and the next day, they told me to show up in Chicago” for practice.

Being welcomed back with USA Basketball meant a lot to Gay, who has dealt with his share of challenges and disappointments since claiming that gold medal four years ago.

That summer, Gay signed a five-year, maximum-salaried extension with the Memphis Grizzlies, seemed on the verge of becoming a breakout star and played an invaluable role on a team that featured rising stars such as Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Stephen Curry. But instead of making the leap that several players experience after a summer of practicing with the best and competing against elite competition, Gay sustained a separated right shoulder that required surgery in March 2011. He then had to watch the Grizzlies upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round and lose an intensely competitive seven-game series to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals in his absence.

Rudy Gay has filled a defensive role for Team USA. (Ander Gilleneaander/Getty Images)
Rudy Gay has filled a defensive role for Team USA. (Ander Gilleneaander/Getty Images)

Memphis’s success without Gay was amplified when the 6-foot-8 Baltimore native returned during the lockout-shortened season and the team lost in the first round. Gay’s postseason struggles set off an outbreak of derision and discussion that the team may be better off without him, how his love of mid-range jumpers and one-on-one play made the Grizzlies stagnant offensively and that he was a bloated contract boasting empty statistics. His career slide continued that summer when Gay became one of the final cuts of the 2012 Olympic team.

“You got to understand, it’s a business,” Gay said recently about missing out on a gold medal in London. “They’re going to pick who they think is the best and what I have to do is prove it out next time.”

Gay’s final months in Memphis were filled with rumors and personal tragedy. The Grizzlies new front office sought savings and a new identity centered on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and shipped the team’s slashing swingman and leading scorer to Toronto in a deal that did little to help his reputation as an inefficient gunner. The trade occurred only two weeks after the death of his grandmother, a woman whom he credited for playing a major role in his upbringing.

Without Gay, Memphis advanced to the conference finals for the first time. With Gay, Toronto remained a mediocre team and Gay basically got the chance to take a lot of shots and score some points. The Raptors moved on from that failed experiment after just 51 games and Gay landed with a bottom feeder in Sacramento.

Toronto got better and won the Atlantic Division for the second time in franchise history after dealing Gay but the move actually worked out well for both parties. Gay experienced a quiet resurgence with the Kings as he became more productive with fewer touches, averaging 20.1 points while shooting 48.2 percent from the field in 55 games. The Kings found the scoring small forward they had been seeking for several years and teammates DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas had career seasons playing alongside him.

“I think Toronto was a different situation for me, something I don’t think I was ready for,” Gay said. “I switched up a couple of things going back to Sacramento. Mentally, I was more focused. I wouldn’t say I was more focused. I was focused in Toronto, too. But it was a different kind of focus. And my job is a little tougher, so I had to do more, be more of a leader and go out there and perform.”

Gay missed out on the playoffs for the second year in a row, but this summer has been special for several reasons, none greater than when his wife, Ecko, gave birth to the couple’s first child on May 6. The former University of Connecticut star is also sporting a slightly different look after adding a prominent, visible tattoo of the angel Michael on his left forearm. Gay got the ink shortly before joining Team USA but wouldn’t offer much explanation other than, “it means something to me.”

At 28, Gay is the oldest player on the U.S. team and his familiarity with Krzyzewski has helped him make the team and become a solid contributor – as a backup power forward, no less – despite limited practice time with the group.

Gay is averaging 5.2 points in just 14.5 minutes through the first four games of the FIBA World Cup in Spain. In Team USA’s 106-71 win over the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, Gay scored nine points in 17 minutes but finished with the highest plus-minus of any player with a positive-30. The U.S. will finish group play on Thursday against Ukraine.

“It’s kind of tough. In the middle of what was supposed to be my offseason, getting back into game shape and playing shape and trying to help a team. And also playing a different role, using a lot of energy and being a defensive guy,” Gay said. “It feels good to be back in the swing of things. This is the most productive way to spend the summer. Obviously, I didn’t have any playoffs last year or the year before, so this is a good way… In practice, you’re going up against the best. All these guys are great. Everybody here is, with their respective team, is that go-to guy. So everybody is in a sense giving something up.”

But Gay also sees the benefits of this experience, especially given what had to happen for him to earn the opportunity.

“This year is kind of different than any other year. We’ve had some people drop out late, some injuries and we’re still just getting together,” Gay said. “I feel like last [time playing with Team USA] helped me. I played my best basketball for USA Basketball. Unfortunately, I got hurt [the following season]. This a chance to just grow, get stronger, get better. Just always looking for an opportunity to get better and this is the best way to go right now.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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