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Ridiculed and alone, Rudy Gobert was the face of coronavirus in sports. Now he’s ready to return.

Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive for coronavirus. The Utah Jazz center reflected on what he learned from the experience. (Video: Ben Golliver/The Washington Post)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Rudy Gobert sat alone in a Disney World ballroom, putting the finishing touches on a rice bowl after practice.

The Utah Jazz’s all-star center set up a folding chair as his makeshift table, his 7-foot-1 frame hunched over as he dined in silence. When he finished, he grabbed a disinfecting wipe, the signature product of the NBA bubble, and methodically cleaned the surface.

When he finished, he nodded that he was ready to detail his emergence as the face of the novel coronavirus in American sports, a physically and emotionally taxing stretch during which he fought off the coronavirus and faced intense criticism for careless behavior leading up to his positive test.

“The media portrayed it like I caused the NBA to shut down,” the soft-spoken Gobert told The Washington Post in an extended interview Friday, “instead of saying that it’s a pandemic and Rudy Gobert tested positive. For a lot of people who don’t think further than what’s put in their faces, they really thought I brought the coronavirus to the United States.”

Gobert, a self-described jokester, smirked at the thought, but he wasn’t kidding.

‘I know who I am’

It was only a matter of time before someone was labeled sports’ Patient Zero.

By early March, state and local governments in California and Ohio began to pressure NBA and NHL teams to empty their arenas of fans after watching the coronavirus interrupt soccer and basketball leagues overseas. As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver monitored developments in the United States and abroad, some owners argued that the league shouldn’t put itself out of business with billions in revenue at stake.

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The tipping point came March 11, when Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus while in Oklahoma City on a road trip. Medical officials abruptly called off the Jazz’s game against the Thunder that night, and within hours, Silver had indefinitely suspended the NBA season. The NHL, MLB and MLS followed suit in short order, leaving fans and television networks with empty calendars.

Public health officials breathed a sigh of relief: an immediate sports shutdown meant that hundreds of games played indoors in front of tens of thousands of fans would not take place. For a country still grappling with social distancing and home isolation, this was a critical step.

Instead of “get well soon” cards, Gobert received an avalanche of criticism. Shortly before his positive test, Gobert was caught on camera touching a table full of reporters’ microphones. The clip was viewed millions of times on social media, leading angry and fearful observers to conclude that Gobert was making light of the NBA’s early social distancing guidelines and putting others at risk. To make matters worse, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Detroit Pistons forward Christian Wood later tested positive after being in close contact with Gobert.

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Gobert acknowledged that the video made him look like “someone who doesn’t care about other people’s safety or lives.” He moved quickly to make amends in March, issuing an apology, filming a public service announcement and donating $500,000 to support coronavirus efforts in Utah, Oklahoma and his home country of France.

“It was hard for me to see so many people question my character based on one video,” Gobert said. “That was a big learning experience. I know who I am. People around me know who I am. Everyone is going to have a different perception and opinion of you. If I start putting my energy into that, I’m going to be living a very painful life.”

Still, the fallout was severe. Mitchell told “Good Morning America” that it “took a while for me to kind of cool off” and that he didn’t initially communicate with Gobert after their positive tests. The virus’s potential impact on athletes called into question their partnership. Gobert, 28, had spent his entire career in Utah, developing into a defensive player of the year and signing a four-year, $102 million contract in 2016. Another nine-figure deal was likely coming in 2021, but all of that was suddenly in doubt. Would Mitchell forgive him? If not, would the Jazz be forced to explore a trade?

Gobert chose not to defend himself, in part because he had more immediate concerns. His initial symptoms, which felt like a common cold, worsened when he returned to Utah. He lost his sense of taste and smell, and his toes began to tingle. The mental challenges and fear were as bad as the physical effects, Gobert recalled, and concerns about “my life and my family” trumped thoughts about his career. His mother, Corrine, was stuck in France, alone, at a time when international travel was inadvisable or impossible.

“The toughest part was that I was away from my mom,” Gobert said reluctantly, noting that mother and son are in the midst of the longest separation of his life. “I didn’t want her to come over, because I didn’t know if I was still contagious or not. I still haven’t seen my mom since everything happened. It’s something I don’t really like to talk about, but she’s supported me a lot since I was very young. Just knowing how worried she was and knowing she wasn’t able to be with me, it was pretty tough mentally.”

Gobert’s chef and personal assistant stepped up to help while he recovered. Friends and family couldn’t make the negative headlines go away, but they tried to comfort Gobert by reminding him that another week of professional sports would only have furthered the virus’s spread.

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He tried to piece together how he had contracted the virus, concluding that it probably happened on the road trip in New York, Boston or Detroit. He wondered how it was possible that other members of the Jazz didn’t test positive given that he shared locker rooms with his teammates and received massages from team staffers. As he recovered, he concluded that he probably wasn’t the first NBA player to contract the virus — just the first to return a positive test. He might have been careless with the microphones, but Mitchell or Wood easily could have exposed him to the virus rather than the other way around.

While Gobert acknowledged that it’s “hard for me to be vulnerable” in discussing his mental health, he was “going through some stuff that people don’t know.” The period was so challenging that he didn’t feel ready to play when the bubble concept gained traction in April.

“I was still not in the right state of mind to play basketball,” Gobert said. “I didn’t think it could happen at that point. As things went by, we had meetings and learned more about the virus, I started feeling better mentally and physically. The main concern for most of us was to make sure they weren’t just putting us out there to play and generate money and not care about our health. I felt better about it with time [and dialogue] with the NBA and the [National Basketball Players Association].”

‘Go deeper’

American professional sports have gradually returned this month, with the NBA set to resume its season Thursday. Gobert and the Jazz will play the New Orleans Pelicans in the bubble’s opener, a symbol of basketball’s full-circle journey over the last four-plus months.

Gobert has had time to think, about his bout with the coronavirus and his role as a team leader. Perhaps he was “too honest” when he communicated with teammates in the past. Perhaps he came off “always negative” when he asked for the ball or called out defensive instructions.

After being on the receiving end of so many stinging words, he has made a point to work on his own communication. He wants to be a “competitive” leader capable of “telling [teammates] things you don’t want to hear” while still making sure to “put myself in other people’s shoes.” In keeping with that theme, Gobert chose to wear the word “equality” on the back of his No. 27 jersey as part of the NBA’s Black Lives Matter initiative.

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The Jazz has been back together for weeks to prepare for a playoff push, with Mitchell and Gobert connecting on an alley-oop and high-fives during a warmup scrimmage Monday. In Gobert’s mind, the Jazz’s most fraught internal moments are in the past.

“When everything happened, [Mitchell] was frustrated,” Gobert said. “I was frustrated. I really wanted to make sure that he was fine. It wasn’t really about going into a conflict or arguing. [After time passed], I was able to call him and tell him what was on my mind, and he did the same. I think that’s what men should do. Don’t put the business out there in the media. People were seeing this as something that could destroy the group. I see it as something that could make the group even stronger. If you’re able to come back from that, we won’t be worried about a team beating us or a bad defensive quarter. It gives perspective.”

Four trying months later, Gobert said that he is physically healthy and in a “great place” mentally. He hasn’t fully recovered his sense of smell, but he feels safe in the bubble and hopes that sports will be able to fill in the vacuum that first emerged in March.

“If the NBA doesn’t work, the world doesn’t function the same,” he said. “It’s not the same way as before, but basketball is our lives. When you take that away from us, something is missing. It feels kind of empty.”

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The NBA community is still adapting to its new reality. Players have set up shop in three Disney hotels, they wear masks when they walk to practice, and they shower in their rooms after games. Disinfecting wipes are always at arm’s reach; reporters’ microphones remain at a safe social distance.

A lengthy basketball journey is about to begin, and the first player to touch the ball Thursday may very well be the same player whose positive test led Silver to halt play in March. Even with basketball’s buzz building and coronavirus apprehension lingering, Gobert was focused on decency.

“We all have the tendency to judge people without knowing them,” he said. “You watch us play basketball every day, but you don’t know who we are, what we’ve been through, what we’re going through. Get to know people. Go deeper. You can spread a lot of positive messages [on social media], but you can also spread hate and judgment. You’ve got a choice.”

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