France’s NBA star - who was yesterday (9 June) named 2020-21 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year - spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about his desire to win Olympic gold and an NBA ring, while sharing his thoughts on basketball legends Tony Parker and LeBron James.
Rudy Gobert was only 23 when he headed to Rio 2016. He had just finished his second full NBA season with the Utah Jazz with a scoring average of less than 10 points and less than eight defensive rebounds per game.
Five years later, the 2.16m-tall centre is averaging over 14 points and 10 defensive rebounds a game. He has also been named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year on three occasions, in 2018, 2019 and now 2021.
He is now the undisputed star of a team that finished top of the NBA Western Conference with the highest number of wins in the league (52). The Jazz are among the favourites for a trophy the franchise have never won since their league debut in 1974.
But Gobert is not just a defensive player or a scorer, he is also a leader, both with the Jazz and the French selection. It’s a natural progression for a player who wants to “make history” and was part of the France team that beat the USA in the quarter-finals of the World Cup to earn a direct ticket to the Games.
If Utah reach the NBA finals and are required to play a seventh game, Gobert would be free to join the national team by 22 July at the latest, just a day before the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony. But for the 28-year-old, his quest for gold won’t be affected.
The player with two All-Star selections to his name spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about his love for the Games, his desire for an NBA ring and an Olympic gold medal, and much more.
There won't be a lot of time between the NBA finals and the Olympics. How are you dealing with that?
The most important thing is to not spread yourself too thin. Of course, the NBA title is a dream - particularly this year. We know that the finals end in July and there won’t be a long break before the Opening Ceremony. I’m focusing on the season and when it’s finished I’ll look at the Games. If we reach the conference final we know things will be tight, but we’ll do everything we can to find the best solution we can.
What about game seven?
Straight after the game, I’ll get on the plane with the NBA trophy in my hand (he said laughing). No, no, we’ll see… I may miss the Opening Ceremony but the most important thing is that I’m ready for the team. For now, my focus is on the NBA and then it will be Olympic gold.
I'm afraid of nobody, and my team is afraid of nobody. I never feared anyone, and it won't change today.
What was your first Olympic experience like at Rio 2016?
I was determined and impatient to see what the Games were like. We wanted the medal but we hadn’t found our alchemy and we lost in the quarter-finals (92-67 against Spain). Despite the loss, it was cool to be involved and I looked forward to doing better in the next one.
The atmosphere in the Village, with all the athletes, feeling their energy and determination… it makes the ambiance unique. Nothing can replace the Games. You play for your country, you represent your roots and all the athletes are watching what you’re doing. We met lots of people in the French building and the Village; people like Teddy Riner - a good friend - and Usain Bolt. When I was young I used to watch them writing history and being around those athletes always gives you a great sense of pride.
After the victory against the USA in 2019, do you think you have a chance of beating them at the Olympics?
I'm afraid of nobody and my team is afraid of nobody. I never feared anyone, and it won't change today. The harder the challenge is, the more motivated I am. And I think it's the same for my teammates. We hope they have the best team possible, but we know that other teams are strong also. It will be up to us to play our best basketball. As simple as that.
You’ve faced LeBron James many times this season. What would it mean to face him at the Olympics?
That’d be cool! We may meet in the playoffs and no matter what happens, it would be really cool to see him again at the Olympics. I hope he’s there, I don’t know yet - I haven’t heard anything about it. Whatever happens, there will be a lot of good players there and we know that their goal is to bring really good players with them. It will be an amazing challenge and these Olympics are going to be very enjoyable for the fans.
Are you aiming to bring home Olympic gold?
Yes, of course. But our number one goal is to enjoy our time there. Having said that, we're aiming really high. We know it's going to be tough but we're all looking forward to this challenge. Obviously, we're going to take one game at a time, we’ll want to get better as we progress, but I'm convinced we'll have the opportunity to get great results if we play together and if we focus for the whole competition.
What type of influence did Tony Parker have on your career?
I think that Tony opened doors for every young person who grew up in France and plays basketball. Thanks to him we were respected more in the American league. There have been others as well but it’s mainly thanks to him. I’ve always thanked him for that. I think that without Tony, French basketball wouldn’t have the same prestige. He earned that prestige with everything he accomplished in the NBA and with the French national team. He is an inspiration and he has always motivated me to get better every day so that I can improve and do great things, not only in the NBA but with France.
Do you think you can take up the role he had with the national team?
We are completely different players but there's one thing we have in common and it's our will to win. Tony has an incredible drive to win, and I have an incredible drive to win as well. Let's see how I can help my team to be the best they possibly can and see what impact I can have on my teammates so they can improve. It’s as simple as that. I improve every day as a player, as a person and as a leader. And hopefully, all this experience is going to help me to help the national team go as far as possible.
That's the beauty of the sport: being able to push your limits and make the whole world experience beautiful emotions.
After winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year on multiple occasions, what are your ambitions?
I want to improve on and off the basketball court. I want to help as many people as possible and of course I want to write history. Every time I step onto a basketball court, I want to win. I hope that at the end of my career, I will have accomplished things that no one has done before. I want to inspire millions of young people in France and all over the world. I think that I will end my career with quite a nice story and I’ll see how many titles I have won. But it won't matter in the end. What will matter is the story behind all those titles.
The same goes with the Olympic Games. What we did last year [in 2019] at the World Cup – even if we didn’t win the gold medal – those are things that we will never forget.
We were able to experience emotions and convey them to our French fans and many other people. They will remember those emotions and moments forever. That’s the beauty of the sport: being able to push your limits and to make the whole world experience beautiful emotions.
Imagine you had to choose between winning an NBA ring and the Olympic gold medal. What would you choose?
I honestly can’t answer that question. Both would be unique, and I hope to be able to win both during my career. With everything we have gone through with the Utah Jazz, from winning only 25 matches in the first year through to today, when we [won] the Western Conference… we went through a lot. The same goes for the national team. Look at where we started. Obviously, Tony [Parker], Boris [Diaw], Nico [Batum] and others managed to build a real team and gain a lot of respect in the world of basketball. So, winning an Olympic medal would not only be our accomplishment, but also theirs. It would continue their legacy, what they built before we arrived in the national team. Both titles are priceless, and those are the things that you never forget.