How Rudy Gobert made peace with being the NBA's most ridiculed player

RUDY GOBERT NEEDED to go soul-searching after the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round playoff exit last spring.

It had been a difficult and stressful year for Gobert. He had hoped to spend his entire career with the Utah Jazz but was traded to Minnesota when the Jazz opted to rebuild, jump-starting that process by receiving five first-round picks in the deal. The massive return, normally reserved for superstar scorers, resulted in heavy scrutiny toward the 7-foot-1 defensive anchor.

The Timberwolves struggled as Gobert dealt with knee issues and a calf injury sidelined fellow 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns for much of the season. Minnesota went 42-40, needing the second play-in game to secure the Western Conference’s eighth seed. And Gobert didn’t get a single vote for the All-Defensive teams, snapping a streak of six straight first-team selections.

So Gobert reached out to NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, seeking insight from one of sports‘ most polarizing players after being connected by a mutual acquaintance.

But he didn’t want to discuss professional challenges with Rodgers, who had just been traded to the New York Jets after a legendary 18-year run with the Green Bay Packers. Gobert wanted to inquire about Rodgers’ experience at the Sky Cave Dark Retreats in southern Oregon.

Gobert has always been “eclectic,” to use two-time teammate Mike Conley’s description. He often wears necklaces and rings that feature crystals and gems that supposedly possess healing powers and provide energy. Gobert had long been intrigued by the idea of a darkness retreat.

“We are so distracted by everything that’s been thrown at us,” Gobert told ESPN. “Everything that we hear, we watch, we see on the phone, we listen to. So we don’t get to sometimes really be alone with ourselves.”

For Gobert, all that external feedback too frequently blared what he refers to as “the false narrative.” It had become incessant, often coming from his peers in the league or former players with high-profile platforms. Total peace and quiet appealed to him.

Soon after his conversation with Rodgers, Gobert made a reservation for late May, just before he flew to France for the national team’s World Cup training camp.

Gobert spent 64 hours by himself in a small cabin in the pitch black — no phones, no books, no distractions — all alone with his thoughts and the sounds of nature. He viewed the interior of the cabin before the lights were turned off, so Gobert knew where the bed, the sink and the toilet were, but he had to find them by feel for the three days.

He did some push-ups and squats for exercise, but Gobert spent most of the time sinking deep into his innermost thoughts, describing the retreat as “meditation times a thousand.” Meals were slid through a slot in the door.

“It was a very powerful experience,” Gobert said. “It felt like a huge reset and also a powerful checkpoint. I had a lot of gratitude. I went back into all the things that I’ve experienced up to this point, and all the things that I’ve been through and all the great people that I have around me. I realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be in my journey. …

“When you’re in the dark, it shows the things that are inside of you. If you’re negative, you see negative things. And if you’re positive, you see positive things. So you realize that at the end of the day, you create your own reality.”

And for nearly all of this 11-year NBA career, that reality for Gobert has often been near-relentless derision.

Some of that scorn has been self-inflicted, such as in March 2020, when Gobert jokingly touched all the microphones and tape recorders during his first socially distanced media availability — only to become the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19 just days later. Then-Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell blamed Gobert for spreading the virus to him. Strangers on social media blamed Gobert for bringing the disease to America.

“That’s when also I learned a lot about people,” Gobert said. “How people can throw you under the bus, or how people can be quick to try to bury you when you’re already down.”

Gobert arrived to the NBA as a gangly, raw, relatively anonymous 7-footer from France who felt underappreciated because he fell to the 27th overall pick in the draft. He chose No. 27 for his jersey number to have a daily reminder of his doubters. As Gobert’s profile grew and he developed into one of the most dominant defensive forces of this generation, he also frequently found himself the subject of barbs and ridicule from players, fans — even Hall of Famers.

Gobert said he has pondered the potential reasons over the years, discussing them with members of his inner circle: cultural differences, his quirky personality, his style of play, the stature and money he has earned.

“In their eyes, I’m more like the odd guy from France that’s winning a lot of awards, and it can bother people,” Gobert said. “I impact the games in a very unique way. It’s maybe not as cool or not as flashy as some other guys, so it’s sometimes harder for them to respect that.

“I just think I’m just mostly misunderstood. I think I trigger a lot of these guys.”

FOR MOST OF Gobert’s life, he has felt like an outsider.

The racial epithets he frequently heard as a child raised by his white, single mom in France stung and confused him. After his parents split up when Gobert was a toddler, he rarely saw his father, Rudy Bougarel, a 7-foot former pro in the French league. After the separation, Bougarel moved back to his native Guadeloupe, a French territory in the southern Caribbean, more than 4,000 miles from his hometown of Saint-Quentin.

It was harder for my mom, because it was hard for some people in our family to accept that she had a kid with a Black person,” Gobert said. “So she cut ties with some of her family at that point to protect me. She always protected me, gave me the great education that I had, and she always supported me while I chased my dream. I’ll always be really grateful for that.”

The support from Gobert’s mom, Corinne, manifests in the form of sympathy. That was the case when he called her sobbing more than five years ago, upset that he hadn’t received recognition he believed he was due.

Gobert forced a smile as he met with local reporters after the Jazz’s morning shootaround on Feb. 1, 2019. Gobert had been anticipating his All-Star debut, but he was the most notable omission when reserve picks were announced the night before.

The emotion was evident in Gobert’s voice. He said his mother called him crying the previous night because she knew how much the honor meant to him. Gobert answered a couple more questions, keeping his composure. Then he felt tears welling in his eyes.

“Sorry,” Gobert said, looking down. He bit his quivering lip and shook his head. He covered his face with his hand, turned away from the cameras and leaned against the fabric team backdrop before waving his hand and walking away, too upset to continue.

Video of the scene went viral, making Gobert a target. That included snarky tweets from two core members of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Draymond Green, who had his streak of three straight All-Star appearances snapped, sarcastically wrote that he should also cry and punctuated the tweet with tear-faced emojis.

Andre Iguodala, playing off a famous line from the movie “Friday,” inquired about whether Gobert would go cry in his car.

Gobert was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year at the time, breaking through after Green had won it the previous season. He had a second-team All-NBA selection and a pair of first-team All-Defensive honors on his résumé. But suddenly, images of the 7-foot-1 Frenchman weeping became his most dominant identifying feature.

“From that point, it just carried over to people who don’t even know him having feelings towards him a certain way,” said Conley, a teammate of Gobert’s in Utah and Minnesota.

“But it is remarkable because he is so dominant in what he does. … So it’s just like people are just doing a trendy thing as opposed to really taking a dive in on how good of a player he is.”

Green taking public jabs at Gobert — and Gobert taking a verbal or social media swipe in return — has become a recurring theme. Green has had plenty of company among current and former players who have criticized or poked fun at Gobert, but the outspoken four-time NBA champion has been the most vicious and visible, firing away from his platforms as a TNT analyst and host of a popular podcast.

“Insecurity is always loud,” Gobert tweeted in October 2022, commentary about Green punching then-teammate Jordan Poole during a Warriors practice.

Six months later, Gobert was suspended for Minnesota’s first play-in game for punching teammate Kyle Anderson, reacting to being called a “b—-” during a timeout in the first half of the Timberwolves’ regular-season finale. Green pounced on the opportunity to troll Gobert.

“Insecurity is always loud,” he tweeted. He then offered back-handed praise of Gobert’s poor decision on his podcast the next day.

“[Anderson] said what a lot of people think,” Green said. “I personally think Rudy Gobert is on the softer side. He gained a little respect from me because he stood up for himself.”

Anderson and Gobert quickly moved on from their incident. “He’s a great dude, great teammate. He cares about everyone,” Anderson told ESPN.

Green and Gobert have not.

THE LONG-SIMMERING TENSION took an ugly turn early this season.

It was Nov. 14 in San Francisco, and a tussle between Warriors guard Klay Thompson and Timberwolves forward Jalen McDaniels led to Green grabbing Gobert from behind in a chokehold.

Green dragged Gobert several feet across the floor before they were separated. Gobert didn’t fight back, putting his hands up to offer proof that he wasn’t escalating the situation, which resulted in Green’s ejection and a five-game suspension.

After Green struck Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkic in the face less than a month later, resulting in an indefinite suspension that lasted 16 games, Gobert told ESPN he felt “empathy” for Green because he was “not well inside and suffering.”

Asked recently why Gobert gets on his nerves so much, Green deflected, saying there are a lot of players in the league who are polarizing among their peers. “I don’t think that’s just a Rudy Gobert thing,” Green told ESPN.

However, Green acknowledged that Gobert gets more scorn than most. Green has no regrets about his contributions to that, saying, “I’m not really one to regret words.”

“Listen, I think ultimately in the end for everybody, you usually get what you deserve, ” Green told ESPN. “Whether that’s me getting suspended, whether that’s him getting s—. Usually in the end, you get what you deserve.”

Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, a prominent member of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” cast, also ranks among Gobert’s most relentless critics. That has particularly been true since Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million deal that concludes with a $46.7 million player option for the 2025-26 season.

“If I was 42, I’d be making Rudy Gobert money,” O’Neal said during a March episode of “The Big Podcast with Shaq.”

“Twelve points and eight rebounds? I could do that s— right now.”

Gobert, the betting favorite to win his record-tying fourth Defensive Player of the Year, actually averaged 14.0 points and 12.9 rebounds per game this season, his eighth straight double-double season. But traditional stats often don’t reflect his value. O’Neal, however, dismisses Gobert’s defensive impact.

“You want to impress me? Hold [Nikola Jokic] under 15 points. Now you’re playing D,” O’Neal said. “All that weak side, blocking shots, that’s cool, but it ain’t going to work against guys like me, Joker and [Joel] Embiid.”

The Timberwolves are the league’s top-ranked defense, allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions, 2.2 fewer than any other team. Minnesota’s defensive rating drops to 106.3 with Gobert on the floor. None of the advanced analytics that illuminate Gobert’s impact, such as his league-high 5.3 defensive win shares, are likely to change many minds.

Those skeptics often point to Gobert’s playoff exits as proof that his defensive dominance is overblown. The top-seeded Jazz’s collapse after going up 2-0 over the LA Clippers in the 2021 West semifinals is considered particularly damning.

The Clippers averaged 125 points while winning the final four games to eliminate the Jazz, playing primarily small-ball lineups so they could space the floor and mitigate Gobert’s presence as a rim protector. Terance Mann, who was Gobert’s assignment because he was the Clippers starter the Jazz were most comfortable sagging off, made seven 3s and scored a career-high 39 points in the Game 6 knockout.

Gobert shouldered the brunt of the blame, but coaches from that Utah staff are adamant the Jazz’s perimeter defense was too leaky for Gobert to clean up while also having to race out to the corner to contest Mann’s shots.

“He’s one of the few guys in the league that you have to game plan for their defense,” said Nicolas Batum, a starter for the Clippers in that series and Gobert’s teammate on the French national team.

“We knew he was Plan A and B and C. So if we pretty much find a way to take him out, we would be OK. … I was sad because he’s my friend and during the series, I knew it, but I couldn’t say it.”

Gobert admitted that he used to be sensitive when taking flak from his peers, but he said he now considers public criticism to be “a form of respect.”

“But also, it’s the entertainment game,” said Gobert, who shrugged off his All-Star snub this season by saying he would joke during his Hall of Fame speech about all the extra vacation time he received.

“Most people are followers,” Gobert said. “They just follow what’s the common trend. What’s the common thing to laugh about?

“Now, unfortunately in this generation, it’s more about how much attention it is going to bring more than about the truth behind it. … So, yeah, I’m OK with living with that now.”

THE CHUCKLING ON the visitors bench began after a foul underneath the basket. Gobert was hit on a putback attempt, sending the Timberwolves center to the line for a pair of free throws during the second quarter of a Jan. 14 meeting between the West contenders. The Clippers’ reserves knew what was coming — and eagerly anticipated the opportunity to mock the opposing big man.

As Gobert’s first attempt barely grazed the front of the rim, Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker and Bones Hyland yelped and rose from their seats. Injured center Ivica Zubac, seated between Tucker and Hyland, laughed and extended his arms to each side, pretending to restrain his teammates.

As Gobert released his second attempt, Hyland and Zubac leaned forward with giddy excitement. With the shot on the way, and its ultimate doom evident, Hyland and Brandon Boston Jr. locked arms and sprung to their feet, marching to the end of the bench. It was an air ball.

Westbrook, seated at the end of the bench, even spun toward a nearby fan who was recording on his phone and roared as he held up two fingers. The video went viral on social media before being deleted.

“I really paid attention to who was smiling and what they were doing. And I smiled,” Gobert said weeks later. “I smiled because that’s not the first free throw that I air-balled, probably not the last. But in a way, I smiled because it’s kind of like what I needed that night.

“I mean, most of the guys laughing besides Russ were guys that weren’t playing. I was like, ‘OK, let’s go, let’s go.'”

Gobert got the last laugh that night, tallying 15 points, 18 rebounds and 4 blocks in a 109-105 victory that he helped close by making four clutch free throws. He felt no urge to say anything or make any gestures toward the Clippers who guffawed at his expense.

“They’re having fun,” Gobert said. “It’s not that serious at the end of the day. It was an air ball. It was a funny-looking air ball. But my focus was on winning.”

Gobert shrugged off similar animated laughter from injured superstar Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench after an air-balled free throw in the Timberwolves’ Feb. 28 win.

Such moments might have annoyed or frustrated Gobert in the past, but he now reminds himself of lessons he learned during his darkness retreat, when for long stretches, he just allowed his mind to be still.

“It’s peace,” Gobert said. “It’s important to be able to have peace when you’re by yourself, when you don’t have music, when you don’t have any noise. I think that’s inner peace. I think once you have inner peace, then you have peace almost anywhere.”

For Gobert, that has been true even in the chaos of an NBA season, in which he has been involved in a couple of high-profile controversies: the scuffle with the Warriors and the big man’s money-sign gesture and postgame comments on March 8 suggesting that gambling influenced referee Scott Foster, who whistled Gobert for his sixth foul late in an overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Conley, who has played a critical role for the Timberwolves since arriving in a deadline trade last season, said he has never seen Gobert “more comfortable with himself.”

Gobert is giddy to be awaiting the birth of his first child, due in May, and he’s ecstatic about his professional life as well with Minnesota recording the franchise’s most wins in two decades.

Gobert believes he has always had a sense of peace, of confidence, “in my core.” He figures he couldn’t have defied so many doubters without it.

“I always had that. But when you hear people say things about you and it’s not true, it’s like, why? It’s unfair,” Gobert said. “Why would they say that about me when they don’t know me? Or why would they go out their way to disrespect me when I haven’t done anything to them?

Gobert still sees opponents snickering. He hears when a Hall of Famer — much less a current player — disrespects him.

He just doesn’t allow himself to harp on it. Not anymore.

“As I’m getting older and all that, I’m just so happy with who I am,” Gobert said. “I’m not perfect — I’m growing, learning every day — but who I am as a leader, as a man, as a basketball player is the most important thing.

“Then the false narrative that has been painted about me, it’s just noise, man. It’s just noise.”

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