Swat Lake City
Twenty-five. I want you to remember the number 25.
That’s how many games the Jazz won in 2014. My rookie season.
It’s very possible that you didn’t know that. Unless you’ve been a real fan (shout out, Swat Lake City) it’s very possible you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Utah Jazz. We all know that. Sometimes being forgotten about is worse than any negative perception. That’s one of my memories from my rookie year. I remember my view from the bench — or really, the floor next to the bench, because the bench was full and I was a rookie. I remember how it felt, being so close to the game but really so far. I remember how it felt watching us lose 57 times, and how it felt to hear the final buzzer after each loss, and to stand up and walk back to the locker room. The focus was never on us — the postgame interviews, the highlights. It was always on the winners. It felt like we were invisible.
Thirty-eight. That’s another number I want you to remember.
My second year in the league, we won 38 games. I played in all 82 games that year and got a lot more minutes. My numbers improved to eight points and 10 rebounds a game. And most important (!) I wasn’t sitting on the floor next to the bench anymore.
We were moving in the right direction, and I think there was one main reason why: We got Quin. It was Coach Snyder’s first year as our coach.
Quin really surprised me the first time we met. It was in training camp in September 2014. I had just spent the summer playing in the World Cup for the French national team. To be honest, I didn’t think Coach knew who I was. One of the first conversations we had, he came up to me and told me he had watched every game France played in the World Cup.
It wasn’t b.s. — he was bringing up specific plays from specific games. He remembered how we lost to Spain in the group stage — by 24 points — and he remembered how we faced them again in the quarterfinals and won. We surprised a lot of people. Spain had the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, a great team. It was considered one of the best European teams. France was kind of forgotten about that year.
I remember what Coach said. He told me that he wanted me to play every single game the way I had played against Spain — that as long as he was my coach, he was going to push me to my limit. I didn’t know him very well but I could tell that he was serious. He was serious about coaching and serious about building a team in Utah that people wouldn’t be able to overlook. Serious about bringing back the excitement and respect that John Stockton and Karl Malone first brought here. “If you play like you did this summer, our team is capable of doing anything,” he told me.
He asked me if I was willing to do that. I nodded.
Inside, I was on fire.
My goal up to that point in the NBA was just to get a chance to compete. Nobody knew my name my rookie year. I believed that if I could get that chance, people would see. I needed someone to give me that chance.
Shout out, Coach.
Eighteen. That’s a funny number for me, too. I think I was 18 years old the first time I got a real haircut.
Before that, my mom had always cut my hair. She’s the hardest working person I know. She always had multiple jobs at a time. She cut hair, she worked in restaurants — basically anything she could do to provide for me and my brother and sister. I grew up in Saint-Quentin, which is a medium-sized city north of Paris. We always had enough to eat and a roof over our heads. Our apartment was very simple. It was a lot like the projects you might see in American inner cities.
“Be happy with what you have,” my mother always told us.
My brother and sister were both older than me. I’m the baby. My sister moved out when I was very young. My brother lived with us until he went to university at 19, and it wasn’t until he moved out that I was actually able to have my own room. Until I was around 11 years old, I shared a room with my mother.
Looking back I can see how it was obviously difficult for her, working all the time and taking care of us, but she never made me feel like I was a burden — although l was a burden at times.
I had a crazy amount of energy as a kid. From an early age, I was getting into fights at school. So every chance she could, she would sign me up for sports and after school activities. She put me in karate. She put me in track and field. She put me in boxing. When I was 11, she put me on a basketball team. That was when I started falling in love with the game.
Of all the sports that my mom forced me to play, basketball made the most sense to me. I was taller than all of the other kids, and my father had played basketball professionally and for the French national team in the ’80s and ’90s. So I guess the game was also part of my DNA. Suddenly, I’d found a place to put all of my extra energy. I started getting attention around school — it started to look like I might have a bright future playing basketball. And that was a very rare thing for somebody from Saint-Quentin.
I went to boarding school when I was 12. It was about an hour from my mom’s apartment. On most weekends, I went home. She would cut my hair and ask me how my grades were. Those are some of the best memories of my life.
My mom — she missed me a lot. When I’d go home or talk to her on the phone, I’d try not to let it show if I was having a difficult time. I remembered how she had to work all of the time for us to be able to eat and go to school, and how she would come home every single day exhausted. She was happy to sacrifice everything so that her children would always have a future. Being only 12 or 13 years old, it was hard. I didn’t want her to worry.
When I was 15, I moved again — even farther away — to the city of Cholet, a five-hour drive from our house, to go to school where they had a good basketball team. This meant I no longer could go home on the weekends. I talked to my mom on the phone whenever I could, but I only went home a few times on vacation.
For the next three years I played basketball for the Cholet junior team. I know it was hard for my mother to deal with me moving so far away at such a young age — I was her last child, and I was a lot younger than my brother had been when he left home. She worried about me all the time — if I was warm enough, if I was making friends, or if I had enough to eat. But she always understood that I was doing what I wanted. And more than anything, she always encouraged me to chase my dream.
In 2013, I found out that my dream had come true. The only thing was that I’d be moving to this place I’d never heard of.
Salt Lake City.
Before I came to Utah, everything I knew about America came from TV or movies. And I don’t think a single one of the TV shows or movies I watched had anything to do with Utah, so I had no idea what to expect when I got here. The only thing I really knew about the entire state of Utah, is that it was where Karl Malone played.
The first time I met Karl was during a practice my rookie year. He was the nicest guy, very supportive. He told me he was excited to see what I could bring to the Jazz. We talked about big-man stuff and he offered to put me through some drills. His toughness in those drills was an eye-opening thing for me to see. When I think about it, I just remember his forearm. I was guarding him down low and he put a forearm on me. It was a rock. This might be the strongest man I’ve ever seen in my life. 50-year old Karl Malone. The strength he must’ve played with in his prime — I can’t imagine it. He made me want to be a better defender.
I know I mentioned the World Cup as a defining moment for me, but there have been a lot of moments since I got to Utah that I’ll never forget.
I’ll always remember guys like Richard Jefferson, a mentor for me when was a rookie and I knew nobody. In fact, the whole Jazz team when I got here in 2013 showed me how to be a professional. Even though I didn’t get much playing time, and we weren’t winning many games, I didn’t really get treated like a rookie. (Except for the sitting-on-the-floor stuff.) Once I was drafted, I was part of the team and that was that.
I’ll remember our first training camp, which in my mind was like a military camp. It was one of the hardest few weeks of my life. I realize, looking back, how much I needed it to see how big the adjustment would be going from a French junior team to the NBA. I’ll remember how we kept being overlooked and forgotten about just because, those first few seasons. Coach Quin would just remind us to keep working at it — keep improving — and eventually we would get people’s attention and respect.
I’ll remember last year, during the All-Star Game — how it felt not to have been selected. How I felt like I deserved an All-Star spot and didn’t get one, and it seemed like nobody outside of Utah was even talking about me. It was the first time in my career that I felt that way, and it’s not that I just didn’t make the team, it’s that there seemed to be no real conversation about it.
I’ll remember last year, getting swept in the second round of the playoffs. And the off-season, when everybody was saying that Gordon Hayward leaving meant we were going to have to rebuild.
I’ll remember when Donovan Mitchell arrived.
I had seen Donovan first play in the Summer League, and my first thought after seeing him was, He can play defense. I always look at how a new guy approaches defense — does he play as hard on D as he does on the other end? Donovan did. I respected that right away.When he scored 41 his second month in the league … damn, I knew he was going to be special.
Shout out Donovan, our rookie. Our leading scorer. The Rookie of the Year.
But the thing that I’ll remember most is my mother’s advice.
Be happy with what you have.
I still am. I’m happy with our team, our coach, our city. You guys are the best.
But I need to make a change to my mom’s favorite phrase. Hope that’s O.K.,
Be happy with what you have, but go out and take what’s yours.
On the first day of training camp I said that we’d be back in the playoffs this year. Maybe some people thought it was a long shot. Our start may have been slow. I hurt one of my knees, then the other one, all in a month. But in my head I always knew we’d surprise everybody. Now we’re here and we’re as healthy as we’ve been all season. We’re as confident, too. We’ve got the best rookie in the NBA. We’ve got the best defense in the NBA. We have one of the best coaches. But we don’t have what we want yet.
I’ll leave you with one last number.
That’s the maximum attendance at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Any team that wants a piece of us is gonna have to come to Salt Lake City and deal with all 19,911 of you. Maybe nobody else believes in us, but that’s their problem. We know we’re still being overlooked. In Utah, people have seen that before. Now is the time to take what we know we deserve. Now is the time we make sure they hear us.
And we’re going to need all of you.
Every single one.