What You See in the Dark

Andrew Hancock for the Players' Tribune

I have a few things I want to get off my chest, before the playoffs start. I’m a relatively private person, and it’s not the most natural thing for me to talk about myself if I don’t really know you. But I don’t think you’ll understand me unless you understand a bit of my history, and everything in my life that’s brought me here. So here we go. I hope you will listen with an open mind. 

When our season ended last summer, I went up to the woods in Southern Oregon and I spent three days at a darkness retreat. No phones, no books, no distractions. Just me and my thoughts for 64 hours. It was really powerful. 

When you blow out that little candle on the first night and it’s just you and your own mind, it’s real. All of the crutches that you rely on to distract you and to feed your ego aren’t there anymore. There’s a little slot in the door of your room that they slide a tray of food through for breakfast and dinner, and that’s it. It’s basically meditation times 1,000. 

More than anything, you realize how much of your life, and your dreams, and your fears, and everything that you care about, gets covered up by the daily grind. The darkness shows you everything. Even the things that you thought you had buried. For me, there were a lot of beautiful memories. But there were some painful ones, too. 

I’m always a bit reluctant to talk about my own personal journey. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or just my own personal nature. But I think maybe it has made me a bit of a misunderstood person. When I came into the league, I just chalked it up to me being French. But the last few years, after the COVID situation, and my trade to Minnesota, and the incident against the Warriors this season, I feel like people make their own stories about me without knowing much about who I am. 

If you want to stop at the surface with me, that’s fine. 

But if you actually want to get to know me on a deeper level, then I will let you know about a few things that came to me when I was reflecting on my life in the dark…. 

Beautiful things. Painful things. A lot of things……..

Courtesy of Rudy Gobert

“We don’t want that baby in our house.”

Before I was even conscious, when I was just a child coming into the world in Northern France, some people didn’t want me around because of who I am. And not just people. My own people. Very close family, actually. 

It’s a painful memory, but one that I need to share. You see, every year, my mom’s side of the family had this big Christmas dinner at a certain person’s house. My mom is white. My dad is Black. He’s from Guadeloupe, and he was playing basketball professionally in France when they met. My mom already had two white children from her previous relationship, and then I came into the world…. 

And for some people, that was a problem. 

After I was born, certain relatives made it very clear to her that she wasn’t welcome to come to Christmas dinner if she brought me along. 

She could come on her own. But she couldn’t bring “that child.” She couldn’t bring Rudy. 

She was devastated. And obviously, she spent Christmas with me instead. She told them, “If that’s the way you think, then you’re not going to see me anymore. Not at Christmas. Not ever. I don’t want anything to do with you.” 

My mom.... What would I be without her? 

From day one, before I could protect myself, my mom was protecting me. The things she did for me and my siblings … it’s incredible. Financially, we didn’t have a lot. My dad went back to Guadeloupe when I was two, and my mom had to handle a lot of responsibilities. We lived in what we call HLM. Social housing. Immigrants from all different places. Lots going on, it was an interesting place. No matter what was going on, I always felt grateful and happy for everything I had. I never complained, never asked my mom for things we couldn’t afford. 

One of my earliest memories is going with my mom to a little shop that this charity ran on the weekend. For whatever reason, it was a less abundant time for us, and you could get free groceries and stuff like that. During the holidays, they had a whole table of toys that were donated for all the kids. 

My mom told me that I could pick anything I wanted for my Christmas gift. I remember choosing this really cool toy, and I was maybe six or seven years old. That's when I started to realize what my life back then was like compared to other kids, and having that feeling of happiness, mixed with sadness, mixed with hunger…. As I was playing with this new toy, I remembered thinking “One day, we won’t have to worry about anything.”

It wasn’t really about money or material things. It was about feeling at ease. In control. 

That little memory came back to me in the dark. It was like it was happening right in front of me. It was so vivid. 

And it’s not a sad memory. That’s the thing that’s important to realize. It’s not sad at all. It’s beautiful. 

At the time, I had never even picked up a basketball yet. But I knew — I really knew — that somehow all of this was going to happen. I had an iron belief. Not necessarily that I was going to play in the NBA. But that I was going to be successful — whatever that meant for me. Science, law, accounting, whatever. It didn’t matter. I was going to make it. For us.

Courtesy of Rudy Gobert

By the time I was 12, I had become obsessed with basketball. I used to get every magazine I could get my hands on. Remember those posters in the middle of every issue? I’d tear them out and tape them to my bedroom wall. I put up so many of them that after a while you couldn’t even see the walls underneath. It was wall-to-wall NBA posters with my graffiti tags sprayed over them. I would close my eyes and imagine myself on an NBA floor — dunking the ball, guarding legends like Kobe, Tony, Dirk, STAT … this was the place I would go to. In my head, in my room, in France. If you saw a picture of me at that age, you might not believe it. But I believed it with all my heart and soul. 

A few months after I turned 13, I had the opportunity to join a basketball academy in a town called Amiens, a little further away from my hometown, Saint-Quentin. In my mind, this opportunity was the way I was going to chase my dream and put myself in a situation where I could get better every day. We had two or three practices a day, plus school. Because Amiens was far from home, I would only come home on the weekends. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but I felt it was necessary, and I made my decision. I would take the 6:20 a.m. train on Monday morning, and return home on Friday evening. My siblings had left for university already, and I was the only kid in the house with Mom. Not until years later, did I realize how hard it was for my mom to have her youngest kid leave home at that time. 

At the time, all she told me was, “Go after your dreams. I’ll be fine.” 

When you are focused on the day-to-day grind, all of these memories can be a blur. There is always noise. But when I was sitting in the darkness, it was like a time machine. You are literally on the train again at six in the morning. You can smell the seats. You remember all the things you had to go through. You remember the kids who called you a n***** in elementary school. You remember the coaches who thought you sucked and had zero chance to become a pro. You remember how desperate you were to make your dream a reality for you and your family. You remember sitting in the living room so angry and disappointed, crying with your mom when at 15 years old you received that letter that said you weren’t accepted to the best basketball academy in France. You remember your mom telling you to keep believing, that it was meant to be.

You remember it all. 

You remember shooting around in the gym with some of your teammates when you were 17, a nobody even in France, and telling them, “I don’t want to just make it to the NBA. I want to be an All-Star. No, I’m going to be an All-Star.” 

And all of them laughing at you, like, “Bro. What????” 

And you saying, “You’ll see. Watch me. Just watch.” 

You remember showing your mom that first mock draft with your name on it. Her name. Our name. Gobert.

Courtesy of Rudy Gobert

Thinking about it still makes me smile to this day. What a journey.… I am so grateful for all of it. 

I left my home at 13 to be on this basketball journey, and until I went to the darkness retreat this past summer, I hadn’t ever zoomed out and appreciated the arc of my life like this. It felt like when you’re playing one of those old Playstation RPG games, and you make it to the quiet room to save your game to the memory card. It’s like I put the controller down for a second, zoomed out, and felt that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be on my journey.… And appreciated the beauty of it all. 

It made me understand how other people see me, too. 

You know … of all the shit I’ve gotten in my career, a lot of it was deserved. I’ve made mistakes, like everybody. But the one moment that really bothers me is when I was asked about missing out on the All-Star Game in 2019, and I broke down in tears. 

I think that moment, more than anything, defines how people see me in America vs. who I really am. 

When it happened, I was caught off guard. I had a bunch of cameras in front of me after our practice. I got asked about not making the team, so I started telling the reporters how my mom was the one to call me to tell me the news. And how she started crying on the phone with me. 

For some reason, I just lost it.

It’s something that I think happens to everyone when they talk about their mom…. Like, I would never show emotion in front of my mom. I’m always a rock. I have to act like everything is cool. But in that moment, when I thought of her in front of all the reporters and the cameras, it’s like I turned into a kid again. It just tapped into something really raw inside of me, and it’s like everything came back to me in a surge of emotions — all the memories, and everything she did to help me live my dreams — and I just got choked up. 

I wasn’t emotional because I missed out on one All-Star Game. It was way deeper than that. I was crying because of the deeper meaning. How much my mom means to me. How much this game of basketball means to me. Everything that we have lived through together. 

Of course, social media went crazy. It was turned into a meme, and everyone had their jokes, because that’s the way the world works now. But honestly, you know what? I would never take it back. That was one of the most real moments that I’ve ever had in front of a TV camera. 

I wish for everyone on this planet to have something in their life that they give everything to — all their passion and their heart and emotion — the way that I pour my whole soul into the game of basketball. 

I hope kids watch that video and they see how passionate that person on their screen is. Someone that’s fighting for his dreams. 

No one should be afraid to fail, especially kids. Showing your emotions…. It’s not weakness. It’s just being real

That’s a message that I wish we’d tell kids a lot more. I’ve seen how toxic it is for kids now on social media. It’s relentless. If you’re a teenager growing up in this world right now, you need the truth, not a fairytale. And the truth is that there is a lot of shit that is going to happen in your life, and you are going to be tested. You are going to have a lot of moments in your life when the easiest thing to do is to snap. I have done it myself! I am not perfect. I have made my fair share of mistakes, but if I have any wisdom that I can share from working on myself the past few years, it would be this….. 

A lot of satisfaction can come from being yourself, even when you know that some people will make fun of you for it. To me, the highest form of strength is when you stay true to yourself even if the world will mock you for it. That’s when you show your true colors.

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

You will always have haters. Some people will always try to bring you down. But they’re human like you. Same problems as you. Same frustrations. Sometimes, they’re the ones who are hurting the most. 

The social media machine will never rest. It will always try to pour gasoline on every beef, and try to pit us against each other in the name of entertainment. Especially if it’s two Black men. That’s just the reality of it. But the truth is, I don’t look at anybody in the NBA — past or present — as my enemy. There are only 450 of us now who are blessed to play in this league, and I consider every one of those guys as my brothers. No matter where you were born, or what language you speak, if you have made it this far, then you have been through things that the average person wouldn’t believe, and you have my ultimate respect. 

This brotherhood should be way bigger than basketball. 

All the memes and the jokes and the social media drama…. That’s good for clicks. For business. For entertainment. 

As grown men, as human beings, we should pride ourselves on standing for something bigger. In this crazy world, with all its real problems, it’s just basketball at the end of the day. I love it more than I love anything. I’ve given my life to this game. But it’s still just basketball. More than anything, I wish we could have more understanding and empathy for one another. Even for our biggest rivals. Especially for them. 

At the end of the day, when the battle is over, I wanna be able to reach out my hand and say, “I see you. It’s just basketball. We’re good. I see you.” 

…. I hope we beat your ass tonight, but I still see you.