LAS VEGAS -- Rudy Gay wasn't even back playing yet, but he was still the happiest guy on the floor.
The Memphis small forward smiled as he sauntered around the Impact Basketball Academy a couple of weeks ago, saying hello to old friends during the Competitive Training Series (better known as the "Lockout League") while eagerly awaiting his first hoops action in more than seven months. His disposition was so pleasant, so positive, that I felt the need to applaud him for improving the stale vibe in the gym as our chat began.
All of which made me feel slightly guilty when my line of questioning wiped the friendly right off his face. No one enjoys reliving his darkest of days in any form, and the time would eventually come in our conversation to bring up the uncomfortable reality of his current professional situation.
The franchise centerpiece, who signed a five-year, $82 million deal with the Grizzlies in the summer of 2010, spent last season's playoffs watching helplessly as his team played better without him than it had with him. A shoulder injury in February that required surgery kept him on the sidelines while Memphis went on to reach the playoffs for the first time in five years and shock top-seeded San Antonio in the first round and push Oklahoma City to seven games in the second. And as if that wasn't enough, the personality of the Grizzlies would quickly evolve into a gritty, defensive-minded style, leaving many to wonder if Gay was even a good fit anymore.
"It'll figure itself out," Gay said of the trade chatter. "I've been working hard, and hopefully when I go out there and play people will notice that and welcome me with open arms back to the team."
Crazier things have happened -- on this team, no less.
While the 2010-11 Grizzlies' season was ultimately an underdog tale, dysfunction was at its peak in early January when a Yahoo! Sports report revealed that teammates Tony Allen and O.J Mayo had fought on a team plane after Mayo reportedly refused to settle his card-game debt. Nine months later, Allen -- the dogged defender who emerged as a key figure in Memphis' run right about the time Gay was injured in February -- reports that he and Mayo are on good terms again.
"Oh, we cool -- that's my homeboy," said Allen, who spent his first six seasons in Boston and won a championship in 2008 before signing with Memphis in July 2010. "I've been kicking it with O.J. all summer. I told him to come out here [to Vegas, which he did last week]. ... He lives right around the corner from my house in Memphis, so I can go over there and play the video games.
"That was like a 'big brother, little brother' thing. ... But, hey, it's behind us. That's where I tip my hat to coach [Lionel] Hollins, because he could have easily just walked away from the situation and said, 'Y'all deal with it,' but he pulled us in the office and he asked us, 'Is this going to continue? Is this going to affect our team?' ... We knew we had some talent and we could use it if we all stick together."
As Gay aptly pointed out, only time will tell what part he plays in Memphis. Just after his team's Cinderella run came to an end, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley insisted he wasn't considering trading Gay. It would certainly be a drastic change in direction to move him, considering he was seen as the biggest building block of them all a little more than a year ago.
Since then, however, Memphis has agreed to long-term deals with point guard Mike Conley (five years for $40 million) and forward Zach Randolph (four years, $71 million) while hoping to do the same with restricted free agent Marc Gasol. Small forward/defensive specialist Shane Battier, who also had everything to do with the Grizzlies' new identity late in the season, is an unrestricted free agent as well.
Still, the offensive-minded Gay has plenty to offer. Before he was injured, Gay was having perhaps his best all-around season. He refused to fade into the background after hurting his shoulder against Philadelphia on Feb. 15, deciding to travel with the team throughout the postseason while enduring an experience that robbed him of his good cheer for quite some time.
"It was definitely tough," he said. "It was one of the toughest experiences since I've been in the league. ...But I still see myself as a leader on the team, whether I'm hurt or not. And I still wanted my teammates to do well, and I wanted them to play to the best of their ability, and I wouldn't have been a leader if I didn't want that."
Rest assured, though, there are other topics of conversation he hopes to one day cover.
"I've still got a lot of things I want to do that I haven't been able to do yet," he said. "The All-Star Game. I haven't played in the playoffs yet, so being in the Finals and winning a championship -- that's what I want."