RUDY GAY never wanted to be a playground legend. He hated that most of the rims on outdoor courts didn't have nets and that the wind might blow his jump shot off-line. Gay was especially averse to no-holds-barred pickup games in inner-city Baltimore. "People usually played for money," Gay says. "They fought for it too. I might go to a playground to watch, but I like playing inside better."
When, at 13, Gay signed up for the AAU team sponsored by the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in east Baltimore, he not only got an indoor game but also a more competitive environment than he had on his home courts in Edgemere, Md., just outside the city. Since Cecil-Kirk was founded in 1970, dozens of players who went on to Division I schools have passed through its tiny gymnasium, including David Wingate, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and Juan Dixon, all of whom played in the NBA. Gay often was reminded of that proud tradition, in part because he bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Lewis.
Before he could excel at the city game, Gay had to shed some of the habits he had developed playing in the suburbs. For instance, during one of his early practices at Cecil-Kirk, he drove to the basket and laid the ball in over a defender to avoid a collision. That prompted coach Anthony Lewis to stand under the rim, hand Rudy the ball and order him to dunk it. Gay did as he was told. "Good," Lewis said. "Now do that every time someone's in front of you."
By his senior year at Archbishop Spalding High he was regarded as one of the top 10 players in the country. When he chose Connecticut over Maryland, Gay joined another program that had a proud history of producing quality wing players, such as Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Caron Butler. Now a 6'9" sophomore, Gay appears ready to take flight. After averaging 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds last season he was named Big East rookie of the year, and last month the conference's coaches picked Gay and Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara as preseason co--players of 2005--06.
Over the summer Gay averaged 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds playing only 16.5 minutes a game for the U.S. at the under-21 world championships in Argentina. He also led the team in blocks with 12 in eight games. "There were times when he took your breath away," says Saint Joseph's Phil Martelli, who coached the U.S. "He made plays that 11 of our 12 guys could never make."
Gay is earning similar plaudits throughout the Big East. Says Georgetown senior forward Brandon Bowman, "Rudy doesn't just have great athletic ability. He's got freakish athletic ability. I don't know of any player in the country who can do the things Rudy can do." Having watched loads of Big East video footage to prepare for his team's first year in the league, Marquette coach Tom Crean says of Gay, "His athletic ability makes you stop and watch, and the exclamation point is that there is no end in sight [to his potential]." Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says Gay calls to mind another player from Baltimore, former Orange forward and current Denver Nugget Carmelo Anthony. "They're big guys who can score outside and inside," Boeheim says. "Guys like that are few and far between, and they usually aren't in college basketball very long."
Indeed, with his long arms (he has the wingspan of someone 7'2"), athleticism (41-inch vertical leap) and feathery touch (46.7% from three-point range last season), Gay fits the current prototype of the player coveted by NBA teams. He played his best ball toward the end of last season, averaging 16.5 points and shooting 54.5% from the field during a crucial six-game stretch. He turned 19 in August, so he's still growing; midway through last season, in fact, he switched from a size 14 shoe to a 15. Little wonder, then, that many scouts and general managers project Gay as the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NBA draft. "He's already an all-star athletically," one Western Conference scout says. "He still needs to work on his ball handling and get a little tougher, but at worst he won't be picked lower than third or fourth."
For all of Gay's promise, UConn coach Jim Calhoun still characterizes him as a reluctant superstar who "wants to be good but isn't always quite sure how to show it." This mind-set has hindered Gay's progress on the court. Unlike Anthony, he did not try to take over his team as a freshman, even though Gay was UConn's most talented player. In the Huskies' loss to North Carolina State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Gay got into early foul trouble and finished with only four points. According to his coach, Gay has shown more swagger this fall--but Calhoun still had to call Gay into his office early this month to chastise him for a desultory effort in the previous day's practice. "You looked ordinary out there," Calhoun told him. "You're too good to be ordinary."
All of which raises the question of whether Gay is too nice to be a great player. "I try to tell him, 'You're different, you can't just fit in anymore,' but he has to learn that for himself," his father, Rudy Sr., says. "That's why he went to college in the first place."
OTHER THAN his father, Gay's most important male influence was his grandfather Richard Austin. When Rudy was 10, he got into an argument with a boy in Austin's neighborhood. The boy chased Rudy to the house, but Austin laced boxing gloves onto his grandson's hands, forced him back outside and locked the door behind him. "It wasn't much of a fight," Gay recalls with a laugh. "I just couldn't fight someone for no reason. Even today, I'd have to get hit first before I'll fight."
Gay gets his cautious nature from his mother--"I'm more or less a background person," Rae says--but as Rudy's basketball talents evolved he couldn't help but move front and center. However, the spotlight sometimes treated him harshly, as it did when he transferred from Eastern Tech High to Archbishop Spalding, a private school in Severn, Md., early in his junior year. Gay made the move for academic reasons and was eligible at Spalding immediately, which caused such a ruckus that the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association changed its rules to require students who transfer from a non-MIAA school to sit out for one year from the date of the transfer.
Then there was the spat between Calhoun and Maryland coach Gary Williams following Gay's commitment to UConn. A week before he signed the letter of intent, the Huskies played an exhibition at home against a team of former college players who had played for Lewis, Gay's AAU coach at Cecil-Kirk, with UConn paying a $25,000 appearance fee to the rec center. One week later Maryland lost an exhibition game to an NBA minor league team, and Williams cracked, "We could have scheduled an AAU team and given them $25,000 like some schools I know." Within a few months the NCAA had passed a rule forbidding colleges from playing exhibitions against teams sponsored by AAU programs. Thus did Gay earn the distinction of indirectly spurring rules changes at the high school and college levels.
IT TOOK Gay all of five games to become a starter at UConn, but he admits that throughout last season he was "playing to stay on the floor instead of playing to dominate." Calhoun is notoriously intolerant of such timidity, but in Gay's case the coach took a gentle approach. "You can do a lot more harm than good to Rudy if you really ride him, because he doesn't like to be singled out," Calhoun says. "Reggie Lewis was the same way. One time he said to me, 'Coach, I don't mind you yelling at me, but I would appreciate it if you didn't do it in front of the guys.'"
Still, Calhoun's patience with Gay could wear thin if it appears the forward's diffidence is hurting the team. UConn will be tested early, in the Maui Invitational beginning on Nov. 18; the field includes four teams ranked in the top 10. "If we go to Hawaii and don't play well, some responsibility is going to be placed on Rudy," Calhoun says. "He usually defuses me when I get angry with him just by giving me that great smile, but at some point I'm going to have to explode. I know he has greatness in him."