Inside Rudy Gobert’s dramatic return to Utah: Bee stings, broken rules and ‘Rudy being Rudy’

The All-NBA center who spent nine years with the Jazz organization made his first appearance in Vivint Arena as an opposing player Friday night — a game which began with love and ended with some drama.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) motions to his teammates as the Utah Jazz take on Minnesota Timberwolves in NBA basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

Rudy Gobert’s first game in Salt Lake City as an opponent of the Utah Jazz began with him receiving a thunderous ovation during pregame introductions.

It ended with him in a minor dust-up involving two of the players he’d been traded for this summer, and a cascade of boos from many of those same fans who’d cheered him just hours before.

The intervening between those two extremes Friday night were a little less intense, though no less meaningful for onetime franchise cornerstone. Gobert’s first game back at Vivint Arena since being dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves following nine years with the Jazz certainly proved memorable enough.

“It was amazing. It was kind of hard for me to really go through all the emotions [early on] because I was just so focused on the game,” the center said after his team’s 118-108 victory. “But hearing the love, hearing all the fans saying cool things to me, watching the [tribute] video on the screen — all that, it was a little emotional.”

This actually marked the second time Gobert has faced the Jazz as a member of the Wolves this season, as the teams faced off in the second game of the season back on Oct. 21 in Minneapolis.

But Jazz point guard Mike Conley said that game could not compare to this one. After himself making an emotional return to Memphis in 2019 after being traded to Utah following a 12-year run with the Grizzlies, he pointed out there’s really nothing quite like your first game back at your old place with your new team.

“It’s going to be a lot — it’s real heavy. You have a lot of different memories,” Conley explained. “Me being in Memphis for so long and basically being raised there, growing up there, it was unique for me, a lot of my family was there. And for Rudy, it’s going to be the same.

“He’s made so many relationships with so many people throughout the building, whether it’s the guys at the door, the ushers, people at the concessions, you get to know a lot of people within Vivint [Arena]. And you’re going to see those familiar faces — former players, coaches, everybody’s going to be around, and there’s a memory attached to each person. And it’s a lot,” he added. “You just gotta try your best to do your job, but at the same time enjoy this moment, because you only get to do this situation one time, where you get to come back and play against your team that you did so much for.”

Gobert’s trip down Memory Lane in Salt Lake City actually began on Thursday night, when he was given permission by the Wolves to eschew the team hotel and spend the night in his own house. His mom flew into town to stay there, too. He acknowledged that being back there was simultaneously a little weird, yet somehow still comfortable.

On Friday night, after he’d made 8 of 11 shots and 6 of 10 free throws en route to 22 points and 13 rebounds, and all the ensuing extracurriculars were over, the Frenchman was asked whether he was planning to sell his place now that he resides in Minneapolis.

Apparently, though, he’s not ready to leave Utah fully behind just yet.

“I have a lot of great memories in this house. My family loves it, I love it. I hope to be able to come back when I can,” Gobert said. “I just love being here, so I’m planning on keeping it.”

Those good vibes for the place where he spent 9 years of his life were a consistent theme throughout the day.

At the Wolves’ morning shootaround, he mentioned to the assembled media that his Rudy’s Kids Foundation has remained active within Utah because, “It would be unfair just because on the business side, that I’m not here anymore, the kids don’t get to benefit from the great things that we’ve been doing.”

He called the Jazz “a world-class organization” who made constant improvements during his time here which put players in a position to succeed. He keeps in touch with various people in the organization. He followed the new roster’s early success this season, praising them for their chemistry and hard play — he even reportedly delayed a postgame interview Wednesday to watch the final seconds of the Jazz’s crazy win over the Warriors.

He even jokingly referenced one former teammate’s ejection from that game when asked which Jazz player’s shot he’d like to block Friday: “I want to see Jordan Clarkson — and his boxing skills.”

Meanwhile, Conley and Clarkson discussed Gobert at length after the Jazz’s shootaround.

Asked what they most enjoyed about Gobert did during their time as teammates, both said it was less about specific highlight moments than the process of getting to know the player as a person, and coming to appreciate him for all his uniqueness.

What stood out to the guards about the big man was his intellect and curiosity, his desire to constantly learn about new things and immerse himself in them.

“His personality is one that he is very open-minded. He’s willing to learn about a thousand different things, he comes in with a bunch of different ideas,” Conley said. “He’s always about making himself better but [also] the people around him better — whether that’s getting a new soap in the locker room that’s organic or made from a certain mineral, to catching us eating Chick-fil-A, and he’s like, ‘What are you guys doing? We gotta make sure we’re not eating that stuff!’ Just random stuff throughout the years.”

And, of course, there were the bees.

Gobert gained some national notoriety when he showed up to the Jazz’s shootaround ahead of their elimination Game 6 vs. the Dallas Mavericks this past April sporting a swollen face on account of being stung by one of the bees he kept in a hive behind his house.

His ex-teammates recalled with amusement on Friday both their initial shock at learning he was keeping thousands of bees, to the humor inherent in his swollen face this past April.

“We were at his house for a team dinner at one point, and you just saw bees floating around randomly — an unusual amount. And he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a beehive out there,’ back there in the corner of his yard. And I was like, ‘Dude, what?’ I’ve never seen that,” Conley said. “So when he came in with the bee sting, I was like, ‘It makes sense — it would be something that happens to Rudy,’ with all his things he’s interested in. It was pretty funny.”

Clarkson’s recollection — both generally of Gobert’s interest in bees and specifically of the sting — was much more animated.

“The first time I went to his house, we had lunch or something, and I said, ‘Man, you wild as f---. Are you crazy here? Why you got all these bees here?’ And he’s just standing there, chilling with ‘em. I’m like, ‘Yo, I don’t know,’” Clarkson recalled. “But when he showed up with that bee sting, I’m like, ‘Man, you’re a different dude.’

“But no, I appreciate it — I learned something new from him, I didn’t know that stuff. I mean, I watched that ‘Bee Movie,’ but …” he added, trailing off into laughter. “Him being a person that I knew, just giving me information on how bees help the world and everything, I’m like, ‘Man, this s---’s crazy! I didn’t even know that.’ That’s why I said he brings a different intellect, something different to the table every time, and that’s why I really appreciate him. But that was one of the craziest things that I’ve seen.”

Given how Friday night’s game began as a love-fest for a man who went from a skinny, late-first round project to a three-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and four-time All-NBA honoree, the way it ended was pretty crazy, too.

The Wolves were up 116-108, and had the ball with 12 seconds left. Minnesota coach Chris Finch, not knowing if the Jazz would play the foul-and-extend game, called a timeout to give some instructions. When play resumed, the Jazz did not foul, but did play full-court defense.

Minnesota’s players, in response, broke the trap, Gobert ambled into the paint by the rim, had the ball thrown to him by Kyle Anderson, and gently dropped the ball in with 2.4 seconds left, making the final result a 10-point margin instead of eight. After the horn, Jazz wing Malik Beasley (one of the players traded by the Wolves to the Jazz) approached Gobert and got in his face. As Beasley continued jawing, Jarred Vanderbilt (another of those players) approached the scene and gave Gobert a shove.

“Just disrespectful,” Beasley would say later. “It’s one of the unwritten rules of basketball. I told him that.”

Gobert & Co. were confused by the response, considering both the way the Jazz played defense there, and because Vanderbilt had done exactly the same thing — a meaningless dunk in the final seconds of a decided outcome — in the teams’ prior meeting.

“Don’t press us,” Finch said. “If you’re gonna press us late, then we’re gonna lay it in.”

Gobert, meanwhile, was annoyed that the minor fracas meant he got ushered away from the situation, preventing him from saying goodbye in that moment to some Jazz personnel.

“I don’t know what it was. But I’ve been taught to play basketball until the last second. For me, there was never any intent to disrespect anybody,” he said. “So these guys that stepped in front of me — you’re not going to do anything anyway. I didn’t get to shake hands with my guys, so it kind of killed my moment a little bit. But it is what it is — some guys just want attention.”

Still, the sour ending was just a footnote to an otherwise meaningful night.

Gobert claimed at the shootaround that he was unsure how he’d be received by the fans, though his ex-teammates had no doubt he’d be welcomed back with wild enthusiasm — before tipoff, at least.

The center, asked afterward to sum up the experience, noted that the weirdness and high-intensity emotion of all the visit entailed had finally sunk in.

“The altitude is not the same when you don’t live here! But it was great. It was a little awkward walking into the arena, [then being on] the visitors’ bench, in the visitors’ locker room,” Gobert said. “The fans were booing me a little when I was on the free-throw line — which I respect. It was great. I was just trying to embrace the moment.”

And despite whatever hard feelings came at the end, that shouldn’t erase all that came before.

“He did great things here, accomplished so much. I think the whole city, state saw him grow — as well as the league — from when he first came in the NBA,” Clarkson said. “His impact here is everlasting; he’ll go down as one of the greatest Jazz players to play. And he’s one of the greatest people to be around. He cares in his own ways — Rudy being Rudy.”