A week before Christmas, Rudy Gay made a special visit to the Springfield Apartments in the shadow of the AT&T Center on San Antonio’s Eastside.
The Spurs were in the midst of dominating a much-needed December homestand with Gay playing some of his best ball, but his mission on this night much more important. He swapped his silver and black uniform for a red one with fuzzy white trim. He donned an itchy beard, strapped a pillow under his coat, and delivered gifts and Christmas joy to children in need and their families. The older kids will remember meeting one of their favorite players for the rest of their lives, and the younger ones were just as thrilled to meet Santa.
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) December 17, 2018
“Kids are pure,” Gay said afterward, smiling from ear to ear. “To see the kids’ faces and have something to give them, have something for them to put under their tree, I think every kid should have that for Christmas.”
That’s the mission of the Elf Louise Project, the group that set up Rudy Claus’s gift giving spree. Many Spurs have done this in the past, including Patty Mills and the late Rasual Butler. A few years back when a kid guessed that the Spur in costume was Boris Diaw, Danny Green asked if he was really wearing that much padding.
“It’s the season of giving, that’s the real reason for the season. If you’re in a position to give back you should,” Gay said. “The Spurs are more than a basketball team, it’s a community.”
That isn’t just some line, and Gay’s service in the San Antonio community isn’t an anomaly for him personally or for the team. It’s one of many examples of prominent members of the organization giving back to their Spurs family during the holiday season. Patty Mills, Pau Gasol, and Bryn Forbes gave out presents at the Basso & Friends Christmas Carnival at The Children’s Shelter in San Antonio earlier in December.
“This organization does a great job getting us as players to be able to get in the community, especially to less fortunate areas, to be able to give as much as we can,” Mills said. “We are able to use our basketball status to change other people’s lives.”
For a few hours success is measured not in baskets or wins, but in the smiles of children. The athletes seem to love it as much as the kids.
“It does amazing things for us as players to come in and see these guys smile,” Mills said. “They’re things that we remember for a long time.”
Marco Belinelli said that being a part of the San Antonio community was a big reason why he came back to the Spurs this year, adding that the Spurs are unique in the ways they give back.
“This is more than a basketball game, I say that all the time,” Belinelli said. “I saw before a family that started crying, so it’s something that I can’t really describe. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Belinelli had taken a break from shooting the lights out to give out Christmas trees with Methodist Healthcare, trying out his Spanish and spending time with the fans who he called family.
“Everybody I think loves Christmas, so especially for the people that are really not lucky like a lot of other people, to spend time with them and give some gifts, a Christmas tree, I think it’s nice,” Belinelli said. “That’s I think the nicest bit, is to stay together and spend time together, that’s pretty cool.”
The players have gotten to spend a lot of time with their family, Spurs and otherwise, this December. It couldn’t have come at a better time for this group of players, many of whom hadn’t played much together before this year. Home cooking has been delicious for San Antonio, and they’re one of the hottest teams in the league following a 5-1 homestand.
“The schedule has been a bit hectic for us on the road for the first part of this season,” Mills said. “For us to have this stretch at home the majority of games in December is good.”
The guys are also looking forward to a rare Christmas that they can spend at home with their own families. For the first time in a long time, the Spurs are not playing in a nationally televised game on Christmas Day. They’re off for three straight days, something that hasn’t happened in over a month.
“I’m looking forward to having this Christmas off and enjoying it,” said Mills, who fondly remembers spending the holiday on the beach with his family in the Torres Strait Islands growing up. “Just waking up and knowing that you don’t have to prepare for a game, being able to have a relaxing day, obviously eating a lot of good food, for us it’s always seafood on Christmas.”
His Italian teammate Belinelli knows a thing or two about seafood on Christmas Eve. He said he was going to try to not eat too much because of the busy schedule coming up, but that maybe he can eat a little more with the day off. Of course, it’s less about the food and more about the people you eat it with.
“Christmas is one of my favorite things,” Belinelli said. “It’s an opportunity to spend time with the family, all together.”
It should be a joyous time of year, but it’s hard for a lot of families. Not everyone can afford presents or a tree, and that’s a harsh reality for millions of kids across the country. Rudy Gay understands that better than most after growing up in Baltimore.
“I think I was blessed to be raised in a city like that, being able to see some of the things that I saw early,” Gay said. “I think that has a lot to do with me being able to give back to whatever city that I’m a part of.”
Gay has known from a young age that he wanted to help less fortunate people, and he understands that his career as an athlete gives him a unique opportunity to do that.
“Without basketball you guys wouldn’t know me, and it wouldn’t mean anything for me to walk in somebody’s house. They would probably call the police on me,” Gay joked. “I would call the police on me, a 6’9” person walking in my front door dressed as Santa Claus. Just being able to use my platform to give back, that means a lot.”
The apartments are less than a mile from the arena, but a night out at the game is more than most families living there can afford. Every member of the Spurs family should be able to spend time together, so Rudy Claus brought them all tickets.