By Edward Lewis, Sports Editor
D.J. Gay couldn’t say no, because this wasn’t a question. It was more like an order.
“D.J.,” head coach Steve Fisher said to Gay one afternoon last spring in his office at San Diego State. “Whether you want to be or not, I’m appointing you captain. And as captain, you’re going to lead us to this great season we’re about to have.”
Gay thought about it for a moment. But then he realized he didn’t have a choice. When the 65-year-old, straight-shooting SDSU men’s basketball head coach speaks, you listen.
“Coach Fisher says you’re the captain, you say OK,” Gay said. “He says ‘jump,’ you say ‘how high?’ He says ‘run,’ you say ‘how fast?’ I accept it. I’ve been here for four years. I was point guard last year and I had the chance to lead this team. And I’m just going to take this opportunity and run with it.”
When Gay thinks about it all, he can’t help but smile. Twelve months ago, the Aztec basketball world, outside of the people who actually matter, barely wanted a part of him. He wasn’t Richie Williams. He didn’t have the charisma of Lorrenzo Wade. He was too short. He wasn’t a pure one-guard. He couldn’t transition. Gay heard it all.
“Twelve months ago, all you hear is ‘Richie, Richie, Richie’ and stuff like that,” Gay said.
Nearly every week, there was an article in some paper asking the same question: Can Gay be the point guard of SDSU’s basketball team?
Gay read the stories. He heard the questions at the weekly pressers, and it drove him.
The first month of last season was rough. The Aztecs lost two of their first six games and looked bad doing it. Gay shot just 34 percent from the floor, turned the ball over more than twice per game and was averaging four assists in those first six contests.
But then it clicked. In the first game of December, Gay piled up a then-career-high 22 points and led his team to an overtime victory against crosstown rival University of San Diego. After that, he knew he was the point guard. His teammates did too. But the fans and the media members still didn’t get it.
“Moving from the two-guard to the one-guard and the transition and all the questions and all that stuff, I think it was the best thing to ever happen to me,” Gay said. “It made me a stronger player mentally and physically. Going through that transition, I’ve never pushed myself as hard physically ever in my life.”
He took the comments and the abuse from the fans and did his best to make critics forget he was ever a question mark. He finished last season, his first as a full-time point guard, averaging 10.5 points, 2.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and, more importantly, just 1.8 turnovers per game. He was the most important player on a team that won the Mountain West Conference Tournament Championship and nearly advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Yet even after all of that, Gay still had detractors.
In the MWC Tournament, Gay didn’t have the statistics his teammates did. He didn’t have a 21-rebound game like superstar forward Kawhi Leonard. He didn’t post up a 28-point game like forward Billy White. He didn’t play with a broken hand and score 15 points in one game like guard Chase Tapley. But he played 119 out of a possible 120 minutes in the tournament, averaged barely more than 1.5 turnovers per contest and played lockdown defense on guys such as Dairese Gary, Dorian Green and Tre’Von Willis. And he did it all with an aching back he injured after taking a critical charge in a huge game against New Mexico.
But when the all-tournament team came out, his name was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t even in the running for tournament MVP. And that bothered him. And it still does.
“I laugh about it,” Gay said. “I still don’t have the respect that I want. In reading some of these articles — I think there was an article on ESPN saying something like ‘if they can get their point guard situation figured out’ or — it’s always something about the point guard. I still haven’t really proven myself, but at the end of the day, you’re not going to make everybody happy. And at the end of the day, it’s all about winning. So if I have 20 points and 10 assists or two assists and two points, if we get the win, that’s most important.”
Against Point Loma Nazarene on Monday night, Gay piled up seven points, five assists and zero turnovers in 22 minutes. After the game, he was one of the first players Fisher praised.
“D.J. did a good job of running the team and leading the team,” Fisher said.
It’s not a surprise to any of his teammates. Senior forward Billy White is one of Gay’s best friends on the team. He came in with Gay in Fisher’s 2007 recruiting class. He’s seen Gay go from a wide-eyed freshman, to a two-guard star, to a shooting guard making the transition to point guard. He saw how hard it was for Gay, and respects him for it.
“He doesn’t back down from nobody,” White said. “He’s one of the best defensive players on our team. He’s not scared of nobody on the court. He’s like a warrior out there. He has injuries: back problems all the time, knee’s always messed up and he always plays through it. And I appreciate him for that.”
Junior forward Tim Shelton also came in with Gay in 2007, and is roommates with the captain this season. He said Gay radiates leadership, even when the two are playing video games.
“We play like RPG shooter games,” Shelton said. “And he’s like, ‘I’m not going to leave you behind!’
“As someone who watches D.J., and is around D.J., and sees how hard he works, you can’t help but admire his leadership.”
So Gay’s ready to lead this No. 25-ranked squad. And his teammates are ready to be led.
And when Gay thinks about it all, that smile creeps back on his face.
“After all the things that I’ve gone through,” Gay said. “From playing 30 minutes to playing 15 minutes a game (as a sophomore), to having everybody question me if I’m going to be able to be a point guard or not, to people saying ‘he can’t do it’ – I’ve gone through a lot of negatives to get to this very big positive.
“I’m happy all that stuff happened. I’m happy that all that stuff happened because it just let me know and showed me how strong I was and how strong I had to be as a person and as a player to make it on this team.”