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Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert wins third Defensive Player of the Year award

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert hits the ball away from Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) hits the ball away from Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (17) as the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies play in Game 5 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Less than 24 hours after Rudy Gobert blocked Marcus Morris’ potentially game-tying 3-point attempt to seal a Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals, less than 24 hours after Gobert wore the late Mark Eaton’s jersey to Vivint Arena, Gobert was named Defensive Player of the Year for a third time.

On Wednesday, the Jazz’s two-time All-Star became the fourth player in NBA history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times or more, joining Dikembe Mutombo (four DPOYs), Ben Wallace (three) and Dwight Howard (three), and passing Eaton for the most DPOY honors in Jazz franchise history. Eaton won the award twice, in 1985 and 1989.

The 7-foot-1 Gobert won the award in back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019, and now, after earning his third DPOY trophy, he continues to say that there’s no way he could have achieved this success in his career without the help and advice of the people he cares about and without the teammates he shares the court with.

“We love to individualize success of team sports,” Gobert said. “Obviously the headlines are are always about individuals but no one wins on his own, and it’s the same with this award. No one can play defense on his own and I’m really grateful to have an amazing group of guys, an amazing coaching staff and organization that trusts me every night and believes in me and they put their faith in me to hold it down and do what I have to do and I have to put my faith in them. Because I can’t do it alone.”

Gobert appeared remotely on “Inside the NBA” on TNT after the broadcast showed a video of the Jazz players surprising Gobert, cheering as he entered the locker room where the trophy was waiting in a chair at Gobert’s locker.

“It takes team effort, mental toughness, hard work and dedication,” Gobert said on TNT. “It’s been a great year ... but we have a higher goal, and that’s to win a championship.”

Among qualified players, Gobert led the NBA in defensive rating (100.6), defensive win shares (5.2), defensive rebounds (10.1), plus-minus (+728) and total rebounds (960) and was second in blocks per game (2.7) during the 2020-21 season.

When Gobert was asked who made the biggest impact on him and made this achievement possible, he immediately knew his answer.

“My mom,” Gobert said. “She sacrificed a lot for me to be able to do what I love. She believed in me as a kid. ... I grew up in a small town in France. I wasn’t really supposed to be here. If you would have asked me when I started basketball if I was going to win Defensive Player of the Year, I would have probably not believed it. Three of them is just amazing.”

Eaton, who was a 7-foot-4 defensive stalwart for the Jazz from 1982 to 1993, became a mentor to Gobert over the last few years. He would text him after big games, especially if Gobert made a big defensive play. Eaton would give him advice not just about defense and basketball, but also about life.

So when Gobert found out that he was being named DPOY again, Eaton, who died on May 28, was on his mind.

“I for sure thought about him,” Gobert said. “I thought about him last night because I knew that I would probably have gotten a text after the game. I try to not get emotional, but I’ve been thinking about it and I’m sure that everything happens for a reason. Obviously I wore his jersey to the game, but with the way everything came down — getting the block the last second — you can’t make that up. I’m sure he’s very proud and I’m going to try to keep making him proud and keep honoring his legacy.”

Though Gobert is incredibly preoccupied with Thursday’s Game 2 against the Clippers and with championship aspirations, he said that the moment in the locker room with his teammates gave him a chance to pull himself away from all the planning and preparing and to appreciate how lucky he is, how appreciative he is to be a part of this Jazz team, and to reflect on everything that has brought him to this moment, to becoming a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.