Coming off a summer period, when the much-desired interest from the NBA or big EuroLeague clubs never materialised, Mexican center Gustavo Ayon is currently exploring the charms of St. Petersburg.
Even if it’s a one-year deal the one that the ex-Real Madrid player and the Russian side have agreed to, Ayon seems to be wasting no time adapting to the new environment. The 34-year-old, a EuroLeague All-Decade-Team nominee and two-times champion (2015, 2018), is averaging 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds in his 11 international games with Zenit. His role is definitely upgraded compared to last year at Real Madrid, but the 3-9 balance shows that Ayon’s multi-faceted contribution is not enough for a rookie team at this level.
TalkBasket.net had the chance to discuss with him his summer priorities, since the Mexican national vividly pursued his return to the NBA, but to no avail. Furthermore, Ayon talks about leaving Real Madrid for the “unknown”, his post-basketball career and the success of the Argentinean NT. Prior to joining Madrid, Ayon had spent two-and-a-half seasons in the NBA with New Orleans, Orlando, Milwaukee and Atlanta.
Q: What’s the situation for Zenit in the EuroLeague right now?
A: We are focusing on one game at a time. The important thing for us is that the more wins we get, the better we tend to feel. The team is completely new, we’re all adjusting to the new format and our new teammates.
Q: Have you set a specific goal as a team?
A: I believe that we must put this perspective aside and dedicate ourselves to the game that follows. In the end, our reward can be good or bad. For us, it’s difficult to define what we can do because we don’t have a roster as big as other teams in Europe, especially the great ones. However, we must be mentally prepared at all times in order to prepare for the next game.
Q: At one point during the summer, it seemed that you were off the market. Suddenly, Zenit St. Petersburg announced your signing. What happened exactly?
A: My intention was to go to the NBA. If I were to receive an offer, the financial part wouldn’t matter at all. I wanted to go to the NBA in order to be close to my family and my son, but in the end there was nothing concrete. I had no offer from an NBA franchise and I had to make a decision: either I would go play at a lower level, which is Mexico, and be close to my family, or at the highest level, which is the EuroLeague. Therefore, we had a family meeting, where we agreed that I have two-three more years left at the highest level and I should make the most out of them. Zenit gave me the opportunity. At the same time, Real Madrid had already completed its roster. It’s a club that can’t wait on any player and rightfully so.
Q: Did you talk with the administration of Real Madrid?
A: Yes, of course. We talked and I realised that there was no room for me on the team. It’s perfectly understandable. I left them in order to play in the NBA and they couldn’t leave the roster without important players. It’s a great team that always aspires to the top and constantly moves forward. It makes perfect sense to me.
Q: Do you regret having taken that kind of risk in your career, leaving a place where you were most comfortable?
A: No, I would have regretted not having fought for a place in the NBA. In St. Petersburg I feel at ease, they treat me very well.
Q: Returning to the NBA was also a professional dream of yours?
A: I wanted to return, predominantly because of the proximity to my family and my son. The willingness to go there kept me waiting until I had all the options at my disposal. In the end, I did not go. All the European teams were closing their rosters and I realised that there were no other offers.
Q: This means that no EuroLeague team reached out to you, except for Zenit?
A: Right. The truth is that Zenit came up to me, made an effort to sign me and I am most grateful to them. I hope that I can return their trust by playing well all season long.
Q: For how long will you keep playing?
A: In Zenit, for a year. After that, we’ll see. I put up more work every year in order to be able to perform at this level.
Q: Have you thought what you will be doing after your career is over?
A: Yes, I’m finishing my MA in Sports Management. There are things that I could take up after basketball.
Q: You’ve said in an interview that when you were little, you used to dream of horses and not of basketball. Is it still valid?
A: All those days as a youngster, I used to live with horses. On the other hand, basketball was also one of my biggest passions and it was because of basketball that I managed to have some horses of my own. Thus, I’m very happy with what I do off the court.
Q: As far as the Mexican National Team goes, are you going to keep playing?
A: The next year we have a chance to go to the Olympics. Let’s hope I will be able to participate in the Pre-Olympic Tournament. I want to be there if I’m in good shape and health. I will make every effort to be there.
Q: Do you feel envy looking at the Argentinean team’s achievements all these years?
A: I believe that the Argentinean NT have worked very well all these years and the results are evident. It’s the golden era for those who have been Olympic champions and two times World Cup finalists. I have many friends on their team, ex-teammates at Real Madrid and therefore I’m very happy for them. They are hard workers, consistent in their work and they fully deserve the great result they had in the World Cup.
Q: Did you expect that Luis Scola would return to Europe after 12 years?
A: The truth is that I didn’t expect it. He’s at a very high level and he’s playing really well also this year. I’m delighted that a player like him, who gives many things to the team, keeps playing.