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South Salt Lake Journal

During the pandemic, Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert got big assist from former PAL boxing coach

Sep 16, 2020 02:36PM ● By Brian Shaw

By Brian Shaw | [email protected]

One week after Utah Jazz star center Rudy Gobert came down with COVID-19 in March and had returned to Salt Lake City, he picked up the phone and contacted an old friend. 

Matt Pena, the former boxing coach at South Salt Lake PAL, happened to be on the other end of that call. 

"One of the worst things that you can go through when you're someone like [Rudy] is having to deal with the social media. Utah has been super positive," said Pena. 

"But, when you look at what he had to deal with from a larger perspective across the country, there was a lot of negativity out there." 

Gobert was the first professional athlete to test positive for COVID-19 at the outset of the pandemic. He was diagnosed with the disease moments before the Jazz were to tip off in Oklahoma City in mid-March. 

Pena added that he felt bad for what Gobert was going through, because he said the Jazz star felt he was alone here in Utah. 

"A lot of folks don't realize that Rudy doesn't have a lot of family here—people he can hang out with," said Pena. "So really, all he had was his small staff...and I have grown to consider [Rudy] a good friend." 

Gobert and Pena go a ways back, according to the former PAL coach, who started working with Gobert about three years ago. 

Mark McCown—who was the Jazz strength and conditioning coach at that time—requested that [Pena] start working with Gobert and Gordon Hayward in their offseason training program. 

"I haven't been as busy with some of the team lately," added Pena. "However, Rudy had requested to continue to work with him during the summers and whenever he has off time, he has requested to work with me." 

Once the pandemic put a stop to Gobert's 2019-20 season, the Jazz center needed someone to help him get back into playing shape after beating the virus. 

"Of course at that time the coronavirus was something new and something that made a lot of people quite concerned," said Pena, who added that he understood the seriousness of the disease before he decided to work with Gobert. 

The former PAL coach double checked with his own doctors to make sure his risks were low.  Gobert told Pena the Jazz and Utah Department of Health had given the Jazz center the green light to train again. 

"Basically, I've limited my contact because I've just worked from home and the only time I dealt with anyone was when I went up to Rudy's [home] and we just trained in his gym," said Pena. "We basically isolated ourselves from the rest of the world for this entire time." 

After putting Gobert through a brief warmup, Pena would pick up the Jazz center's pace, having Gobert undergo agility drills using HECOstixs. 

"Then we would work about 10 rounds of boxing training," added Pena. "Working through combinations on the pads and hitting the bag to go along with other boxing-related training." 

The only time that Gobert left his house was for doctor visits, according to Pena. 

"The real focus [in training] was getting him ready for the next step," he said. The next phase for Gobert would be the NBA restart, which began on July 30 in Orlando. 

In the preseason, which started July 21 and lasted three games inside the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World, Gobert averaged 15.1 points per game and 13.7 rebounds for the Jazz.