In driveways, backyards, and recreation centers across San Diego in 2011 could be heard a mantra that unified the city, ‘DEEE JAAAYYY GAAAYYY.’ Along with the 1984 and 1998 runs by the Padres and the 1994-1995 Super Bowl season by the Chargers, the SDSU Men’s Basketball 2010-2011 season forms the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of sports year in American Finest City.
“It’s something you only hear about in the movies or you see on tv shows, right?” Gay told the East Village Times. “To have a story like that was truly incredible. To have the city’s backing, the university, the support. Again, it’s something out of a movie and it felt that way. It was truly something special to be a part of.”
Kawhi Leonard, who is arguably the best player in the world, was the MVP of the team, but Gay was its most important player. A book used to grace the shelves in Steve Fisher’s office titled The Ultimate Teammate, and that is the perfect description of the 2017 Aztec Hall of Fame inductee.
When Billy White’s hot temper erupted, it was Gay who put a calming arm around his teammate. Gay had the ball in his hands, not Leonard, when the team needed a game-winning shot. His game-winners in the closing seconds on the road against Colorado State and UNLV, the latter coming in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament, revealed the character that makes him great.
“You can’t teach a guy to have the guts to make those type of big shots that he’s made,” SDSU assistant coach Dave Velasquez told EVT. “And he made so many over the years, at the conference tournament and Colorado State, and he was surrounded by so many great players. You’re talking about Kawhi, who is a top ten player (in the NBA). DJ was his point guard. He was the guy making those big shots. His competitiveness and his consistency are what separates him from other players.”
Gay’s tenure at State was amazing. From the win over St. Mary’s to propel the Aztecs to the Final Four of the NIT, to the tent city that popped up on campus to get in line to get tickets to see him play, or the blossoming of the Show into a national phenomenon, Gay spearheaded the start of the Golden Age of SDSU Basketball. Forgotten amongst the memories, however, is how precariously close they were to never happening.
In high school, Gay was committed to UC Irvine. Unlike today where the Aztecs and Anteaters occupy different stratospheres in college basketball, in 2007 SDSU was not the better program. It took a lot of convincing by the Aztecs’ coaching staff to get Gay to make one more visit. Gay said it was a “50/50” decision to take that last trip. Imagine how the story would have been different!
Remembering Aztec Nation
Players and coaches remember the games differently than fans. For Gay, what stands out to him most about his time at SDSU was the progression he experienced from his first season to his last. When he committed to SDSU, the program was middle of the road in the West. When he left, it was one of the top teams in the country.
His first season ended in Gainesville, Florida, in the first round of the NIT. His second finished in Madison Square Garden and the Final Four of NIT. His junior season closed following a first-round loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. He was a few bizarre technical foul calls away from advancing to the Elite Eight his senior year.
“For me, it’s just remembering the process of what it took to be successful there,” said Gay. “All the things that went into it, the teammates, the coaching, the hard work, the grit. As I have taken a step further, being a high school coach at this level, looking back on what really motivated me at San Diego State. It was the process, just continuing to build off of that.”
This journey has made Gay a celebrity among Aztec Nation. Even a decade later, as he walks the concourse at any game he attends, fans still scream DEEE JAAAYYY GAAYYY as he passes.
“I come from LA, that’s where I grew up, that’s what made me, but San Diego is my home because of the Aztec family, what they have done for me, what they have done for my family,” Gay said when asked what he would say to SDSU fans. “The love that they’ve shown, the doors that it’s opened, the memories that they have created.”
The Journey Ahead
The motivation to pay back this “love” shown to him, coupled with the elite competitiveness that drove him to success as an Aztec student-athlete, has shaped Gay’s life since leaving the Mesa.
He spent two and a half years playing basketball overseas. In his first season, he played in Domžale, Slovenia, under the European Bobby Knight, Zmago Sagadin. Sagadin was so crazy, he required the team to practice six hours a day, every day. Gay spent his first Christmas overseas on the practice court participating in one of these six-hour marathons.
Despite difficult episodes like the one above, Gay thrived in Europe. He averaged double digits in every league he participated in. In his last season in Italy, he averaged 14.2 points a game while shooting 40.1% from three. With his success, the prospects of advancement to more prestigious leagues with higher pay grew. Still, Gay realized no matter how much money he made overseas, he would inevitably need to return to the United States and begin a life here.
With his professional dreams taking shape, Gay made the difficult decision to retire. He returned to San Diego to put down roots in the city that adopted him. He reasoned that if he could create something that would meet his financial needs while giving him an outlet for his competitiveness and love of basketball, it would be a “no brainer.”
In 2014, Gay founded the San Diego Bulldogs, a club basketball program. From its home in the Boys and Girls Club of San Dieguito, Gay grew the program to a pre-pandemic high of 350 kids with boys and girls teams from second grade to high school. Like the rest of the nation, the Bulldogs are rebuilding from the Covid shutdowns. There are currently about 200 kids learning from Gay and his team of coaches.
In addition to the Bulldogs, Gay got into coaching high school basketball, first with Victory Christian Academy and now at La Jolla Country Day. He instills the lessons learned at SDSU from coach Fisher and coach Dutcher in the kids he is working with. In a day and age of immediate gratification, he is trying to teach young people that greatness does not occur overnight, and buying into the success of others is the key to winning on and off the court.
La Jolla Country Day is one of the most stable programs in the county. Gay replaced Ryan Meier, who led the team for 14 years, and he works alongside Terri Bamford, one of the legends in San Diego coaching. Bamford has led the girl’s side since 1997. She has won 40 titles at LJCDS, including four state titles, sent 30 players to Division I schools, and won numerous coach of the year honors. Her 2020 team was named the Max Prep National Champion. Building a program at Country Day to rival coach Bamford is one of Gay’s ambitions.
“I am happy (at LJCDS),” Gay replied when asked about his career goals. “I’m trying to build something here. I am very competitive, so knowing coach Bamford, the legendary coach Bamford, is right outside of me coaching the girls, and all the history, and all the pros and all the championships, the things that she’s done. I truly would love to build something just like that. Country Day is my home. What happens in the future, you never know, but for now, I am truly trying to establish and build something special here.”
Outside of basketball, Gay has found additional outlets for his competitive drive. Four years ago, he entered a powerlifting competition in the 220-pound division. He won. The next meet was for the state title. He finished third. Three months later, he won a Muay Thai fight at 160 pounds. Having the ability to lose 60 pounds in 90 days and remain at his peak physical prowess is the quality that makes Gay special.
“He never wavered,” coach Velasquez said when describing Gay. “He’s incredibly consistent. I think that’s his number one attribute, even as an adult. He’s incredibly consistent with who he is as a person and as a player. It’s something that’s very hard to replicate and very hard to teach because it’s who you are as a person. And that’s something that DJ has, that’s who he was (at SDSU).”
As boring as it may sound, it was Gay’s tireless work ethic day in and day out that made him the winningest player in the program. With this same determination, Gay is excelling as an entrepreneur, coach, husband, and father.
The Halls of Montezuma no longer scream, “Dee Jaaayyyy Gaaayyy,” but if you listen closely, the echo is still heard each time a current player walks into the JAM Center or a second grader picks up a ball for the first time in a gym in San Dieguito. Gay’s legacy continues to grow throughout San Diego.
He is making our community better by embodying what it means to be an Aztec for life.