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With little fanfare, Rubio takes 'little step' on road to the NBA

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Rubios will watch this home video one day and laugh at how absurdly it all began.

This was their famous son's unofficial welcome-to-the-NBA moment, Ricky's first game on American soil, played in front of a crowd that hardly noticed he was there when the rosters for Drew Gooden's charity exhibition were announced on a surreal Sunday night. This was lockout basketball at its worst inside the old and dingy place they call the Cow Palace, the venue's name so fitting on a night when a few princes of the basketball world dived into the muck for a good cause.

Rubio was among this lower-level royalty more because of his fame than his game, the Spanish sensation and Timberwolves point guard having waited two years to make the move to the NBA after being drafted fifth overall in 2009. The stories of the 2008 Olympics and his impressive showing against the league's best could no longer carry him, nor could the YouTube clips with so many millions of hits that grew his worldwide following. His play would need to speak for itself with the new audience, and so it was that some 800 folks turned out to see for themselves and offer faint applause at the start of his debut.

All the hype, all those highlights, and Rubio faced the cold emptiness of a cavernous 10,000-seat gym in his not-so-warm welcome. A touch of sympathetic support came from the opposing bench, where one player hollered, "Welcome to America, Ricky" and sparked a few laughs. Rubio offered a fist pound to teammate Joakim Noah, then headed for the floor with a smile. The 21-year-old, who is basketball's answer to Justin Bieber in his homeland, was undeterred by the underwhelming scene around him, focused on a chance to enjoy the relative anonymity.

His mother, Tona, stood near Ricky's father, Esteban, in the corner of the court and kept the film rolling through it all. They had visited Alcatraz earlier in the day and were now seeing the harsh reality of this basketball prison in which their son is now stuck, but that was no reason not to capture some of his show as long as they had crossed the globe to see these sights.

So she shot the alley-oop passes to DeMar DeRozan; the handful of long-range jumpers over Eric Gordon that lent credence to Rubio's claim that his well-known shooting woes had improved; and the crafty passes he pulled off and the ones he didn't that resulted in meaningless turnovers. His team lost in a rout and there was no final statistical line to be had unless you kept track on a napkin.

"It's like a little step before going to the NBA, like a practice for that," Rubio said afterward. "I enjoyed a lot with those guys. ... I want to play, to do what I love to do."

And at some point, he will do it on a far grander stage than this. Without the lockout, Rubio would have been in Houston on this night, getting his rest between games against Memphis and the Rockets and concocting new ways to revive the Timberwolves.

Minnesota won a combined 32 games the last two seasons, its struggles coming as Rubio was enduring his toughest individual lessons yet amid collective success with his Regal Barcelona and Spanish national teams. But he swears he'll find ways to make Kevin Love even better, to maximize the likes of Derrick Williams, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Wesley Johnson. He'll soak up the wisdom of new coach Rick Adelman, whom Rubio already adores if only because he once coached one of the youngster's idols with the Sacramento Kings, retired whirling dervish Jason Williams.

Before he arrived for tip-off on Sunday, Rubio might have actually believed the season was under way considering his accommodations for the trip. He was staying at an NBA-caliber establishment -- the W in downtown San Francisco -- and having the hotel's fine cuisine as he sat down for a discussion with SI.com.

But his only training camp has taken place in the Los Angeles Valley, where Rubio works out with the likes of Boston's Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a fierce setting that is helping with his NBA acclimation. He faces off with high-level veterans like Knicks point guard Chauncey Billups for games of five-on-five between three and four times per week, with the routine also including double-day practices that emphasize his shooting, strength, agility and quickness work.

"Playing with those guys is like a dream come true," Rubio said. "They're the best players in the world and you are part of them. You can talk to them, pass to them. I'm feeling good over there.

"I've been playing with confidence, because for four years I've been getting pressure from the fans, the media. But there, nobody has an opinion. You just play and nobody has an opinion. You play free, can make mistakes and nobody is going to say nothing. I could gain some confidence from that."

It's invaluable experience, but it has its shelf life too. While Rubio has enjoyed working on his game and getting his body fully healthy, he is growing restless.

"In the beginning, it was good for me to rest a little bit because we came from the European championships and I was a little tired," Rubio said as he ate his chicken pasta. "In Spain, you play for your [professional] team and the national team, and it was almost five years in a row of doing that and I needed some rest. But now I'm missing playing."

If there are no significant breakthroughs in lockout negotiations in the next two weeks, Rubio said, he will likely go back to Spain to train and begin planning his overseas return.

"I'm thinking that there's a possibility that the NBA season is over, that there will be no NBA season," he said. "If nothing has changed [with the lockout], I'll practice by myself over there and practice with some teams to not lose my rhythm.

"In January, if they decide that the NBA won't have a season, I'm going to play for a team over there. I don't know yet which one."

While Regal Barcelona has Rubio's rights, he questions whether there is a role for him any longer and plans to discuss the matter with team officials.

"They have like 12 players ... so it's hard right now," Rubio said. "I want to talk to them about their opinion and what they're expecting. I don't know what they want to do."

The Gooden game, which was done in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, was hardly a measuring-stick performance for Rubio. The questions about his scoring ability, in other words, will remain.

But it was a chance to continue the camaraderie with his new colleagues, from the cocktail party where he spent time chatting with the Bulls' Noah on Saturday night to the face time with respected veterans like Mavericks guard Jason Terry.

"I don't think it's fair to judge somebody on a charity game like this," Noah said. "But obviously the reason why people are talking is because that means he's a hell of a talent.

"I've been through similar things [as Rubio], where people used to always say I couldn't be an NBA-caliber player because I couldn't shoot, I couldn't do this, couldn't do that, I was too skinny. And I think I'm doing pretty good and I'm on a team that gets to compete for championships.

"I think of my guy Tim Tebow," Noah said of the Broncos' quarterback and fellow former Florida star. "The guy has the expectations of the world on his shoulders; people say he can't throw the ball, and the guy is f---ing winning games."

Said Terry, who did not play in the game but did watch: "I like him, because he's a throwback. He reminds me of Pistol Pete [Maravich]. He's all about what the NBA is all about, and that's entertainment. When he steps on the court, people want to see it. I love him, love his potential."

If only the Cow Palace security guard would have been feeling the love. Long after the game was over, Rubio and his agent, Jarrin Akana, were following through on an interview request with a newspaper reporter when they were told the discussion would not be allowed in the chosen area.

Neither Rubio's disarming disposition nor his agent's pleadings could sway the man, who was insisting that a certain line not be crossed by the media member and even placed his burly body in between the two parties to show his might. Never mind that the athletes were the star of the show, no matter how unimpressive it might have been. There were marching orders to be followed, so Rubio was eventually forced to take the chat elsewhere.

He wasn't laughing at the moment, but give him time. He'll watch the home movie with his family one day and be reminded of the Cow Palace comedy hour. This was, to an absurd degree, the strangest of starts.

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