After the nine-hour flight from Barcelona to Minneapolis, the two-hour dinner with corporate sponsors and season-ticket holders at Sopranos in St. Louis Park, and the subsequent Q&A, Ricky Rubio sank into the backseat of a limo van and headed to the W Hotel downtown. His first day in his new town was almost over, and jet lag was setting in, but Rubio felt restless. He had a pickup game and a press conference scheduled for the next morning at Target Center, where he had been waiting to play since the summer of 2009. He could not wait any longer. Rubio asked the driver to take him to the gym.
This is an article from the Jan. 23, 2012 issue
He entered through a side door at 9:30 p.m., wearing a blazer and a button-down with jeans and dress shoes, carrying nothing but his Nikes. An equipment manager, summoned for after-hours duty, greeted him with practice gear. Rubio slipped on the jersey, the shorts, the socks with the NBA logo. His wide eyes fixed on that logo, before looking up at Jarinn Akana, who doubles as an agent and personal coach. "After all the talk," Rubio said, "I'm finally here."
As Rubio went through shooting, ballhandling and pick-and-roll drills for the next 80 minutes, Akana noticed T-Wolves executives trickle into the training facility and ring the court. Rubio should never be evaluated on an individual workout. He is neither a marksman nor a speedster, and he does not stand out in a layup line, much less a dunk contest. His gift—the sublime passes he delivers with a flutter of the wrist, between a defender's arms and sometimes legs, all while staring down a fan in the 12th row—requires the participation of teammates to appreciate. But on the night of June 20 the execs weren't trying to figure out if Rubio would be a star in the NBA. They were just trying to confirm that he was real.
"For a long time he has been a mystery to everybody here," says Minnesota power forward Kevin Love. "He was like a fairy tale." Rubio can seem the creation of a Spanish caricaturist, a 21-year-old point guard with an impossibly wispy build and musical name and full head of thick brown hair, whose supernatural vision allows him to see three steps into the future. Like any mythical figure, some believed in him, but most did not. Several evaluators dismissed him as a 6'4", 180-pound marketing stunt who could produce little more than publicity. Drafted in 2009, and sequestered in Spain for the past two years, Rubio has arrived with all the flair of his behind-the-back passes. Three weeks into his NBA career he has risen from curiosity to folk hero, whipping no-look fastballs and 30-foot lobs while the Target Center crowd chants "Olé!" in its Minnesota accents. Rubio cannot bear the thought of a basic post feed, for fear he will lose his audience's attention. "With Ricky, you better keep your eye on the ball," says T-Wolves small forward Wesley Johnson, "or you'll get hit in the head."
Rubio is as real as a Spalding in the nose: At week's end he was averaging 11 points, 8.3 assists and enough highlights to stack up with Blake Griffin. On Jan. 1 against Dallas, Rubio drove along the left baseline and spotted power forward Anthony Tolliver, setting up in the right corner. Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki slid over and blocked Rubio's path underneath the basket. Without breaking stride, Rubio threaded the ball through Nowitzki's legs, and Tolliver had to suppress a laugh as he sank a clinching three-pointer. Never mind that Minnesota is 4--8 and that Rubio just started his first game last Friday; he ranks third among Western Conference guards in All-Star votes, trailing only Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul.
So goes the latest chapter of the fairy tale that began when Rubio was 14, already a pro in Spain's famed ACB League, completing homework while teammates twice his age took naps. "You'd see other point guards thinking, Here's this kid I'm going to abuse," says Elmer Bennett, a former teammate. "That was never the case." Rubio was a product of the American playgrounds as well as the European academies, studying Jason Kidd and Lamar Odom, wearing shorts down to his shins and ricky on the back of his jerseys. When he led Spain to the under-16 world championship by scoring 51 points with 24 rebounds and 12 assists in the final, La Pistola was born, Spain's answer to Pete Maravich.
At 17, Rubio started for Spain against the U.S. in the 2008 Olympic final, splitting a double team from LeBron James and Kidd, and causing Paul to mutter, "I'm trying to steal that ball from him, but I can't." Before the '09 draft Rubio met with the Kings and amused them when he brought along his mother, Tona. The Timberwolves picked him fifth, rejecting Dwight Howard--sized trade proposals, yet Rubio opted for more time in El Masnou, the beach town outside of Barcelona where he was raised. He lived in a house two doors from his grandmother, with his vast collection of teddy bears. The mystery grew.
"Nobody in America has seen me except on YouTube," says Rubio, picking at chicken fingers in a Minneapolis sports bar. It is the middle of training camp and Rubio is awaiting keys to his new townhouse, five minutes from Target Center, with room for a few of his teddy bears and a kitchen where he will cook Spanish omelets. This will be the first time he lives more than two miles from his parents.
When Rubio heard the Timberwolves were hiring Rick Adelman as their head coach, he Googled Adelman to learn his offense. In camp he spent nights jotting plays in a notebook and highlighting what he thought were the best options. He barked at teammates who didn't make proper cuts in practice and cussed himself for missed shots. He is far from the stereotypical soft Euro. Then again, when he needed a break, he popped in a DVD of The Lion King.
Minnesota lost 132 games over the past two seasons, more than any team in the NBA, and sometimes even the players turned to Rubio and all those viral videos for consolation. He provided hope, if not for a winning record, then at least for an entertaining brand of basketball. Last month the Timberwolves announced that they had sold the most full season-ticket packages since the Kevin Garnett era, proof that the bounce pass can still push product.
On opening night against the Thunder, Rubio came off a high screen by Love at the top of the key and brought two defenders with him as he dribbled right. Rubio peeked back at Love, his primary option, popping out to the three-point line. But Rubio rarely elects the obvious. He uses it to bait the hook. Elevating on the run, he fired a pass across the key, directly at Oklahoma City forward Nick Collison. Perched in the middle of the paint, Collison was eyeing Love, and before he could adjust, the ball whistled between his right arm and his right ear. Timberwolves rookie Derrick Williams, stationed behind Collison on the baseline, simply had to raise his hands.
The play was bold and instinctive, everything Minnesota had been expecting, and Rubio had been missing.
The Joventut Badalona basketball team is like the Oakland A's of the ACB League, excellent at identifying and grooming talent but financially ill-equipped to keep it. Rubio joined the club's developmental program when he was 12. He flourished in its freewheeling offense, throwing his underhand shovel passes and off-the-backboard lobs. For the 2008--09 season Joventut paid him $97,000 under a contract that included a disproportionate $6.6 million buyout. Joventut officials realized Rubio would leave for an organization with more money and greater exposure, and they ensured that they'd cash in when he did.
According to an NBA executive, Rubio's camp sent signals before the 2009 draft that he wanted to play in a big market with a temperate climate. "Muy frío," Tona lamented when Minnesota made its selection. Translation: Very cold. Under NBA rules the Timberwolves could contribute only $500,000 to Rubio's buyout, and Minnesota general manager David Kahn was content to let Rubio honor the remaining two years of his contract with Joventut. But Rubio and Joventut clashed over the amount of the buyout and Rubio filed a lawsuit against the club. He was criticized publicly for the first time. His turn as a teen idol was in jeopardy. "We became a safety valve for him," says Kahn. "[At that point] he didn't really have anywhere else to go."
Kahn made three trips to Spain in the summer of 2009, convincing Rubio that Minneapolis is no small town. It has 19 Fortune 500 companies, Kahn explained, whose endorsements could help toward the buyout. Rubio seemed sold, and on Kahn's third trip in late August he finalized terms with Joventut president Jordi Villacampa in Villacampa's backyard. Then, 48 hours later, Rubio signed a six-year contract with FC Barcelona, with an option to leave for the NBA after two.
Rubio says he joined Barcelona solely because it could pay the buyout, but according to those close to him he also wondered whether he could meet the NBA's outrageous expectations. "Everything was going too fast, too soon," says the Lakers' Barcelona-born power forward, Pau Gasol, a mentor to Rubio and former teammate on the Spanish national team. "He wasn't ready. He needed to establish himself as a great point guard and not just a really good young player."
"It was a letdown," says Love. "It felt like a wasted pick." Kahn told Love what Rubio told him, that he would come to Minnesota in 2011. "I'll believe it when I see it," Love replied.
If Joventut is the A's, Barcelona is the Yankees, more successful but also more staid. The club runs a highly structured offense, with dozens of set plays, and the point guard's job is to initiate, not improvise. "Hit the guy on the elbow, run to the corner and stand there," says a Western Conference executive, describing Rubio's role. He couldn't have found a worse fit at Pete Carril's Princeton. In two years with Barcelona, Rubio averaged 6.0 points on 35.6% shooting and even his assist totals waned. The mix tapes got much shorter.
"When you're 15 and have a bad game, everybody tells you that it's normal," says Rubio. "When you're 20, there is more pressure, so you think about your mistakes. That's how you play nervous. Then everything gets bigger, bigger, bigger, and you are in fear." When Rubio is at ease, he sees a shadow in the corner of his eye, and flings the ball practically on faith. With Barcelona he paused to make out the shadow, and defenders closed to bat the ball away. "He was a totally different guy," says Walt Szczerbiak, the former ACB ambassador to the U.S. "He wasn't the flamboyant Ricky Rubio. He lost his alegría, his joy."
Rubio searched his old Joventut tapes to recover it. He spent extra time in the gym, but that only made him another step slower. He watched the Timberwolves, who were losing almost every night, and he actually ached to join them. Gasol worried about him. Scouts forgot about him. The T-Wolves, however, continued their long-distance courtship. Owner Glen Taylor wrote Rubio a letter comparing him with Garnett. Kahn sent text messages after Rubio's good games. Tony Ronzone, then an assistant G.M., took six trips overseas in a year, chatting with Rubio about restaurants and beaches more than basketball. When Rubio celebrated his 20th birthday in October, he sent Kahn a text that read: "I want to spend next year's with you."
Kahn flew to Spain last May, when Rubio was nursing a sore foot and coming off the bench for Barcelona. "He told me they still wanted me and they could help me get out of this [funk]," Rubio says. "They could give me the freedom back. I think I was more excited than they were." Rubio did not care about the weather or the market size. He had a more fundamental concern. "I'm not sure I should start next season," he told Kahn. "People expect me to be a savior." In New York or Los Angeles, the places Rubio thought he wanted to be, his fears might have been justified. But he was headed to Minnesota, with its 66 losses a season and its average point guards. He was the rare European who wouldn't find more stress in the NBA. If anything, he would find relief.
Since Rubio was 17, he played for the Spanish national team every summer, went to his club's training camp in August and was in the playoffs through June. He took off three weeks each summer. When the Euroleague championships ended last season, Rubio overhauled his routine. He went bowling with friends in Barcelona. He played cards. He lingered at cafés. "Sometimes I went to the gym," Rubio says, "and sometimes I didn't." He flew to Los Angeles for six weeks and sat in the stands for the USC-Stanford football game. He didn't care about the touchdowns, just as he doesn't care about the goals in soccer. "I try to see all the details that come before," he says.
Rubio rented an apartment in Woodland Hills and trained at 360 Health Club in Reseda, where Garnett, Chauncey Billups and a legion of NBA players gather for pickup games. The style is rugged, and only Garnett seems to determine what constitutes a foul. The first time Rubio walked through the door, he froze for a moment. "Maybe it's not a great idea to be here," he told himself. "What are they going to say to me? 'You don't play in the NBA yet. You don't belong.'"
Rubio typically matched up against Billups, and while he was pushed around and leaned on, he was ultimately accepted. "He held his own," Billups says. "He never backed down." Even Garnett, occasionally frosty to European players, pulled Rubio aside and offered real-estate advice in Minneapolis. The games were usually in the morning, and in the afternoon Rubio would return to the gym and shoot. This is standard American workout fare, but new to Rubio, who has spent most of his life dribbling, passing and neglecting his stroke. "He got comfortable being a young celebrity point guard," says an Eastern Conference executive. "He didn't improve his shot."
As Adelman sifted through Barcelona tapes he rarely saw Rubio let fly, and never with the same form twice. But plenty of point guards, from Kidd to Derrick Rose, have developed jumpers in the NBA. Vision is harder to teach. Adelman was familiar with Rubio, going back to the 2009 draft, when he was coaching the Rockets and they offered Minnesota any two players besides Yao Ming for Rubio's draft rights. Adelman, who was let go by Houston following last season, spent much of the summer mulling the T-Wolves' job before pulling out of contention in July, claiming he wanted to take a year off. He agreed, though, to help Kahn pick the right coach. About a month later Adelman called Kahn from Hawaii, to nominate himself.
Adelman is the NBA's point guard whisperer and has been since 1985, when he was an assistant for the Blazers and they drafted a small forward from Wisconsin-Stevens Point named Terry Porter. Porter was 6'3" and couldn't shoot well, so he had to play point guard. Adelman studied film with him, talked him through situations after practice and kept a running dialogue with him during games. Porter became a two-time All Star. Now he is a Minnesota assistant, in charge of Rubio.
Porter read the scouting reports and prepared for a legend who is also a novice, forcing flashy passes, gambling for steals and succumbing to defenses that sag off him. But through the first 12 games Rubio shot 45.5% from three-point range, second among rookies. He smothered opposing ball handlers with arms that look as long as Kevin Durant's. And in a 21-point win over the Wizards on Jan. 8, he piled up 14 assists, including an alley-oop to Williams that traveled nearly half the court. "Everything he does is fancy," says Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. "That's what makes him Rubio."
Adelman does not call a lot of plays, asking his point guards to create, and the rest of the team to react accordingly. Every possession is ballet of backdoor cuts, and Rubio is again firing without hesitation. "I'd rather make two people happy than one," he says, a philosophy that has endeared him to teammates on two continents. Love, a potential free agent after this season, is especially appreciative. Still, Adelman harps on Rubio to shoot when open, no matter how uneasy it makes him. "You can't try to create something else," Adelman says. "You've got to take it."
If not for the last two years in Barcelona, Rubio wouldn't be able to handle the demands, but his coming-of-age has already occurred. "I learned that if you miss, you miss," Rubio says. "You don't always need to go over what happened. When you're young, you don't think about nothing. You just play because you enjoy it. That's what I'm going to do here. I'm going to enjoy it."
Rubio is not as strong as Jason Kidd, as quick as Rajon Rondo or as accurate as Steve Nash. But he is no Marko Jaric, either. The flop so many predicted has turned into a phenomenon. Rubio is a giver in a culture of takers, a genuine point guard in a league where the floor generals prefer to chuck. Someday he may need to score 20 a game, lead Minnesota to the playoffs and actually earn the All-Star votes he gets. But the Timberwolves are careful to limit pressure on a player who has already been paralyzed by it. Rubio has been in the NBA for less than a month and already he has rediscovered the alegría he came here to find.