Rubio's choice speaks to growing appeal of European basketball
Ricky Rubio chose to remain in Spain rather than make his NBA debut this season
For some international players, the NBA is an option, not THE destination
Europe is enticing to players as much for lifestyle and money as for quality of play
There were many factors involved in Ricky Rubio's decision to spurn the Minnesota Timberwolves for Regal Barcelona this week, including a buyout (involving his old team, DKV Joventut), competition (in the form of Wolves first-rounder Jonny Flynn), the lure of home (Rubio was born in Barcelona), the temerity of youth (the kid is 18 after all) and, of course, the long, sad history of the Minnesota Timberwolves (had he been picked by the Knicks, does anyone doubt that Rubio wouldn't already have a Midtown apartment and a healthy appreciation for Zabar's?). All of which is to say that this is a complicated matter, and not one easily reduced to who won, who lost and who got screwed (unless you want to go with Regal Barcelona, David Kahn and, again David Kahn).
Speaking generally, though, the story is not exactly novel. After all, agents have been trying to fleece GMs and owners since time immemorial, or at least 1972, just as young, talented athletes have been prone to acts of hubris ever since there have been young, talented athletes. And likewise, most right-thinking humans learned long ago that it's best to avoid Minnesota in the winter, especially when the alternative is someplace like Barcelona.
No, what is more interesting here is the larger theme: the devaluation of the NBA experience. Think about it: Ten years ago, can you imagine a Spanish point guard being chosen as a lottery pick and not wanting to come play in the U.S.? Of course not. Partly because no Spanish point guard would have been drafted in the lottery 10 years ago, but mainly, I imagine, because the NBA was seen as the terminus for all basketball dreams, the pot of gold at the end of David Stern's rainbow.
When Pau Gasol was taken with the third pick in the 2001 draft -- at the time making him the highest-drafted foreign player -- I remember sitting in a hotel room in Memphis with him during his first training camp, talking about his new life. Though Gasol was moderately interested in discussing basketball (for example, he was confused after playing in an American pickup game because nobody passed the ball), he was more interested in discussing the fruits of the American lifestyle. In his case, this meant his new PlayStation 2, his Ja Rule album and his recently purchased mammoth SUV. Gasol was living the dream -- and he was in Memphis. What's more, he saw this as the final step in his basketball evolution. "That's why I came here," he told me. "To be one of the best players in the league."
Contrast that with Rubio's reaction -- Minnesota? Um, no thanks -- and you'll get the point: The NBA has become an option, not just the destination.
Now, before anyone at the NBA (perhaps the ever-affable Tim Frank?) starts shooting me e-mails documenting the ongoing, Stern-buoyed growth of the league -- which is, no doubt, ready to put an expansion franchise in the outer Sahara any day now -- I should make something clear: It's not that the NBA is suffering but that the rest of the world is catching up.
In the past, NBA players went overseas for one of two reasons: because they couldn't get an NBA job or because they wanted money/leverage. So Danny Ferry decamped for Italy in 1989 (looking for leverage) and Brian Shaw went from the Celtics to the Il Messaggero Roma (again, leverage + $$$) and an aging Dominique Wilkins tried to recapture his former glory in Greece (for the job, and a starting gig). Just this week, news "broke" that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf -- perhaps you remember him as Chris Jackson from LSU -- will be playing this season for an expansion team in Japan, the Kyoto Hannaryz. At age 40. After playing in Saudi Arabia last year. That's the way it usually goes: trickle-down talent to the rest of the globe.
More recently, however, American players have rejected entirely respectable NBA offers to head overseas and have found the competition to be surprisingly competitive. Last year, Hawks forward Josh Childress turned down a five-year, $33 million contract from Atlanta to sign a reported three-year, $32.5 million deal with Olympiakos in Greece. But rather than arriving and being a superstar -- as the past-his-prime Wilkins was a decade ago -- Childress came off the bench. He averaged 8.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.1 steals. When I spoke to him in April, he talked about being exhausted, describing the approach to practice as "military." The European thought process is more practice is better," he explained. "I've heard from numerous people here that they think if you take a day off, it takes a day off your career because you didn't work. I can't say that I agree with it."
That said, Childress enjoyed the culture of living abroad, the camaraderie with his teammates and the ardor of the fans, so diehard that he had a hard time going out to eat without a swarm of true believers converging -- not to ask for autographs, as in America, but to offer advice and talk about the team. "The mind-set of our fans is that they are a part of the team," Childress said. "There is no Olympiakos team and Olympiakos fans, we are all together." Can you say that about Hawks fans?
So, despite the negatives -- the tough practices, limited PT and the at-times unruly road crowds -- Childress opted to stay in Greece rather than return to the NBA this season. This summer, he was joined on Olympiakos by Rockets guard Von Wafer and Nuggets forward Linas Kleiza, both of whom could have easily signed with a number of NBA teams.
Foreign-born players, theoretically those most excited to come to the States, are also becoming ever-more picky. Yi Jianlian was taken by Milwaukee in 2007 and tried to force a trade, ultimately unsuccessfully. Neither Tiago Splitter nor Fran Vazquez ever showed up. Once upon a time, overseas stars like Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic couldn't establish their global reputation until they'd succeeded in the NBA. Now, if Rubio played out his career in Spain he could still be considered one of the world's best point guards. After all, there are the World Championships and the Olympics.
So while it's hard to defend Rubio's actions from a professional standpoint -- he said he wanted to come to the NBA, then changed his mind after he was drafted when he should have done so before -- it's not so hard from a personal one. He'll be making plenty of money, playing against good competition, burnishing his reputation and living in his native country, among friends and family. He can still come to the NBA in two years, or four or six. Or, if he so chooses, never.
Granted, at the moment that seems an unlikely outcome. One has to wonder, though, whether that will remain the case.
Chris Ballard is a Senior Writer for SI and SI.com. His "On Sports" column appears every Thursday on SI.com and he writes the "Point After" column for the magazine every third week. His latest book, The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA, will be in bookstores on Nov. 3.