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.
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.