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¡Olé!
Lee Jenkins
January 23, 2012
For two years Ricky Rubio was an NBA draft pick stewing in his native Spain. Now he is spreading joy in Minnesota with his artful passes and spirited play
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January 23, 2012

¡olé!

For two years Ricky Rubio was an NBA draft pick stewing in his native Spain. Now he is spreading joy in Minnesota with his artful passes and spirited play

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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."

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