The Importance of Being Ricky

Ricky Rubio is doing something beautiful.
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The Timberwolves don’t have numbers, and the Thunder have cut off the passing lane to the streaking Derrick Williams on the wing. Reason would dictate that Ricky Rubio, who is pushing the ball up the floor in the fourth quarter of his first NBA game, should pull the ball back and initiate the half-court offense. Instead, with a subtle shift of his body toward the middle of the floor, Rubio creates enough space between two Thunder defenders to thread a one-handed bounce pass to Williams, who throws down an easy reverse dunk.

Two games later, now. Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat attempt to trap Rubio as he crosses the three-point line at the right elbow extended. Rubio attacks Haslem with a crossover, then gently angles his body away from the basket and throws a perfectly nonchalant, completely impossible 25-foot, over-the-shoulder, cross-court backdoor alley-oop to Anthony Randolph. It is worth noting that at almost no point in the play did Randolph appear to be open.

One game after that. This time, Rubio is driving baseline against Brian Cardinal of the Mavericks. As Dirk Nowitzki attempts to help at the rim, Rubio calmly bounces the ball between Dirk’s legs, to the waiting Anthony Tolliver, who hits a game-sealing three pointer. Tolliver runs down the court laughing to himself like a man who absolutely cannot believe his miraculous good fortune.

It's a reasonable enough response, considering, and Wolves fans have mirrored Tolliver’s stupefied joy through the early part of Rubio's rookie season. When Ricky Rubio steps to the scorer’s table, they chant his name. When he does anything even remotely positive on the court, they swoon and gasp. It’s a real old-fashioned romance, and it's a little surprising, honestly.

It might seem odd that a people as relentlessly tight-lipped and steadfastly khaki’ed as Minnesotans would be so enthralled with a cosmopolitan, flouncy-haired Spaniard like Rubio. Historically, our predilection for the rugged and the tirelessly self-sacrificing has inclined us toward workmanlike power forwards and away from expressive, freewheeling guards. Thus, our devotion to Kevins Garnett and Love, as well as, much more embarrassingly, Mark Madsen and any number of not-so-worthy professional hockey players.

But our famous stoicism can often double as a kind of covert optimism. The mantra “it coulda been worse”—which is what you say when a tornado destroys your crops, or someone falls through the ice but does not die—is another way of saying, “things could maybe get better.” And like everybody everywhere, we tend to invest that optimism in our elite athletes. Amid a nightmarish 60-loss season, we went berserk for Kevin Love’s double-double streak, an insignificant feat if there ever was one. University of Minnesota fans give Tubby Smith standing ovations. We’re dying to love you.

Unfortunately, following the Wolves has deeply challenged and distorted that optimism. Over the team’s 22-year existence, its fans have been presented with exactly one great gift, one magnificently fruitful gamble. That, of course, was the teenaged Kevin Garnett; the Wolves rode his radiant, raging aura for a dozen star-crossed seasons. But a decade of craven, shortsighted management, of layer upon layer of foolish decisions, effectively squandered Garnett’s prime. The defining discourse of the KG years was always ultimately one of disappointment, of opportunities missed and talent and beauty wasted. The years since then have been like a nauseous hangover from that terrible party. Cynicism has become the rule. 

Through sheer virtuosic generosity, Ricky Rubio may be changing all that. The easiest, most reductive, way to explain Rubio’s sudden rise is that he is a passer—and white Midwesterners, valuing selflessness and generosity as they claim to do, love passers. We love the extra pass and the “right play,” those well-worn virtues. And this is understandable; after all, the aggregate of many uncreative but purposeful passes can be a thing of economical, Spurs-ian beauty. But this is not exactly what Rubio does. Because while the “right” pass—the well-executed entry pass, say, or the crisp, timely ball rotation—is, like a folk dance or a hymn, satisfying in its graceful predictability, greatpasses actually disrupt our expectations.

Great passes come just before, or just after, we expect; or they are delivered from an unconventional spot on the floor, or at an impossible angle, or travel some exotic trajectory (for example, through Dirk Nowitzki’s legs) en route to some unforeseen recipient. They can even, as with Ricky’s ridiculous lob to Anthony Randolph, do all of the above. Incredibly, for all of its exotic disruptions, a great pass, like a magic trick or a joke, usually ends with some dumbly obvious result: a dunk; an uncontested layup; a wide-open corner three. This is the real thrill: a great pass only reveals something that (we feel) should have been plainly before our eyes all along.

Rubio’s vision gives him prior access to this revelation. He sees passing lanes before they develop; he grasps how his own movements will influence those of the other nine players on the floor; he envisions the exact moment when a defender will begin to lean in the wrong direction. His apparent nonchalance isn’t arrogance, then, but an honest depiction of the ease with which he sees the game’s flows and contours. Many great passers—Magic and Bird, the young Jason Williams, among others—took it upon themselves to dazzle and deceive. Their passes were performances, expressions of joy (in Magic’s case) or malice (in Bird’s: “How much better? This much better…”) or pure berserk swag (The Dude with the WHIT EBOY tattoo). But a Ricky Rubio assist is a simple, generous act of communication: “this is what I saw.” And he sees it all as naturally and fluently as you see yourself in the mirror.

When the ball leaves Rubio’s hand (or Chris Paul’s or Steve Nash’s, who share both Rubio’s vision and his humility), we are treated to a moment of suspended disbelief. For that moment, the play’s outcome is both eminent and partially hidden, left to our imaginations. The entire game’s fullness can seem to flower within that one tiny instant. It is a moment of great possibility and therefore of great hope. That Rubio is able to offer such thrilling, repeatedly rewarded hope explains both Anthony Tolliver’s laughter and the gleeful reception Rubio has been given in Minnesota. This hope is a rebuke to the years of disappointment, the false promises and deadening, grey futility of the post-KG era.

No one believes (or should believe) that Rubio has been miraculously birthed into the NBA a complete player. His shooting, though it has exceeded expectations, remains as unlovely and inconsistent as advertised. His unfamiliarity with the league’s level of quickness and athleticism has produced an impressive haul of turnovers and shots blocked at the rim. Surrounded by the preposterous physical specimens that populate the NBA, he looks less like the second coming of Magic and more like somebody’s skinny little cousin. But, somehow, this weird dissonance—between his preternatural court sense and the unfinished quality of his game, between his on-court self-possession and his ingenuous, cusp-of-manhood good looks—only adds to the appeal. His shortcomings imply nothing so much as the possibility of growth. His entire presence—his physical adolescence, his exploratory style—exudes possibility. It’s enough to awaken the sleeping optimist in any of us.

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