The 2008 Olympic Gold Medal basketball game, the one that Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski called ‘one of the great games in international basketball history,’ aired late at night in the Western world. And there was, appropriately, something dreamlike about it. But the images of Ricky Rubio, who was then just 17 years old, were real. He really did slice through the lane, reveal open shooters and exhibit spooky poise and avant-garde precision against a triumvirate of NBA stars in Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
Rubio’s unflappable demeanor, uncanny handle and full-spectrum mastery of the sport belied his youth and set the basketball world alight in the process. Rubio already had a nimbus of scout-buzz around him before that game, but his performance made the scrawny, shy-seeming playmaker into every basketball fan’s long-distance man-crush.
We kept in touch through endless, grainy YouTube clips of Rubio’s impossible passes and disappearing-act dribbling through double-teams. We watched him do things with a basketball that shouldn’t be possible for a 17-year-old, and hadn’t previously seemed possible for anyone, at any age. Four years, however, is a long time in the life of an athlete.
Two years before that, Ricky Rubio was already becoming a legend in his native Spain. There were tales of the shaggy-haired kid, with the grasshopper thin frame who lit up the Under-16 FIBA Championships with epic box scores and wild buzzer-beaters. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of him.
I was playing in Spain at the time, and was there as the nation slipped into inescapable Rubio-mania. In the grocery store people wanted to talk about him; in our locker room we laughed about the boy who turned the ACB, the second best league in the world, into his personal And1 mixtape. He was the next Pistol Pete, the next Magic. There wasn’t a comparison too far-fetched.
I remember watching his team, DKV Joventut, on TV and mentioning to a friend that he played so calm and free, so relaxed under immense pressure. And it was striking, the way he played each game as if it was happening in the park before he had to race home to set the table for the family dinner. But it wasn’t just his highlights that fascinated me. He reminded me of the basketball I grew up watching. This was before APBRmetrics and Hollinger’s stats parsed every minutia of detail into digestible numbers, quantifying a lot but inevitably missing the raw, visceral effect of watching a player play. It was a time, in short, when it was easier to see the game purely subjectively, and as art. And it was impossible to see Rubio as anything but an artist.
As a peer, I found it impossible to watch Rubio without envy. He casually threaded behind-the-back passes through the defense, created steals at half-court, then just smiled, brushed his hair to the side and shrugged his shoulders. He made it look easy, because it was in fact easy for him. He was born with an intuition others could never attain in a lifetime.
In Beijing, in ‘08, the world took notice. This wasn’t just a boy with an otherworldly, God-given gift. He was that, but he was also the future. Expectations were adjusted accordingly upwards .
I finally played against Rubio, twice, in the summer of ’09, when I was with the British National team. By then, Rubio’s boyish enthusiasm seemed slowly to be evaporating. Sergio Scariolo, the Spanish team’s new coach, didn’t seem to understand the young point guard. A coach as calculated as a hit man, Scariolo’s basketball worldview was entirely contradictory to the artistry of Rubio.
The first time we played Spain was an exhibition in Seville. A couple minutes into the game, I stood next to him at half court during a free throw and wondered what all the fuss was about. Despite the presence of All-Stars Pau and Marc Gasol and local legend Juan Carlos Navarro, the sold-out crowd couldn’t get enough of Ricky. From middle-aged men to teenage girls, everyone screamed his name; there was literal ooh-ing and aah-ing each time he touched the ball.
And yet he seemed to me to have no discernible physical gifts. He weighed 170 pounds dripping wet, wasn’t nearly as Iverson-quick as I expected him to be and it took him a Mesolithic era to get his shot off. Of course, it was in my interest to believe all this. I’d been given the task of trying to shut Rubio down.
At only 5-11, I made a career out of being the smartest player on the court, understanding the nuances it takes to play the most difficult position on the floor. I’d spent the better part of the day studying tape, checking Rubio’s tendencies and searching for weaknesses in his game, especially in the pick and roll, his bread and butter.
The pick-and-roll, elementary though it seems, is the single hardest play to perfect in all of sports and the basis of any good basketball team. Once a screen is set, a good point guard will go through his reads like a quarterback. Navigating through the matrix of defensive possibilities, he reacts to the other nine guys on the floor, then counter-reacts and possibly further counter-counter-reacts as the court shifts into a geometric puzzle, all in the blink of an eye. That super-fast dynamism is one of the fundamental challenges of basketball: hold the ball a split second too long, what was open has surely been gobbled up by time and space, and you’re left at the defense’s mercy. Years of practice and hundreds of games on, you begin to see the same patterns develop. Then, finally, a complex problem opens enough to reveal a straightforward solution.
Halfway through the first quarter, Rubio called for a screen on the right wing. I bodied him up, forcing him out of his operating zone, then quickly dove under the pick. We had planned to change up our defensive tactics often against the kid, to confuse him and get the ball out of his hands sooner than he wanted. He shifted to his left hand, then paused, just for a moment, switched hands again and used the screen again. I jumped over the pick, and my big man, the long, athletic Joel Freeland, held firm. Suddenly, like a racecar driver, Rubio changed gears from third to fourth and then fifth in the space of about three feet. I fought through the screen, and just when I thought we had him bottled up he froze for a millisecond, waiting for the defense to collapse. Then, at that exact right moment, Rubio flipped it right handed over to an open Navarro on the money. Navarro drove to the hoop and our collapsing defense fouled him before he could get a shot off. Ball out of bounds. A completely meaningless play in the scheme of the game. Also, though, a perfect play.
A few plays later, on a fast break, an open Navarro was in the corner, and Sergio Llull, another great shooter, was on the same wing guarded. There are several things that could have, and ordinarily would have, happened in this situation. Rubio might have lobbed it over to Navarro, allowing the defense to react and forcing Navarro to penetrate and make a play himself; that would ultimately ruin the fast-break. Rubio could have waited for the trailer, or simply dribbled to the opposite side of the floor where there was limited resistance. Rubio did none of these, instead making a beeline straight toward the defender. In essence Rubio, his defender, Llull and Llull’s defender all converged at the intersection on the wing. It was a kamikaze play that no coach would ever teach, yet Rubio’s choice ensured that the defense couldn’t recover when he fired a bounce pass through a keyhole size opening to Navarro. Three points.
It was personally demoralizing, in a way that perhaps only people who have played the position would fully understand. What took me decades to decode seemed to be hardwired into his brain; he was playing with information I didn’t quite have, while running an operating system different than my own. I felt like I was trying to catch an antelope with a butterfly net. No matter what I did or how quickly I beat him to the spot he’d make the right play at just the right moment.
And yet, curiously, Scariolo rarely took the reins off and let Ricky be himself. For much of the game Rubio would just slouch in the corner as a decoy, sucking his teeth and rolling his eyes like a petulant teenager.
A month later we met again in the European Championships in Warsaw. This was a game in which we nearly beat the mighty Spaniards, and from the opening tip it was clear the walls were closing in on Ricky. He was overthinking. When he had the ball, I almost stopped guarding him, playing, five and even ten feet away, daring him to shoot. At other times I almost completely forgot he was on the floor.
He’d given up probing the defense and attacking the paint, in favor of pointless swing passes around the perimeter. Strangest of all, he had stopped running the break, instead walking it up and surrendering to Scariolo’s deliberate play calling. It made my job easier, but it was almost tragic watching the future of basketball banished to the bench every time he made a turnover, his head wrapped in a towel while politely cheering on his teammates. The kid with the permanent grin and unshakable confidence had stopped smiling.
His new club team that year, Barcelona, demanded even more structure, wanted Ricky to conform to their static half-court game.
Prodigies, however, don’t conform; they’re not built for it, atypical by definition. Soon everyone in Spain, and I mean EVERYONE had an opinion on Rubio’s struggles, on who he should be and the player he could be. Ricky, the child-star, was being micro-parented by a country full of obsessive stage-mothers; it was stifling the intuitive, free-spirited play that had seemed so innate in the past.
There was, then, some new noise surrounding him, and it began to get louder: “He can’t shoot”, “can’t finish”, “he’s one-dimensional”, “can’t play in the league.”
After slogging through a miserable final season with Barcelona and shooting a pathetic 33%, the critics were merciless. He was quickly becoming a tale of what could have been, the gifted boy besieged by a practical world, torn down by those seeking a rational explanation to what had been an irrational phenomenon.
Rubio, who’d been tabbed at such a young age as the golden child, suddenly found himself facing the very real and very adult prospect of levelling-off and converging on the ordinary. As Spain’s favorite son prepared to make his NBA debut, Rubio seemed not just to be regressing but shrinking, eroding back towards reality. The adversity to come would define him, one way or another. The question was not merely whether he’d be Schea Cotton or LeBron James, though; it was whether he’d ever even get to be Ricky Rubio.
Rubio, to his great good fortune, ended up with one of the very few coaches on the planet who shares his understanding of basketball as art. Rick Adelman opened up Rubio’s game again, exorcised it, and seemed to have removed the Scariolo-scars on his psyche. The resulting Minnesota two-man game, giving Kevin Love and Rubio free rein, is less a pure Stockton-esque pick-and-roll than a pick-and-flow, a Rubio-centric offense where anything is possible.
Two, three, maybe four picks are set for the ball handler on any given possession to negate teams going under the screen then freeing Rubio up to run at his defender, eliminate static energy and create the slight mismatches he needs to exploit the defense. It’s simple, yet it’s not. It’s a unique style that Rubio possesses, and one that defies his meager stats. As easy as it is to see and sense, it’s tough to measure the passion and excitement Rubio instills in his teammates and fans, even those of us following on TV.
To watch Rubio play is to understand he doesn’t see things the way you and I do. When he’s at his best, when we can’t take our eyes off of him, he’s lost in a universe of his own making, a world ‘where you forget everything,’ as he told ESPN.
Perhaps it’s built into his genius DNA, or perhaps he’s a true synesthete, a man who sees distinct patterns and colors built into a spatial landscape on the back of his intuition, where others merely see X’s and O’s. It’s not that Rubio shuns rationality or calculated basketball; he tried hard to fit into Scariolo’s system and Barcelona’s technical mind-fuck, after all. It’s just that he wasn’t designed like that. He can’t play any other way, at least not yet.
And so as he returns from injury, Rubio will be at the crossroads again, and facing another moment of choosing which and what Ricky Rubio he will be. We may get a prodigy transforming before our eyes into the brilliant master we hope for, one who can mesh his instinct and reach further along the spectrum of structure and all-around basketball ability; he could become one of the greats. Or we’ll get a good show while it lasts, one that will fizzle and plateau and then fade in the rising noise about the next big thing. Knowing Rubio, though, there is almost certainly some other path or passage that only he sees.
Illustration by Patrick Puckett.