RESEDA, Calif. – Sometimes, Ricky Rubio(notes) presses play on those old game DVDs, and his eyes long for the nerve of that 15-year-old flashing across the screen. He watches himself closely – the spontaneity, the boldness, the sheer jubilance of playing basketball. He wants it all again, wants it for good now.
The promise of Rubio's mid-teens became something of a burden this past year and a half, the pressures of delivering on the extraordinary expectations of his talent had installed a natural hesitation, a paralysis that can come with criticism. For all the hours that he spends studying the greatest point guards of all – Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd(notes) and Steve Nash(notes) – the Spanish wunderkind still finds relevance with flashing back to his buoyant younger self, remembering the roots of the sensation of Ricky Rubio.
"I see him, and that kid wasn't worried about what people were thinking," Rubio told Yahoo! Sports over lunch. "That kid wasn't worried about what would happen if he made a mistake. When I'm watching those games, I was playing like I don't care about nothing. I'm only worried about winning, about helping the team to win."
The words come out like he's talking about a different player, in a different time, and sometimes it feels that way. He's 21 years old, waiting for his rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and he knows that people have come to doubt him now. He knows that they wonder whether he was merely a child star who reached a plateau, leveled and perhaps will never justify his selection as the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft.
Only, Rubio knows something else: That past year on the Spanish national team in the European championships, a lost season of injuries and inconsistency for Barcelona Regal could turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to him. There was turbulence, adversity.
"The game tested me," he says. "I think I needed that."
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Rubio had been a Euro culture figure, a precocious star in the prestigious Spanish ACB League at 15 years old. He had played beautifully in the 2008 Beijing Olympics against the best point guards in the world, and yet suddenly, those two years that he waited to join the NBA became the most important of his basketball life.
For all the great players to come out of Europe – from Drazen Petrovic to Dirk Nowitzki(notes) to Pau Gasol(notes) – none had come so fast, so soon, so announced as Rubio. Part of that was this information age, and part of it was Rubio's ability to play the game in such a unique, innovative way with passes coming out of every angle, every corner of his imagination.
Through the good times and bad, Rubio's remained remarkably grounded and self aware. For most of his teen years, he's had to operate in a grown-up world, with a man's responsibilities and expectations. He sits in a restaurant booth with that floppy hair, those big eyes and a smile that goes baseline to baseline. He wears a Nike T-shirt and lifts his hands when he talks, waving them in the air to punctuate a point.
"Maybe I did lose some of [my childhood], but I don't wish to take any of it back," he says. "This is the dream that I had, the life that I wanted."
Yes, he's so glad to be here. This autumn has been spectacular for him. He leaves the gymnasium on a weekday morning, and those long, spidery arms and legs gladly fold into his agent Jarinn Akana's Prius for the ride to lunch. For a kid out of the beautiful mountains and beaches and cities of Spain, this has been an unsullied stretch of his basketball life. The lockout has afforded him something that's been missing for years, a chance to leave the endless cycle of professional seasons and national team training camps and tournaments for the solitude of the gymnasium. He's worked relentlessly on his shooting, his strength. He's been able to experiment, try and fail away from the bright lights, the hard criticisms, to prepare to return to all of it once again.
"I'm a star at 15, and every single mistake was huge," he says. "And now, since I'm 17, I've never stopped playing for very long at all. I could never practice with just myself for more than a couple weeks. And now, here, nobody judges me for making mistakes. When you're practicing away from the team, you can take your time. You can work on your own stuff.
"Here, nobody has an opinion about what I'm doing every day. If I miss a shot, I don't have to worry about what someone's going to say. … You can breathe better, you know?"
In a lot of ways, he needed to leave Spain and come to California to train to find some liberation, some breathing room. He lived a suffocating existence in Spain and Europe, the first young star of the YouTube generation. It took its toll. Life became tougher, more rigid, and so did basketball. He thinks about all the birthday parties he missed growing up in Barcelona, all the Friday nights at the movies, all the Saturdays at the beaches that his professional obligations made impossible.
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"If you're 15 years old, and you feel sick, you can stay at home," he says. "Nothing happens, you know? With what I was doing, I had to go to practice. I had professional obligations. I loved it. That's what I did. But there were some days, where I would think: I just want to be with my friends."
And sometimes it became such a chore to simply hang out with them. They'd try to go the mall, store to store, and Rubio would still be stranded two or three behind everyone else, surrounded with teeny-boppers begging for autographs and pictures. "I was special – but special in the wrong way," he says. "Special in a way that I didn't want to be around my friends."
Which is why he loves strolling the Santa Monica Promenade or Hollywood, and forever be left alone. On Halloween, Rubio had the time of his life. He was walking Sunset Boulevard with a friend, and no one stopped him. No one recognized him. Everyone else wore costumes, "and for the first time, I was the one asking people to stop and take a picture with me," he says.
He stopped the guy dressed like a shower, and smiled wide with him. "Oh, that one was funny. I loved that one."
For once, he didn't need a disguise. He didn't need to hide out. Not a rock star here, just a burgeoning young basketball player trying to make his move in the States. His NBA education has been underway for several weeks, and it's played out in a suburban Los Angeles gymnasium that finds scores of NBA veterans every day. Here he was recently, taking turns matching up with Chauncey Billups(notes) and Derek Fisher(notes), learning the way they use their bodies, their strength to take advantage of him. Yet, he's something remarkable with the ball in his hands, a point guard who makes passes from every angle, delivering the ball with such splendor.
His indoctrination has come against old pros like Billups, yes, but with Kevin Garnett(notes) in the gymnasium, too. On this day, everyone was still buzzing over Washington Wizards guard Jordan Crawford's(notes) mistake of talking too much to Garnett a day earlier. When Boston Celtics teammate Paul Pierce(notes) tried to do Crawford a favor and push him away, Crawford urged Pierce to let K.G. go.
"I thought they were just kidding," Rubio says, and maybe Crawford did too.
There are hard lessons to be learned in this league, lockout or not lockout. Eventually, Garnett reminded Crawford about that with a smack upside his head, a reminder to Crawford, Rubio and the rest of them: Elders will be respected.
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Garnett has a history of initiating European players in the NBA, and one witness in the gym had recently watched him respond to a Rubio move with the ball by barking, "That's a traveling here. We don't do that [expletive] here." And on and on.
Of course, Garnett also took the time to tell Rubio what a wonderful place Minnesota was to break into the NBA, what great, great fans they have there. If the lockout continues, Rubio could be on his way back to Spain to play again. He loves home, but it isn't his preference. He's done everything he can there by winning the Spanish ACB, European and world championship titles.
He's deferred to older players on teams, his stats suffering for the selflessness. The Wolves are young, the franchise is invested in him as its point guard and there's a few potential finishers who could bring out the best of his playmaking abilities, who could make this easier for Rubio. For the first time, he'll be on a rebuilding team. The pressure will be on gradual improvement, not immediate championships.
Sometimes, people don't realize how unprecedented it was for Rubio to be playing point guard in the world's second-best league at 15 and 16 years old, guarding Chris Paul(notes) and Jason Kidd in the Olympics at 17.
"I think maybe it come easy, too easy then," Rubio says. "When I was a kid, it didn't matter how I did. I was so young, that if I did well, it was good. And if I didn't do good, it was normal for my age. Now that I'm 20 they look at me different. They say, 'You have to do the right things, because you were playing when you were 17. You have to know all things. They looked me as more of a veteran than I am, but I'm still young. I'm still growing up, still improving. I have to learn a lot of things, and I think I have a long career to do it.
"There's no time to think about what will happen if you make this mistake or make that mistake. You have to trust your instincts about the play you need to make to help your team win. And I know this time lately has helped me to get back to doing that. I come and play now, and I let go of the judgments of people … I trust myself again."
Soon, Ricky Rubio wants to press play on those old DVDs and know that kid is all the way back. He wants to be that free again, that assured and he swears that he can feel it all returning. Far, far away, in this faceless Southern California suburb, the game has finally slowed down for Rubio. Out of the light, and away from the voices, away from the harsh judgments, a teen idol gets time to grow into the kind of man, the kind of player, that that old footage promised he would eventually become.
Between then and now, it got hard for Ricky Rubio, complicated, and he's sure that it's the best thing that could've ever happened to his basketball career.
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- Ricky Rubio