If you’re only familiar with Ricky Rubio’s public side — his play on the court, his commercials, the clip of him telling Alexey Shved to change his face and enjoy — you probably think of him as joyous, effervescent, puppy dog-ish. But his demeanor in the locker room is often a bit different. This might be due to change, though, with the impending departure of Kevin Love.
For clarity’s sake, let me say I don’t think Kevin Love is a dour guy. Just as the “Kevin Love” he presents to the general public is one facet of him, so is the “Kevin Love” he presents to the media in the locker room. In the time since I’ve been part of that media, he has been generally surly and for perfectly good reasons. He has at times struggled to present himself the way he’s wanted, partly through his own fault and partly through circumstance. His reaction to this over the past few years has been to more or less shut himself down during the media scrums. In the few situations where I’ve engaged him one-on-one he’s been warmer and more forthcoming, if only a bit.
When it’s been bad, he’s looked completely demoralized. But the norm these last two seasons has been Love seated in front of his locker, head down, not making eye contact with anyone, providing more or less stock answers, except when he’s calling out teammates. He is not, however, generally the last guy out of the showers.
That would be Rubio.
Rubio leans back to answer questions more often than Love, but still, he’s not huge on eye contact and generally provides more or less stock answers, except for the occasional glimmering little glimpse into his sense of humor. Part of this is the language barrier, without question. He’s gotten better, but he’s still not totally comfortable with English, especially when it comes to a minefield like reporters looking for any misstep.
But it’s also clear that Rubio has been following Love’s lead for the last several years. No matter David Kahn’s feelings about who is and isn’t a max player on the Wolves, Rubio joined Love’s team, and so his role — as it is with any good rookie — was to fall in line behind the veteran leading the team.
Although some personalities will always shine through, teams in general adopt the character of their star player, and Love has been the face of the franchise during Rubio’s entire tenure. Add to that a certain disconnect between Rubio and departed coach Rick Adelman — I hesitate to call it friction because that overplays it as a conflict, but it’s clear they didn’t quite click — and you have a young player whose own ebullient personality has often been subsumed by the more down-to-earth, spartan sensibility of the team’s star.
This is, though, more or less the way it has always been, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fans are often quick to demand a coach give over playing time to a promising rookie over a veteran, but a certain level of trust in and stability for the veteran players on a team is necessary to foster trust and an environment of maximum productivity. That veteran status is something to strive for, and it’s earned by doing your work without complaint. Love earned it, and he also happened to be the best player on the team. It should be no surprise that Rubio came in and conformed to his approach. Anyone who’s worked in a small office has probably learned the folly of trying to change their environment rather than adapting to it. It often doesn’t matter how good or smart your ideas and way of doing things is; entrenched power is not given up easily, and you quickly learn it’s better to go along until you get some of your own.
But now this is Rubio’s team for the taking.
Although Nikola Pekovic has a year of NBA experience — and several years of living — on Rubio, he has shown little desire to take command of the team. He’s often one of the first guys to talk to the media, and generally comes off as good-natured and easygoing. He’s gotten the one genuinely big contract he’s likely to earn in the NBA (he’ll be a big man past 30 when it expires) and he seems at peace.
But for Rubio this is a contract year, and his agent has — rightly — been angling for that max contract. Thus far, Rubio hasn’t shown enough to deserve it, but there could be worse outcomes for the Wolves than a season in which he does. At the times in his career when Rubio has been allowed the leeway to dictate the pace and flow of the game — early in his rookie year, at times when Love has receded from the spotlight due to injury, or even just at random moments in different games — he’s often injected them with a brightness, a distinct joie de vivre that was often lacking as Love tried to struggle his way to the playoffs.
Are Rubio’s no-look passes going to help his finishing at the basket? Are his hard-spinning bounce passes going to get the Wolves into the playoffs? Is changing his teammate’s faces going to make them into a contender? No, no and no. But with Kevin Love’s personal albatross of playoffs-lessness no longer dangling around the team’s collective neck, we might just witness the return of fun to the Target Center, a new kind of Happy Generation.