So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

It’s not precisely right that I started writing about basketball because of Ricky Rubio, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. I followed the NBA on and off in high school and college, but it wasn’t until I moved to the Twin Cities in 2004 that I genuinely became a fan. I began to watch the Timberwolves regularly and I also began to write, although at the time I was mostly writing about music.

During the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, I was in my last year of an MFA in writing at Hamline University. I had been reading more and more basketball coverage and interacting more and more with people who did that writing on Twitter, so I decided to start my own blog, Feelings Aren’t Numbers. It was Ricky Rubio’s rookie season, and I was captivated by his masterful passing and infectious enthusiasm. It was a giddy time for fans who were finally getting to see Rubio in person as he seemed to unlock the potential of Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and even occasionally Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph. It was the team’s first season under Rick Adelman after suffering through the Kurt Rambis era and there was reason for optimism.

Were there also disappointments and warning signs about both the team and Rubio himself? For sure. Rubio’s limitations then were the same as they are now, but when he went down with a torn ACL, it fundamentally torpedoed the season, showing just how important the rookie was to the team as a whole.

Since then, it’s never been the same with Rubio, not really. There were so many positives that we badly wanted the negatives to improve just a bit. If he could just shoot a league average … or even a bit below league average … or finish a little better at the rim … or …

A cadre of fans and writers have always prized the things others seem not to fully see from Rubio: his defense, the fact that the deep numbers almost universally say he’s made the team better throughout his career, a belief that the right players and the right system around him could unlock his game without having to fundamentally change it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that with Tom Thibodeau at the head of the team both on and off the court, Rubio’s game is not going to be catered to. The Wolves have been at least three different teams since his rookie year, but now there’s a young core the team is working to cultivate. Maximizing Rubio is no longer just not happening — it’s not clear it’s in the Wolves’ best interests to invest heavily there when another point guard with better shooting would be an easier fit.

So when the Rubio era in Minnesota inevitably comes to an end — whether it’s during this season before the trade deadline or this offseason — many are going to brand it a failure. The truth is more complicated, but it’s not really more satisfying: Rubio is a flawed player upon whom timing and circumstance never genuinely shined. Were there opportunities that he didn’t grab along the way? Certainly. Were there also many factors beyond his control that kept him from being fully actualized? Just as certainly.

Because of all this, it feels quasi-poetic that Rubio’s time as a member of the Wolves and my own covering the Wolves look like they’re going to dovetail so neatly. When I watched Rubio that rookie year and felt the need to document it, to describe it as best I could in the hopes that a few people would see it like I did, I had no expectation of success. I wanted it to be beautiful because basketball was beautiful and Rubio felt like a pure expression of this.

As I kept writing, I got to know more people and more people wanted me to write. I first joined Hardwood Paroxysm, then wrote some things for HoopSpeak (R.I.P.), then joined A Wolf Among Wolves and then finally, a year after I had started, finally got paid to write something for the New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog (R.I.P.). Suddenly, the opportunities seemed to come fast and furious: Grantland (R.I.P.), The Classical (kinda R.I.P.), ESPN’s TrueHoop (more or less R.I.P. as we once knew it), Rolling Stone and, eventually, 1500 ESPN. Writing about basketball hadn’t exactly become a job, but it had stopped being a hobby. I was making money. Not so much that I could leave behind other work entirely, but enough that it felt like I had to keep going, to keep trying to make more, to eventually make it my livelihood.

But it just hasn’t worked out that way. All those R.I.P.s in the previous paragraph can give you an idea of just how mercurial the industry can be. Simply put, I’ve always loved the writing, but I haven’t always loved the work around the writing: the lack of clarity in the path, the endless work of pitching, the navigation of the waters between hot take and thoughtful analysis, this trying to figure out whether people actually want the latter or if slideshows are all people care to click through. I wouldn’t exactly call it hard compared to most jobs, but it is definitely its own brand of tiring.

Next Monday, I’m starting a new job as the copywriter for Minnesota United FC. With all that’s happening for them from moving up to Major League Soccer to opening a new stadium, it’s an exciting time to be helping to craft the voice and identity of the organization. Soccer has long ranked just behind basketball in terms of major sports for me, even if I haven’t gotten to follow it as closely while I’ve been writing about basketball.

I want to thank anyone who’s read my stuff and enjoyed it or shared it. I plan to continue writing national NBA stuff for Rolling Stone and other outlets as my schedule allows. But my time covering the Wolves for 1500 ESPN and A Wolf Among Wolves is over. I want especially to thank Derek Wetmore, Phil Mackey, Judd Zulgad, Derek James and Manny Hill at the former and Zach Harper, Bill Bohl, Tim Faklis, Lucas Seehafer, Andy Grimsrud and Patrick Jonhston at the latter. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with all of you and I’ve learned a lot.

In my squishier moments, I’ve made the case for Rubio’s game being too beautiful to live. Plenty of more hard-hearted and probably pragmatic people have simply said he’s not good enough. The truth is — once again — more complicated than either of those things and not very satisfying. It’s probably the truth about me and many people who try to turn what they love into a living: we’re all flawed, some more fatally than others, and we need things to break right for us over and over again to stay in it. I had a lot of circumstances that helped me and a lot of circumstances that didn’t. It’s no different for anyone.

I still have this slim and maybe vain hope that a fresh start for Rubio somewhere else will change the overall perception of him as a disappointment. It’s something anyone should deserve.

Here’s to fresh starts.

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8 Responsesso far.

  1. Nick says:

    Steve – I am going to miss your writing. You are one of the main reasons I come read the recaps and artcles here. I loved the way you related the games to music. Good luck on the new job.

    On a side note, does this also include the raised by wolves podcast? That is my personal favorite of the wolves podcasts available?

    Thank You from Texas

    -Nick

  2. mikeskunes says:

    Thanks, Steve. I’ve been following this blog for awhile and have always appreciated your recaps. Your ability to mix basketball with music references always resonated with a fellow music nerd. And for someone who watches basketball for the beauty and seeks to understand it through the numbers, I appreciated your ability to find a distinct balance in analyzing the science and art behind the game. Blessings to you on future endeavors.

  3. george basrawy says:

    Thanks Steve – coming from London and a Spurs season ticket holder I too share your ‘soccer’ and basketball passions and look forward to following your rolling stone coverage. Goodluck! Go wolves and I hope overcome the odds and sneak the 8 seed with ricky still on board. He deserves it.

  4. pyrrol says:

    Sad to see you go, Steve. I can relate a lot to what you write here. I have been interested in Basketball since college, but it was really only when Rubio joined the team that I became obsessive. I’m a writer and painter, so I also can’t help but look at the aesthetic side of basketball, as well as the creative aspect to its strategy (so often lacking in the league).

    It was no coincidence that I became obsessive about the Wolves when Rubio came to them. I was curious about it, and have always enjoyed passing and have a knack for it in my own game. But then Rubio came, there was something more there than the sum of his parts, than just a player. There was a spirit of joy, something fundamental about why we play and watch sports laid bare. And this fundamental is so often lost in they cynical money grubbing world of professional (and D1 and D2 college) sports. Perhaps there was a feeling also that I could relate to Rubio in a way that is rare among professional athletes. Usually the harder heads, the blanker minds make it that far, and Rubio seems like s sensitive soul. Speaking of flaws, his sensitive side has at times been a weakness, too easily knocking off his confidence. I feel to this day that a large amount of his trouble scoring enough to silence critics is mental. He lacks the talent to be a scoring PG, but with all his other skills all he needs to shut the non-idiots up is a reliable 10-12 pts per game scoring acumen. It has not become quite as reliable as it needs to be. But sensitive people can be as tough as anyone, and Rubio has shown great determination. He belongs where he is and in many ways deserves better treatment.

    On that topic, my view is that indeed Rubio was a victim of circumstances. He is a very useful player. He has a big flaw, but it is a matter of perspective. I guess you could say more informed fans who have some basketball history knowledge respect Rubio because they know how important passing has been to the game. Rubio landed in a place with some bad teams and bad coaches. And now, as we hopefully are building a good core (finally?) with an established coach, that coach refuses to accept what Rubio can do even though on paper he’s a great match for the team. Rumors suggest he’s looking for a ‘bridge’ PG, which makes no sense because at worst, Rubio should be able to fill that role very well. To me that’s dumb and an insult to a guy who’s given a whole lot to NBA basketball and our franchise. So to say it makes me angry is an understatement. It at once seems like a failure of common sense and creativity by a touted man who was given a vast amount of power in our organization. You could say NBA politics have beaten the joy out of the most joyful player. And that’s been a sad and disgraceful process to watch.

    Still, Rubio plays on, still with some joy, but always looking over his shoulder. He continues to liven up a league who’s three point jack-up obsession has rotted its interest in some of the team fundamentals that make this one of the best sports to watch. Rubio represents ‘beautiful basketball,’ not just aesthetically, but as an ideal—that what makes a team sport compelling is not the stars or individual efforts, but seeing parts come together to form a greater whole, the idea of brotherhood.

    Thanks Steve and Ricky, I hope the future holds great things for you.

  5. Don says:

    Congrats on the new position! It’s great to see good work rewarded.

  6. Ryan Robinson says:

    Thanks for all you did, Steve. While I’m sad to see your distinctive writing style go, I’m glad you’ll be shifting to my other love, Soccer.

    If this basketball thing doesn’t work out for Ricky, you’d probably be able to recruit him with no technical conflict of interest…….. Just sayng

    Keep on keepin’ on

  7. Tom says:

    I am constantly shocked how a player like Rubio ( a perennial leader in assists, steals and rebounds for PG) is viewed as anything other than a success. Had he been picked by the Thunder with KD, The Beard and Serge instead of Westbrook, would they have had to dismantle their team? Would it not have been KG Celtics West? If Adelmann would have been younger and his wife healthy, would Rubio not be a cornerstone with Kevin Love, the Greek Freak and Zack LaVine ? (No offense Baz, but Flip picked the wrong guy as badly as Kahn screwed up not picking Steph) The sad thing for Ricky is that Flip was never a good judge of PG talent (Terrell Brandon over Chauncey?) and Thibs is obviously an East Coast Guy with a Grit and Grind style that doesn’t fit Ricky at all.

    I want Ricky to go somewhere that he can be appreciated for all the things he does better than most players at his position. Denver would be an excellent fit for him, as would Orlando or Philly. The Lakers would probably get better output from their forwards with the Spanish Unicorn running the offense. My worry is not for Ricky in a trade, but our wolves cornerstones with Dunn or a scoring point guard in his place. Very few players today at point, see the importance of getting other players involved in the offense with shots that they feel good taking. Guys like CP3 and Tony Parker are rare. Dunn has yet to really hit his teammates with passes in the shooter’s pocket with any regularity. Ricky did that from day one, and he is still one of the best bounce passers the league has ever seen.

    If he gets traded, I hope that the wolves get low post support that Thibs will play in his rotation or if Baz goes with Ricky a larger SF that can defend. Getting a bridge guard for Dunn to transition seems to be a silly waste of a trade.

  8. seanie blue says:

    As a freelancer, I doff my cap to you, Steve. Unfortunately, you leaving probably also means we can put an RIP next to the AWAW. Good luck with United. If you have a chance to to spend a few weeks in the offseason in the far reaches of England (Carlisle, Lincoln, Wigan, etc.) to take in some mid-winter games, the impact will color your sentiments for years. Football is in the small stands more than it is in the big leagues, and wandering around England to the tiny venues with long histories is an amazing education. They’ll honor your pro status, and you can visit for free, but I find the stands with the locals the best flavor to taste. What a fascinating culture! Good luck and welcome to the world’s game.

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