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.