Goodbye, Ricky

26 months ago, in the spring of 2015, the Minnesota Timberwolves were on their way to a 16-66 record, worst in the NBA. The February acquisition of Kevin Garnett rejuvenated the fan base, but after playing 5 of the team’s first 8 games, KG’s knees flared up and he was shut down for the year. Shabazz Muhammad suffered a season-ending injury on February 20th. Nikola Pekovic followed on March 11th. Kevin Martin injured his hamstring in a March 22nd home loss to Charlotte and missed two weeks. By the end of the month, the Wolves were nearly unwatchable as they hit full tank mode. Teenage rookies Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins were being asked to do way too much, once-promising disappointments Chase Budinger, Anthony Bennett and Adreian Payne were doing far too little, and a revolving door of ten-day guys and D-League call-ups were populating the margins. It made for sad, sad viewing.

On Wednesday, April 1st, the Wolves hosted the Toronto Raptors. Minnesota entered the evening losers of 4 straight; they wound up closing the season 2-19 in their final 21. Home attendance during this stretch was abysmal. Tickets were cheap, but the seats were still empty. Since Bazz had been injured nearly a month and a half prior, and was obviously done for the year, he was absent. But Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Gary Neal lined the end of the bench in suits, Pek looking like a bouncer, Martin looking dapper, and Neal looking like a grumpy son of a bitch who wanted to be anywhere else in the world.

Also at the end of the Wolves’ bench: Ricky Rubio. (I don’t remember exactly what he was wearing that night, but if memory serves, he was awfully fond of the “tight slacks and no socks with dress shoes” look during this period. So it was probably that.) The ankle injury that had kept him out from November through January flared up in mid-March, cutting short his comeback, so he, too was out for the season, and perched beside big Pek on a folding chair.

My seat on press row is the closest one to the Timberwolves bench (save for Fox Sports North reporter Marney Gellner, who sits right in front of me). This is allegedly a “bad” seat, because I’m blocked in and far from the aisle, but I’ve always loved it. Watching players, coaches, and even trainers interact on the bench is fascinating – I’ve seen and heard so much over the four years I’ve been lucky enough to cover the team. From J.J. Barea trash talk, to Ronny Turiaf’s quirkiness, to all things KG, to Arnie Kander’s bizarre treatment methods of everyone’s aches and pains, to Sam Mitchell and (ESPECIALLY) Tom Thibodeau’s banter with officials, it’s been a riot. But for me, nothing tops Ricky Rubio on this random April evening at the tail end of a miserable season.

In the middle of the 4th quarter, the Wolves were down by 30. Target Center, which was mostly empty to begin the game, was now a ghost town. The Wolves were on offense, and Lorenzo Brown tried to throw an entry pass to Justin Hamilton (damn, times were hard) when a Toronto defender kicked the ball and it went scattering out of bounds. Now, by rule, a kicked ball results in the shot clock being re-set to 14 seconds (provided 10 or more seconds have already run off the clock). This was near the end of the Wolves’ possession, so the clock should’ve re-set… but it didn’t. I’m not sure if the officials forgot to signal to the scorer’s table, or what, but at any rate, they whistled the ball out of bounds and the Wolves began to set up for an inbounds play, completely unaware of the mistake.

But Ricky let them know. All of the sudden, I heard his voice, that trademark nasally, “Hey. Hey. HEY-EEEEEEY-EEEEY! The clock should be 14! It was a kick! HEEEEEEEY!” He’s standing, now, agitated, slapping the back of the seat in front of him. As far as I could tell, no one on the Wolves coaching staff or bench had noticed the error. I certainly hadn’t. Ed Malloy (D’oh, Ed Malloy!) heard the commotion when Flip, Sam, and Sid Lowe picked up on Ricky’s cues, the referees conferred, and the error was corrected. Ricky sat back down, visibly irritated.

That might seem like a silly story to kick off this retrospective/appreciation, especially in light of all he did on the court, but to me that story is quintessential Ricky Rubio. The intelligence, attention to detail, support of his teammates no matter the situation – Ricky meant a lot to the Timberwolves for the six seasons he was here. (He did plenty of on-court chatter, too. This season, he was the only guy on the roster who could and would chastise Andrew and Karl. He was a leader in every sense of the word.) He may not have turned out to be exactly what we envisioned while we were watching grainy YouTube clips in 2009 or nervously anticipating his buyout and arrival in 2010; the jumper never came, the finishing ability never materialized, and the Wolves went just 173-303 (a .363 clip) with him on the roster. He did not take us to the promised land. But he was a glimmer of hope through so many dark times, and a key component to Minnesota’s best season since KG departed the first time around (2013-14). He made magic with Kevin Love when both were healthy, which wasn’t often enough, but is still worth remembering fondly.

This is probably going to sound odd, but I loved him as a player almost because of his flaws, not just despite them. I was fascinated to watch one of the worst statistical shooters in league history become and remain a vital part to his team’s success. He did it through sheer will; because if there’s one thing I know about him, one thing I know from postgame pressers and little moments on the court, it’s that Ricky Rubio f—ing hates losing. Hates it. More than any other player I’ve ever been around or covered closely, Ricky hated to lose. It drove him to be better, to work on that jumper despite seeing little improvement, to keep pushing that stone up the hill. He gave his all each time he stepped on the court, and for that, it’s hard to think of him as anything less than a worthy bridge between the end of KG and the next, exciting era of Timberwolves basketball.

That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I’m being sincere. I wish he could be part of it. Part of why I’m so melancholy over the whole thing is that deep down, way, way deep down, I know this move – flipping him for a Draft pick, and using the cap space to sign a better-shooting point guard – was probably the prudent thing to do. But I’m finding it hard to appreciate prudence or to remain objective at the moment.

His tough, energetic defense, command of the floor on offense, lobs thrown, pockets picked, nuts megged, the flash, the flair, the quirky stat lines and game-winners – it was all a part of the Ricky Rubio Experience. It’s what endeared so many of us to him, and it’s what makes his trade to the Utah Jazz so very bittersweet.

I think you can tell a lot about a player by what fans of his former team tell the fans of his new one whenever a transaction takes place. If there’s chortling and derision, chances are fans of the new team are going to regret the move. But there’s very little of that being sent from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City tonight. From what I can tell from social media, most of those messages go something like this…

… you’re going to love him, Utah. You’re going to love rooting for him, even if you lose some of your free agents. If you’re skeptical, that’s alright. He has a way of winning people over.

Now change those faces. Be happy. Enjoy it!

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  1. Thanks for expressing what I believe many of us fans feel. It sure seems like there should have been a way to keep him as a backup. His salary wasn’t that bad. I really liked how he competed and I hope he gets a fresh start in Utah.

  2. Great article. You can tell he brings a lot of extra intangibles to a team, and Utah will benefit greatly from it. I’m surprised at the move by Minn, and especially after seeing them pay for a PG who in most ways is a downgrade. At the end of the day, though, it matters more how a player will mesh with the team.

  3. Very good words. This was a hard day for me as a fan. As crazy as it sounds, Rubio might be my favorite player ever. It’s hard to put into words. For one thing, for a basketball player of his level of excellence he comes in an unexpected package–a chipper, young Spanish guy that looks like he should be hanging out on some European beach instead of anywhere near a basketball court. THAT guy can play? Oh can he ever play. He has a magical quality to his game. And frankly, you can’t say that about Teague, or for that matter Butler or Towns or anyone on the roster. He has the kind of magic feel for the game that almost never happens. But this is mixed with athletic limitations and odd flaws. The shooting is always put fourth as his achillies, but I think the root of it was mental. Rubio is also an unexpected NBA player because he’s almost too cerebral and sensitive for it. You don’t really see guys like Rubio in the NBA, in pro sports at all. He’s an extremely tough guy, though. He’s put up with so many doubters, so many cheap knocks, such bad teams, so little respect from coaches and folks who are supposed to know about the game, such incompetent coaching and front offices… and two frustrating injuries. And through it all he kept a great attitude and played with white hot competitiveness.

    Rubio was just a fun guy to have on the team. An unexpected character, a beautiful, fun to watch game, lots of razzle, but also great fundamentals. He is so unique and easy to like. But for me he was also a symbol. This league has really gotten away from a lot of thing things that make the game great. It’s so much about individual performances, shooting acumen. Seeing guys who play with Rubio’s level of effort is rare. Most guys coast on some nights. Seeing guys with Rubio’s basketball IQ is rare. Most NBA players coast on athletic gifts rather than magical feel for the game or great fundamentals. There was a time when this was less a freak league and more of a league of skill and feel for the game. It used to be a league when shots far out of the three point line used to be totally avoided. Now if you can make it you take it, and that is especially true of three pointers—so we are now a jack up league. There’s very little art and razzle dazzle to the game percent-wise, even despite the emphasis of sportscenter showmanship. Hammer dunks and threes are the only razzle people think of, but great team basketball and passing is really at the core of what makes this sport magical. Rubio is a symbol of this, of the things we are losing in the modern NBA. He’s good at what we need more of, and bad at what we have enough of already. And the fact that he plays the way he does, with his strengths and weaknesses, in today’s NBA and is a successful player who makes his teams better is amazingly impressive. I respect the hell out of it.

    The nitwit narrative is that Rubio never lived up to the promise that he had as a young Euro league virtuoso. Huh? He’s turned into a really good, completely unique, insanely fun NBA player who makes his teammates better. He’s exactly what we hoped for when we drafted him. No, Rubio didn’t disappoint, didn’t let us down. We, the Timberwolves let Rubio down. We never supplied him with a team he deserved. Even in the best K Love team moments… I mean, K mart and a 3rd or 4th best player on a championship level team as out best player, main scorer? That’s not the team Rubio deserves. Yet he soldiered on and never blamed others and always tried to work on his flaws as though the whole thing always was his fault. And he did get better even at flaws that seemed like he’d never improve. “Disappointing” Rubio averaged 11 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and shot 40% last season. These numbers would have been even better without banging up his elbow early and being grossly misused by Thibs half the year. Rubio was never supposed to be a guy who could do everything your team needed, to carry a team like Westbrook, alone, to the playoffs. He was supposed to be an exciting player who could run the point well, pass like hell, defend and score a bit. And was he ever exciting. And the final act of disrespect from this franchise, for who Rubio was often the only thing that made it watchable? Trading him when we are finally on the cusp of being a competitive playoff team, when we finally invested in established talent to bolster our ‘potential’. Trading him for almost nothing, as a salary dump for a player who is not a marked improvement. Rubio deserved to be on this team next season. He earned it many times over. Sports aren’t fair, but I’m pretty sure this one will leave an extra bad taste in the mouths of fans.

    All I can say is I like cheering for Rubio more than any NBA player I’ve watched. So unlike Love who I cheer for sometimes and sometimes secretly enjoy when he struggles, I’m instantly a fan of whatever team he’s on. I’ll be following and cheering for Utah. No hard feelings, but I don’t really feel a passion for cheering whatever teams Love ends up on in his career. It’s not the same thing–Rubio gave us his all and Love didn’t. Both were amusing to watch, and fundamentally good, but Rubio was freakishly fun to watch. I never said ‘How did he DO that?!” about Love, but did pretty often with Rubio. I think that says a lot. There are worse places for Rubio to go than Utah, particularly if they can keep Hayward. I think it might be fun for him. He’ll like it up in the mountains. But we’ll miss him.

    • Man, what a beautiful emotional comment, to an equally memorable and emotional article. I think today all Minny fans are united in grieving for the loss of a magician, flawed as he was (and all the more lovable for it), as well as for the snarling, fang-baring Wolves that last season’s Pups could, perhaps would, have one day become, but were never given the chance to grow into. I think we all understand that this new team might well be significantly better — getting Butler alone suffices for that, not to mention the inevitable continuing growth of Towns and Wiggins, perhaps, finally, into superstars — but much of the delight is gone (counting the departure of the endearing and improving LaVine too, of course). I shall be rooting for Minny, but I doubt that anything in the NBA season will give me greater joy than to see Rubio happy and thriving in Utah. And, on consideration, I think that he well might, and that the Jazz, with Gobert and Quin Snyder, might well be a better fit for him than the win-now-or-else pressures of the new Thibs order in Minnesota.

  4. I’m a Timberwolves fan because of Rubio. Some of those dribbles versus San Antonio early on in his career were magic. Sadly as time progressed he seemed to get less freedom and less joy of playing with the Timberwolves. Hopefully he has success with the Jazz, I know I for one am heartbroken he is gone. What’s the point of winning if you don’t enjoy the build to get there. My greatest fear with this team is that they are the new Clippers. The clippers had Eric Bledsoe Eric Gordon Al Farouq Aminu Blake Griffin and De Andre Jordan Chris Kaman and the rights to the pick that became Kyrie Irving. They basically traded away their future for Chris Paul and ended up stuck in the middle. Would they have been better off keeping their young players and letting them develop? We’ll never know. So goodbye Zach, goodbye Ricky, we’ll miss you

  5. From his first days here, it was clear that any halfcourt offense with him would work best with shooters and cutters at 3 of the other 5 spots and a clear pick and roll threat at the other. They never put all the pieces together, and that’s sad. The Kirilenko and Corey Brewer signings basically made his weaknesses more glaring, and the coaches after his rookie season never really gave him the reins to run things.

    KG was the biggest test for me of the Seinfeld “you’re rooting for laundry” theory on being a sports fan, and this is the second biggest test. Rubio was trying my patience a bit with the way defenses have been able to trick him and his penchant for flopping, but there’s a lot in his game that this team will miss.

  6. He is only 25, but he seems like he has played forever and probably a decade too late. He was the only draw for a Post-Garnett Wolves fan, making a team with Wes Johnson, Derrick Williams, Anthony Randolph and Darko nearly playoff participants in his rookie season.
    He has every reason to hate this town, that took so many years of his magic and gave him so little to play with in the beastly West. Yet, his parting message is that he grew to love the city and wished he could have given us a playoff team. Utah is getting a true pro, that could be the difference between losing Joe Ingles and Gordon Hayward or not. I hope he gets to play with both of them and has a couple nights at Target Center where he is at his best and tells Thibs to put a smile on your face.

  7. Ricky deserved a chance to play with these new Wolves. Instead, Thibodeau kicked him.

    I have a strange feeling. I think Rubio is going to do a magic season with his new team.

  8. As another day goes by, it looks more and more that Thibs let emotion dictate his decisions, more than his head. Letting Ricky go isn’t the end of the world, but signing Teague instead of being patient could be the mistake that shortens Thibs reign with the wolves. George Hill is now thinking that he will have to take much less than the $20Mil he was offered by the Jazz. Now I see that Bledsoe may be for trade and I think, what if we had offered Ricky for Bledsoe and actually made a similar lateral move, but still had all our money. Certainly, PHO would love to have Ricky to feed their young talent and Bledsoe would be just as good a scoring PG for Thibs. And you would have had the money to offer Millsap the $18 mil instead of Teague. Even if Teague would have felt a little pressure to sign after a day of no solid offers, would have been to Thibs advantage. It appears that Thibs wanted to rid himself of our Spanish unicorn so badly, that he settled for what appears to be a first round pick in the high teens or twenties and handed over all negotiation leverage to Teague, who gets more money than he should have expected to get with Hill, Lowry and trades for Bledsoe as alternatives. Unless he gets Millsap, I see this year as nothing more than doing just enough to spend all Glen’s money and still not make the playoffs.