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!