The Timberwolves point guard is winning, but he now knows it's a slow battle.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS —Ricky Rubio is grabbing The Knee unconsciously, stretching the edge of his black Minnesota Timberwolves shorts down over the joint and letting go. Over and over, stretch, release, stretch, release, and the long brown scar stares back.
Only so many words can be exchanged before Rubio, in his first Minneapolis media appearance in months, is asked the question. Only so many words can describe The Knee and chart its progress. It's right there, the ligament that doomed the Timberwolves' season, and in many ways, it speaks for itself.
Rubio pulls up the shorts just a bit and rotates The Knee, revealing two linear scars, one down the left side of his left leg, the other vertically bisecting the cap.
"It's a long one," Rubio says of the marks.
For an injury that's largely invisible at this point, those scars are a glaring reminder of the past six-and-a-half months and everything the point guard has been through. It's been trips to Vail, Colo., and rehab in Spain, watching the Timberwolves' record fall off and dealing with an imposed separation from his teammates. It's been no basketball whatsoever and a missed opportunity to play in the Olympics, hours of hard work and the lingering fear that he might not be healing right. That scar and The Knee carry some difficult memories, and yet somehow Rubio can still look at it.
"You can see the muscle, right?" he jokes, flexing.
Even more important, he can even joke about it. And yes, you can see the muscle.
When Rubio first spoke publicly in April after tearing the ACL in his left knee March 9, he was remarkably upbeat. It was hardly a surprise based on Rubio's personality, but it was hard not to wonder how anyone suffering a severe injury at the high point of his rookie season could be so positive.
Now, though, nearly a half year later, that same tone remains. Rubio is as smiley and charismatic as ever, but he's become more realistic. In April, everything was so uncertain, and what Rubio didn't yet know couldn't depress him. He had only a shade of an idea of what he was about to go through. He might have been in pain, but the sense of missing out and falling behind had not yet set in. Now, with October and the preseason looming, it has, and a mix of pragmatism and hunger is coloring Rubio's approach.
Earlier this month, Rubio told a Spanish publication, Sport.es, that he was eying a December return, but on Thursday he backtracked a bit from that statement. December is a possibility, he said, and maybe the most likely one, but January is also not out of the question. He won't be participating in training camp as anything more than another coach on the sideline, and at this point, it's a week-by-week process; Rubio will add what he can, gradually testing The Knee's limits.
"It depends how the knee goes," Rubio said. "Now I start running, and I feel good. In three or four weeks, I'm going to start agility, and if my knee swells a little bit, I'll have to stop. If not, I'm going to keep pushing it. I'm trying to do as much things as I can do. They have to stop me sometimes because I want to do more."
In this, the third week of Rubio's running regimen, he hasn't yet felt anything more than minor swelling in The Knee, which is a good sign. Right now, he's at a 6-mph pace on the treadmill, doing four two- to three-minute intervals of walking and then running, and he feels like he's in shape. Even while he was restricted from running, Rubio added cardio into his routine, a move that lessened the physical shock of running for the first time in six months.
The point guard isn't yet able to take jump shots, but he spent much of the summer shooting free throw after free throw, and he's now moved on to working on his outside shot. Agility training will come next, and eventually he'll ease into lateral movement, which he's still restricted from.
Discussing his physical limitations is the only thing that makes Rubio seem downtrodden. Like his new teammate Brandon Roy, Rubio can be tempted to push harder than he should, but there's a sense that deep down, he knows better. There's always the lingering thought, he said, that, yes, his doctors say he can do something, but what if he can't? There's no way to know but to try, but the nerves are still there, and if Rubio has learned anything throughout this experience, it's trust.
So the man-child who has helped bring excitement back to Minnesota basketball waits and trusts. He does what he's told, and he watches. He knows he's inching back, that his recovery has been faster paced than that of many, but it isn't always easy. Basketball has been Rubio's life for more than a decade, and being away from it hurts.
"It's hard," he said. "It's hard. It's hard physically because it hurts you, but it's hard in the mind, too."
Lately, though, the mental stress seems to be improving. The player who unconsciously glued the Timberwolves together last season seems to need his teammates as much as they need him, and with every familiar face (and new one) that returns to the Target Center, Rubio's outlook brightens even more. He wanted to spend the summer in Spain with his family, and he got to, but even in his home country, something was missing without the Timberwolves.
"I love it because it's just like a great feeling being in the gym, being with your teammates and seeing them," Rubio said. "Doing my rehab back in Spain, I was missing that feeling, being a team. I love when you're in a team and you head to the locker room and you hear voices laughing."
And so he smiles and shrugs. He laughs and wiggles his eyebrows wildly at the suggestion that Spain could have won gold in London had he been playing. He jokes about Michael Beasley's singing and his new-found affinity for PlayStation (it's the only way for him to play basketball, he says). He insinuates that he got fat this summer in Spain, which is an impossible image to conjure.
The infectious excitement that is Ricky Rubio has returned, if only to the sideline. That should be enough for the Timberwolves for now, and they should count themselves lucky that this hasn't been any worse.
Let's not go so far as to say Rubio is back, not yet. But he's getting there, and the muscles aren't looking half bad beneath that scar.