Rubio still gives Wolves fans reason for hope

MINNEAPOLIS — Four months ago, crowds cheered a man who for two years had been nothing more than a hope. They cheered an idea made of flesh but yet unproven. They chanted his name because if they didn’t believe he would be great, they would be giving up.

Ricky Rubio’s debut with the Minnesota Timberwolves was a thing of hype and sensation. It was posters and JumboTron videos, and the first strains of accent and glimpses of wide-eyed excitement were enough to power what quickly became a craze.

Only three games into the season, the chants were rampant. “Ru-bi-o! Ru-bi-o! Ru-bi-o.” The 21-year-old wasn’t starting yet, but he had proven himself to the point that coach Rick Adelman was allowing him to close out games. That implied trust mattered little to the masses, though. They were paying to see the Spanish sensation, paying to see proof of everything they had been promised when the team drafted him in 2009.

And so the chants continued. The Target Center was filled more than it had been in years, the good part of 16,000 fans screaming those three syllables, over and over. Yes, Rubio had been a pro for seven years. Yes, he  had competed in the Olympics, played against the world’s greatest players. But there he was on the heels of his worst season in Spain, in a foreign country and playing in the highest-profile basketball league in the world. And these strangers, these thousands and thousands of strangers who knew so little about him, were chanting his name.

That would be enough to swell anyone’s ego, but Rubio’s stubble-dotted, long-lashed head remained decidedly normal-sized. Instead of welcoming the cheers, he ducked away from them. He took the first opportunity to say in that high-pitched accent that was still a novelty how much he disliked them. There were four other players on the court beside him, a veteran point guard in Luke Ridnour who had earned his spot, and he felt the cheers disrespected them.

“I am a rookie,” he said so many times, so matter-of-fact. I am a rookie explained why fans shouldn’t demand that he start. I am a rookie was enough to justify his utter admiration for Kevin Love. I am a rookie was the root of his deference to team over anything else.

“I just play,” Rubio said. “Stats are fun to watch, but it’s nothing if you don’t win. You just want to win, no matter how many points, no matter how many rebounds, no matter how many assists. The most important is the team win.”

So he played, game after game, amazing fans with his innate sense for basketball, the passes as fluid as they were unexpected. He was tested, like all other rookies, the target of physical play and aggressive defense. He proved himself, dispelling the critiques that he couldn’t shoot, he couldn’t defend. By Feb. 1, he was leading all rookies in assists per game, with 8.7, and was fifth among rookies in average rebounds (4.7) and points (11.4). Somehow, though, Rubio-mania seemed to diminish as the rookie found his way in the league to more success than most imagined.

The Timberwolves were winning. Rubio was starting in a successful two-point guard lineup. Teammates were learning to expect his creative passes, and discussion of Rubio’s talents had evolved from vague evaluations to concrete praise. No longer were coaches speaking in general terms, like the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau on Jan. 10, when he repeatedly said that the rookie had a great feel for the game. Such bland compliments quickly gave way to real respect.

There was Adelman’s amazement at his decision-making, his competitiveness: “He’s just got special talent. His ball-handling skills and the way he sees the floor is unique. He sees what the defense is doing and how they react, and he takes the easy play. You can’t coach that.”

There was fellow Spaniard Pau Gasol’s I-told-you-so: “I’m glad that he’s getting . . . status here. I think that’s always really nice and very rewarding for any player, for anybody. And he’s earned it.”

There was Sacramento coach Keith Smart’s blunt explanation for his ease: “He’s played against men already.”

There was simple praise — perhaps the best kind — from a great retired point guard, Timberwolves assistant Terry Porter: “There’s a lot involved in a point guard, but he’s done a great job. A tremendous job.”

And still Rubio remained the consummate rookie. He blushed in awe of Love. He lingered in the ice bath after games, clutching his white iPhone and seemingly oblivious anyone would want to talk to him. He was the beneficiary of a Justin Bieber backpack, a nod to the floppy hair that he promptly trimmed. Despite all those years in the spotlight as a pro in Europe, Rubio resisted pulling rank as the team’s No. 2 star. He allowed the hype to fade under the glare of the team’s fledgling success, so that on March 9 he was little more than a talented rookie point guard on a team that seemed to have a chance.

But that’s when it all began again. With an almost-shove from Kobe Bryant — the same Kobe Bryant whom the rookie had the audacity to jokingly trash talk six weeks earlier — Rubio, and by proxy his left knee, twisted in a way no man and no knee should twist. He fell, his hand raised, and anyone who still hoped this might not be bad was clinging to folly. Before even another game was played, Rubio was again something more than just a player. He was the harbinger of an impending collapse, a collapse that was made manifest in the team’s 5-21 finish.

It was impossible to talk about the Timberwolves without mentioning Rubio’s knee injury, and ACL became as much a part of the conversation as double-double, rebound or any such basketball-speak. When Rubio returned to Minnesota for his first appearance after his March 21 knee surgery, the press conference bordered on a paparazzi rally, the camera clicks and video reels obscuring the maturity of a player who seemed much older than Rubio’s 21 years. The team was losing, but Rubio wasn’t a part of the failure. He was a separate hope upon which every last bit of positive energy could be focused.

But unlike the last time, unlike those January chants and the barrage of images and videos, the Rubio obsession of March and April was earned. It was borne of those individual statistics and the team’s emergence as a fringe contender. But more than that, it was a product of the intangibles, of everything he did to make the Timberwolves a winner, everything that disappeared the second he was injured.

“I think that’s the one thing that I underestimated,” Adelman said of Rubio’s impact. “You know when he got hurt, you knew you were going to be missing something. He had a huge impact on the way our team was, their personality and the way they played — just the way he was. I did not realize how much we would miss him and what a gap there was all the sudden.”

In the final week of the season, the Timberwolves held two rare practices. Rubio was present, as was Love after missing two weeks because of a concussion. Everything that had made the 26-39 Timberwolves of April 24 contenders just two months earlier was back, both the two stars and the attitude. There was music, from Hall and Oates to Serbian rap. There were jokes about Love’s new baby-faced look and Nikola Pekovic’s dancing.

And, behind a waist-high wall, there was a bench press machine with a point guard perched on it. Weights in hand, Rubio lifted — left arm, right arm, left arm, right arm. He laughed and joked with teammates, and everything seemed normal. The partition blocked Rubio’s knee brace and the crutches he’d come to hate, and it could have been March 1. For those moments, his knee obscured, Rubio was just a promising rookie point guard once again, no longer a foreign phenomenon and not yet the symbol of a team’s downfall.

That’s the best version of Rubio, and whenever he returns — whether it’s for opening night next October or in the season’s first weeks — it’s the version of Rubio that makes him the team’s best hope for a promising future. Again.

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