Rubio: From docile to determined in an instant
MINNEAPOLIS — In the fourth quarter of most Minnesota Timberwolves home games, a supersized image of Ricky Rubio appears on the screen at the Target Center. With his hair as shaggy as always, his beard a thing of teenage scruff, Rubio smiles that smile.
"Make! Some! Noise!" video-Ricky yells, and the call to action combined with that smile and that hair and the innocence that is Rubio is often enough to get the crowd to its feet.
It's hardly intimidating, this overgrown, sheepish boyish player on the Jumbotron. It's not an image that should incite aggressive cheers from fans and fear from opponents.
But it does, and that's what's fundamentally Rubio. There's so much more than meets the eye. And that guy in the video? It's not the same person playing on the court below, not really.
It's natural for professional athletes to bring an added level of intensity to the court. That's often the key to success, but it's rare to see so little of that competitiveness in a player's personal life. It's not every day a coach will repeatedly say a player is both laid-back and competitive, but those words are the two Rick Adelman has relied on most to describe Rubio this season.
They're words any linguist would find to be at odds. Competitive: inclined, desiring or suited to compete. Laid-back: having a relaxed style or character. That doesn't seem to mesh, but when Adelman says it, it somehow makes sense.
"He's really competitive," Adelman said of Rubio before Tuesday's game against the Clippers. "He . . . might come out here tonight, and Chris Paul might go at him. We expect he will. But Ricky's not going to back down. He's going to learn his lessons. That's how he is. That's why he's been good."
The rookie, who's sixth in the NBA in assists (8.3 per game) and second in steals (2.3), has been a force on the court all season. He's tenacious and intense. His steely glances and his considerable skills go beyond those of even the most talented 21-year-olds. On the court, the floppy hair and the boyish grin seem to disappear, or at least to fade.
Luke Ridnour, who's played alongside Rubio for the majority of his minutes this season, said he noticed his teammate's competitive intensity almost instantly. The only thing that stood out more in training camp, Ridnour said, was Rubio's passing ability.
"Once you step on it, there has to be a tenaciousness," Ridnour said. "Switch the light bulb and just get ready to go. You can definitely see that he has that."
For many players, it may be a light bulb. But for Rubio, it's more like a large-scale electric shock. It's hard to conceive how the player who was just minutes ago reclining by his locker, looking to all the world like he was ready for a quick nap, can so quickly become the person racing down the court and diving to deflect a shot anyone else would concede. He's the kind of player who lingers in ice baths, checking his phone, oblivious to any schedule. He speaks slowly, each word drawn out and then clipped to a fine Spanish point. None of that seems to fit, but with Rubio, laid-back can somehow be fierce.
Perhaps the best "oh, Ricky" moment came on Jan. 29, after the Timberwolves mounted a double-digit comeback against the Lakers only to lose, 106-101. It wasn't Rubio's best night — he finished with five points and eight assists — but that wasn't enough to squelch his competitive nature or his confidence. Postgame, in the tunnel between the two locker rooms, Rubio passed Kobe Bryant. Instead of just saying hello, or even simply staring in awe of the man who might be the league's greatest player, Rubio decided to challenge Bryant, telling him that the United States would be winning a silver medal in the London Olympics this summer, implying that his own Spanish team would win.
It would take a certain measure of down-to-earth moxie to challenge Bryant, to look beyond the fact he's the biggest star in basketball and see him as just another guy worth prodding a bit. But it also takes the intensity that Rubio is becoming known for to even have those thoughts, much less voice them. It was the perfect mix of laid-back and competitive. It was Ricky Rubio.
Nicole LaVoi, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Minnesota whose research includes sport and exercise psychology, sport sociology and sport management. LaVoi said Rubio's ability to switch between a laid-back manner and the competitive intensity he displays on the court should not be considered a facet of his personality. Rather, she said, the young point guard most likely possesses keen mental and psychological skills.
"Regardless of how he is off the court, what we find from top performers is that they can switch into a performer identity, by getting into the zone, being at an optimal arousal level," LaVoi said.
So Rubio's shifting effect is most likely thanks to years of learning within sport, and perhaps his youth contributes to the attention that his intensity receives. To be able to transition on the court so seamlessly requires a level of poise that the average 21-year-old may not possess. But with seven years of professional experience behind him, Rubio is more experienced than he looks.
So it all comes down to learning timing and gaining experiential knowledge, LaVoi said. Rubio has acquired the ability to focus on the right thing at the right time, and in doing so, he most likely has learned how to manage stress and anxiety better during games and then turn off those worries when he leaves the court.
"As a sport psychologist, I would argue that what he's doing is activating the right skills at the right time," LaVoi said.
So maybe it's not a case of split personality. Maybe Rubio really is a product of years of experience, of good coaching, and of absorbing knowledge both consciously and unconsciously. But more than anything, Rubio's ability to use those psychological skills to his advantage stems from one thing: his unequivocal desire to win.
"When I jump to the court, I'm a different person," he said. "I love my teammates and hate everybody else."
He's smiling as he says it, and it's hard to believe he could hate anyone. He smiled when he saw his old friend Pau Gasol before Wednesday's game in Los Angeles, just as he's joked and laughed with all his European friends and former teammates this season. He's like a little brother to them, the former child star whom they've watched grow up, and they treat him as such.
But just minutes later, those same men with whom Rubio shares memories and culture become enemies on the court. It's as if the pleasantries never occurred. But that's Rubio. Don't let the packaging fool you.
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