ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — I first met Ricky Rubio back in 2007, when he was all of 16 years old. He was already playing in Spain’s top league, the ACB, holding his own against grown men. So I’ve followed his career closely since then, and watched with some interest as he’s started to make a name for himself in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Last week I caught up with Ricky in Los Angeles, where he was at an adidas event for his new shoe — the Crazy Light 3, which drops August 1. More than anything, I was surprised at how big Ricky’s shoulders and arms looked. The kid’s growing up (he turns 23 in October) and, for the first time in his career, has been making a concerted effort to hit the weight room to help fend off the physical guards he goes up against on a nightly basis.
The injury bug has bitten the Timberwolves hard the last two seasons, including taking a bite out of Rubio, who missed significant chunks of his first two NBA seasons after tearing his ACL.
Yet Rubio says for the T-Wolves, there are no more excuses: “It’s time for this team to show what we can do.”
ME: So how’s your summer going?
RUBIO: Been good, been good. I’ve been working out. Actually, I rested a little bit, which let my knee finally heal up. So I feel good.
ME: We’re here at this adidas photo shoot. I know last year was your first year wearing adidas, and now you’ve got a shoe and your own colorway coming out.
RUBIO: They’re great shoes, very light. Actually, I don’t wear a lot of shoes. A lot of NBA players wear like one a game, or something like that. I wore like one pair every two months or something. When they get dirty, I change it, but I don’t want to change it. I don’t like to wear new shoes. I like when the shoe is broken in. I almost only use two or three each season, which means it’s a good type of shoe, you know?
ME: Because it holds up.
RUBIO: Right, because I play a lot of games. And it’s pretty light, which I like. I don’t like to wear a low top, because I kind of twist my ankle, and I don’t like to wear a high-high top, because it stop me from doing some things. So I think it’s the perfect size for how I feel comfortable playing.
ME: Wait, so you wear the same shoe in practice, too? You wear the same shoe every day for like three months?
RUBIO: Yeah, I do. Clayton [Wilson], the guy who is taking care of us and ordering shoes …
ME: The equipment manager?
RUBIO: Yeah, he’s always like, “You need new shoes?” And I’m like, “Not yet.” And he says, “Um…” He was wondering in the beginning, but I told him I’m not going to order new shoes until I feel like the shoes need to change. I like that way.
ME: Last time I sat and talked with you was last summer, when you had just had surgery and you were still on crutches, still icing your leg like five times a day. How long this season did it take you to feel comfortable?
RUBIO: It took me a long time, more than I thought. In the beginning I was playing, and I was ready. My knee was 100 percent, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t feeling in shape, because if you are 9, 10 months out of the game, you can do whatever, but the game speed is just different. So actually, I think it take me a while. I think the Charlotte game, the first time I scored more than 10 points, was actually the first game I feel like I was back, you know? After that I was playing pretty good. Actually, I think it was March, end of March, that I was feeling the best I felt in the NBA. And now that I’m working hard and trying to get stronger legs and all that stuff, I feel pretty good. I’m excited for next season.
ME: I know you said that physically you were 100 percent when you came back, but did you still feel like you needed to be careful? Was it hard to trust your knee?
RUBIO: Yeah, in the beginning. Now, the last month, I forget about it. But in the beginning it was something you had in your mind, but you don’t want to think. You don’t want to, but you go like half a second slower, just because. So it’s hard.
ME: What part of your game did it affect the most?
RUBIO: It’s just like I wasn’t feeling comfortable out there. Like I said, you feel half a second slow, and half a second is a lot, especially for a point guard. I need my quickness to guard and to attack. Half a second on defense is hard, but on offense it is, too, because you can’t get the advantage to give you a more comfortable shot or something like that. So it was tough at the beginning.
ME: With you and Kevin Love both out for so much of last season, what was last season like for your team?
RUBIO: It was tough because we start pretty good. Even with Kevin and me out, we start pretty good, we start with confidence. But then because we used too many minutes at the beginning with those guys, at the end they were tired. At one point we were playing with eight players, and I was one of them, and I couldn’t play more than 25 minutes.
ME: So that’s like seven and a half players.
RUBIO: Yeah. We were fighting all the games, but then at the end, it wasn’t like we were out of gas, but it was like we were getting tired from the effort we did. So it was hard, but we learned from that. We learned how hard it is to win games. Once we’re healthy, I think we’re going to take care of the ball, take care of more things, because we’re going to appreciate every win.
ME: Do you feel like after going through what you went through last season, the team can learn from that and now get to the next level?
RUBIO: I think it’s time. It’s time for this team to show what we can do. The last two years we’ve been good, people have been talking good about us, but actually we didn’t do nothing special. I mean, we play good basketball because of the coach, we had a good record at some points. But it’s not enough to show something. We have to show all year long, which makes you get to the playoffs. We have to show 82 games. We can’t have two, three games where you’re going down. We have to learn to change your mentality and don’t be a loser team.
ME: That’s hard to do.
RUBIO: That’s hard to do because when you’re losing, losing, losing, at the end you don’t care. That’s what we don’t want to do. We want to care about every game. I think we showed something with this team. For example, winning the last game of the season. It didn’t help our record — we lost about 50 games. And it was the same, losing 51 or 52. But actually, we talked about it before the last game. We said first of all, we want to finish this season winning. I know it doesn’t mean anything, but actually, at the end it means a lot. It shows you want to win every game.
ME: And it shows you guys have pride.
RUBIO: Yeah. I think the last 10 games, our record was 5-5, or something like that, which is a good record for a team not in the playoffs. Because we couldn’t say, “OK, the season is over, let’s rest.” Actually, we did an effort — because were tired — but we did an effort to the show the fans and show ourselves that we can do it. It’s something that we have to learn. I think something like that happened with Golden State. My first year in the league, two years ago, they didn’t get into the playoffs, but the last 15-20 games, they showed that they could play. This year they had a great record and they played awesome. So they kind of changed mentality.
ME: What about you, personally? What are you working on this summer?
RUBIO: I’ve been playing in the NBA for two years already, but I haven’t showed anything yet, anything that I want to show. I think I can play here, but what I’m really disappointed is with what happened to my team, and I feel guilty that we haven’t been in the playoffs, or even fighting for the playoffs the last 10 games — we’ve always been out of the playoffs before April. So I want to improve and I want to step up my game. First of all I want to get stronger, especially in the legs and the lower body, because that’s going to help me to fight every night with the best point guards in the league. Actually, if you see what’s coming, the best players are point guards, so every night is going to be a challenge. I think for me and for the team, what is best is to get stronger in the legs, be ready to fight every night, and take a little more leadership.
ME: What have you been doing since your season ended?
RUBIO: I went to Spain, I had three weeks of vacation, but after three weeks, I was getting nervous, I was getting anxious. I wanted to start working out, because when I’m not working out I feel like I should do something, because someone else is practicing and trying to get better. I don’t want to fall behind. So I’ve been working out for about six weeks, and I feel pretty good. Next I’m going to China, which is exciting, because with Facebook, Twitter and all this stuff, you can see who is following you, and there’s a lot of Chinese people following me. It’s crazy how big basketball is there. So I just want to give back how I feel about it, and say thank you to all of them. Then I play the European Championships, which is going to be huge. We don’t have Pau [Gasol] or [Juan Carlos] Navarro, but we’ll still have a good team. We’re going to try and show everyone without our two best guys in the team we can still be the best team in Europe.
ME: I know you’ve been friends with Marc Gasol for a long time. What did you think about the season he had? He seemed to really kind of become known at a higher level in the NBA.
RUBIO: I knew how good he was, but now people realize it. Actually, he’s a point guard playing as a center. He’s so smart, his basketball IQ is so high, and he can pass the ball. Pau can pass the ball too, but Marc, when I was playing with him on the National Team, I was surprised sometimes. I learned a lot from his passing. His skills and his toughness, too. You see his face in a game and you know he wants to win so badly. That’s something — his toughness — that helped me to learn about how to win.
ME: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the game, because you’re not taking so much about fundamentals — dribbling, passing. You’re talking more about big picture concepts like winning and competing.
RUBIO: It’s something that you can see in the players. You can see who really wants to win, or who’s just there because they just play basketball, or they’re just having fun. But actually if you see players like Marc or Kevin Garnett, players like that, you know they want to win. You know that if there’s a player better than him, he’s going to try whatever he has to do to get to that level and win the game. Even sacrifice, because sometimes you see the stats — like Marc sometimes scores two, three points, or only shooting like two or three times. He was sacrificing something, the stats which everybody sees. So he was like, I’m only going to shoot four or five times, but I’m going to jump ten times in a row on the pick and roll because Chris Paul is hurting us. I’m going to give my energy to that.
ME: Now that you’ve had two seasons in the NBA, what has the adjustment been like for you from Europe to the NBA, just in terms of the style of play?
RUBIO: Playing that many games was one of the hardest things. Over there you play one, two games a week. So when you had a bad game, you had three, four days to practice and improve what you did wrong. Over here, when you lose a game and you play bad, next day you have another game. So 12 hours after that game, you have to change your mentality. You have to get your confidence back. Because if you’re playing bad, you have to forget that you went 2-for-12 or whatever you did the night before, and try to have a good game.
ME: You have to change your face?
RUBIO: (laughs) That was funny because everybody saw it. But actually, we were playing at the Staples Center, and it was like a dream come true, playing in L.A. against the Lakers. He was a rookie, and I know he had a bad game and we in general had a bad game, but we were playing against the Lakers! You know? Two years ago you were playing the Lakers on the PS3, imagine that one day you will play there. I was in the Staples Center in 2008, watching The Finals when Pau Gasol lost. And I was there and I was thinking, I wish one day I could play there. And actually, after three years, I’m playing there. It’s like a dream come true.
ME: It’s still amazing to you?
RUBIO: I still can’t believe I’m playing in the NBA. Every day, I’m putting my jersey on, I’m thinking how blessed I am, how happy. I don’t know, it’s something like sometimes I’ll look in the mirror before the game and I think, ‘I’m going to play in an NBA game.’ You always dream about it, and now I’m there. I was in Spain last week and was watching the NBA Finals, and I was thinking, ‘And I’m playing in this league!’ I still don’t believe I’m playing in this league.
ME: I remember being in the room where you grew up in Barcelona, you had a Chris Paul poster, and a LeBron poster…
RUBIO: I had three of them: Pau, LeBron and Chris Paul.
ME: And now…
RUBIO: And now I’m playing against them. Like I said, I still can’t believe. I’ve played four or five times already against Chris Paul, but every time I’m playing against him, it’s something special. Because he’s one of my idols and I love how he plays. Sometimes I’m watching him at home, and the next day I play against him. It’s like, “Huh. Look at me!” So it’s funny. I’m really happy about it.