‘Ricky, Ricky, Ricky abuser!’
Ricky Rubio shows signs of dominance at Copa Del Rey.
SLAM intern Adam Fleischer is living in Madrid to take in the culture, taste the excellent food, learn at University and, of course, watch some of Europe’s finest basketball. First, he caught Brandon Jennings while in Rome. And, last weekend, it was Ricky Rubio. It’s a tough life indeed.
by Adam Fleischer
Years before current teens knew Flavor Flav only as some fool who looks for love on VH1, he warned “Don’t Believe the Hype” on Public Enemy’s 1988 song whose chorus was it’s name, sandwiching Chuck D verses on issues of the day and media representation. This oft-quoted track has not lost its significance through time or over use; instead, it’s a good approach to take whenever something has a notable level of buzz surrounding it. Calling the buzz surrounding Ricky Rubio “notable” would be an understatement.
The highest level of basketball played outside of the US can be found in Spain. Euroleague notwithstanding, which gathers teams from 13 different European countries, Spain’s ACB (Asociacion de Clubs de Baloncesto) is the cream of the crop. A good deal of NBA players have honed their skills in the ACB, ranging from Drazen Petrovic and Arvydas Sabonis to the brothers Gasol and Jose Calderon more recently, and a handful of soon to be NBAers are dispersed throughout the league’s 17 teams today. Among these, the apple of everyone’s eye is DKV Joventut point guard Rubio, seemingly a surefire top choice in one of the next two drafts. So when I found out that Rubio was coming to town (Madrid) for a tournament, I knew that peeping him in person was a must to put the hype to the test.
The Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) is an annual midseason event that pits the tops eight squads from ACB against one another in a Thursday through Sunday single elimination tournament. From both talking to dudes around Madrid and reading up on it over the last month or so, it became abundantly clear that this is one of the bigger sporting events in the country each year. While the games don’t affect in-season records, Copa del Rey gives Spain’s top teams and players a chance to showcase their talents play for some bragging rights.
As my boy and I rolled to the Paleseo de los Deportes on Friday night for Day 2 of the first round, I was a bit unsure what to expect—in terms of atmosphere, level of competition, and Rubio. Although I watched him play in the Olympics over the summer and have studied my fair share of YouTube videos of the 18-year-old phenom, seeing a player in person provides a means to continuously watch him and really get to know his game in a way not possible through television.
Upon arrival, it was clear that whether or not Rubio would meet my expectations, the hype surrounding the tournament was not exaggerated. Outside of the stadium, there were a bunch of games set up for fans—things like two on two, shooting, and dribbling competitions—as well as an overall feel that this was a true spectacle, with countless vendors, memorabilia, lights and oversized posters of some of the top participating players. Inside the arena the atmosphere was taken to a different level, as jerseys, flags, painted faces and team colors galore were sported by fans of all ages.
We bought tickets for both of the night’s games, but only caught the second half of the early contest, which saw Unicaja Malaga defeat Gran Canaria behind 22 points from former lottery pick Marcus Haislip. Haislip, who was drafted by the Bucks in 2002, seems to be the face of the franchise and has been putting up stellar numbers ever since coming overseas a few years back. Omar Cook was running the point for Unicaja and, while thumbing through the program, I saw that Andre Barrett does the same for Regal FC Barcelona, leaving me to wonder where Taliek Brown was–the trio of N.Y.C. points will forever be linked in my mind.
After some back-and-forth chants and standing ovations for players on both teams by the Unicaja and Gran Canaria fan sections which were perfectly situated on opposite corners of the arena, DKV Joventut and their opponent, Madrid’s own MMT Estudiantes took the floor for warm ups. I was immediately struck by Rubio’s wrist, which was still taped from an injury sustained in the Olympic final that had him sidelined for the first few weeks of the season. Equally striking were the fans that, similar to the first game, were out in great numbers from all corners of Spain to support their team.
The opening tip went to Rubio, who looked undersized compared to teammates and opponents. At 6-3, though, he’s an adequately sized point and will surely gain some muscle as he continues to grow into his body; plus, his being skinnier than other guys hasn’t seemed to hurt him to this point, so why would it on this night? In the League, maybe, but not yet. However, the opening period proved disappointing for Ricky, as a telegraphed pass on a backdoor was intercepted two minutes in, followed later by two misses from beyond the arc on one possession and then a missed midrange jumper and victimization on a backdoor cut on D. With the 3:30 left in the first, he was headed to the bench.
It wasn’t until two and a half minutes into the second that Rubio reentered, at which point he abruptly alerted Estudiantes that he had returned and that he wasn’t planning on prolonging his mediocre play. Rubio immediately caused a steal with full court pressure on his first possession back. While Rubio had been sitting, I became captivated by Jayson Granger, Estudiantes’ Uruguayan point guard, one year Rubio’s senior. Although he hadn’t been impacting the game all that much from a statistical standpoint, Granger looked to have the size and skill-set to make him someone that could possibly develop into NBA level talent. Initially excited to see the two match-up, I watched Granger head to the bench soon after Rubio’s return.
With the precedent set by his steal, Rubio’s second go around proved a tad more successful than his first. A continuation lay in accompanied by a free throw put the stat line at 3 points, 2 fouls with four minutes to go in the half. The move was one of many examples on the night of Rubio’s superior body control and ability to often withstand and absorb contact despite his small stature. Less than a minute later, he made a beautiful move to split two defenders a kiss it off the glass from the left side, but then quickly picked up his third personal, earning himself a trip to the pine until the second half.
Halftime was fully equipped with everything I’ve come to know and love about professional basketball halftime shows: six or so guys who call themselves Los Crazy Dunkers de Orange (Spanglish, much?) jumping off of trampolines doing wild dunks; “Born in the USA” suspiciously playing through the PA system; scantily clad cheerleaders dancing to “Sexy Back;” and, of course, me faithful glaring at the clock to see when it all ends.
When that glorious moment did come, it wasn’t until five minutes of game time later, when the third was half over, that Rubio checked back in. During that stay on the sideline, Estudiantes pulled ahead by seven and the hometown crowd was going bizerk. The two teams’ fans dominating opposite sections of the stadium gave the game a true March Madness or Conference Tourney feel. The Estudiantes faithful were definitely in the house, often bouncing up and down in unison after big plays like they were in Madison getting amped during “Jump Around” and preparing for the fourth quarter of a Wisconsin football game to start.
Point guards control the tempo of the game and the spirit of their team. It was on Rubio to quell all of the momentum and fan noise. And quell he did. Coming down the right side to complete a mirror image of his earlier AND 1, he again showed that he could get to the basket basically at will. Next, he grabbed a defensive board, took it across half court, stopped at the three-point line, went ’97 AI to the Estudiantes defender’s Jordan, and calmly laid it in from the left. Rubio had helped pull his team within two heading into the fourth.
The slim kid wearing No. 9 really earned his check in the final period. A minute and a half into the quarter, Rubio stole the rock, took it coast-to-coast and earned an open teammate a trip to the line. The very next possession, he stole the ball and took it coast-to-coast again, this time drawing all the D in the lane and tossing it behind the back to another open teammate; result: 2 points, 15,000 standing fans, an Estudiantes timeout and my boy turning to me to matter of factly say, “We’re witnessing the value of Ricky Rubio right now.” Out of the timeout, Ricky thought it would be fitting to get another steal, but this time he decided to do it in the backcourt and finish the lay in himself. The rest of the quarter saw a combination of at least four flawlessly executed pick and rolls (which he runs flawlessly every time), a couple on point backdoor dishes, and a Tony Parkeresque floater from the right baseline.
Although Joventut took the L by five in the end, Rubio played quite well, especially in the final period during which he had his way when and where he wanted. I would have loved to see him toy with opponents all game, but the flashes were there and relatively frequent. There was a point when he was trapped in the corner and, after the play, he looked to be getting on two of his teammates for not making cuts towards the ball. You gotta love it if your point guard is a leader, and that sequence demonstrated that he has the potential to not only lead by example, but vocally as well. That kind of leadership may be hard to show on a consistent basis as the youngest guy on the court, but he knew when the time was right. Rubio finished the night with 16 points, 7 assists, and 6 steals.
I’m certainly not the first to say it, and you can be just as sure that I won’t be the last, but now that I’ve witnessed for myself I gotta let it be known: Believe the Hype. Sorry, Flav.