Home is Where the Heart Is

by May 26, 2010

by Jeremy Bauman

“Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!” chanted a group of 200 kids, social workers and parents with a youth group venture outside the exit of FC Barcelona’s Palau Blaugrana stadium. FC Barcelona jugadores Juan Carlos Navarro, Terence Morris and Fran Vasquez walked out before 19-year-old Ricky did, but the cheering for the superstar playmaker was unparalleled.

This small, but routine occurrence outside of the stadium helps to put 19-yeRicky Rubioar-old Ricky Rubio’s growing fame in to proper perspective.

“Everywhere we go, it could be grown people or kids and it’s everything,” says forward Terence Morris, a former Maryland superstar and current Rubio teammate. “Pictures, autographs, lots of people in his situation would get frustrated but not Ricky. He doesn’t mind it.”

To understand the celebrity that is Ricky Rubio it is necessary to know where he comes from. Ricky grew up in El Masnou, a seaside village located 10 miles outside the heart of Catalonia (Barcelona) and although soccer was king he took a liking to basketball because he could “command the game in a different way.”

Catalonia (especially Barcelona) considers itself a separate entity from the likes of Spain’s central government because of political and cultural differences. The FC Barcelona marketing team caters to the mentality of “Barcelona against the world” says Ian Stephens, a former translator for FC Barcelona.

“I think his popularity has something to do with his ‘creation’ as a media star, and his Catalan identity,” continues Stephens.

The people of Catalonia take their heroes very seriously and devoutly support their hometown stars. The 45 minutes that I was allowed to have with Ricky was during media day for the Euroleague Final Four before a practice. It was tougher trying to get Ricky to talk about his NBA future than it might have been to interrogate an inmate at Guantanamo Bay.

“Well I don’t think of NBA,” said a suddenly serious Rubio. “I think here in Europe because we are focusing on the Final Four, and I don’t have to think about what they are talking. When they are talking good about you, it’s nice to have, but I have to be focused here in Spain.”

Ricky Rubio may have been drafted 5th in the NBA Draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves but the young and charismatic point guard doesn’t think twice about his decision to stay and play in Barcelona. And why would he?

Aside from the astronomical buyout of $8.1 million his former DKV Joventut team was originally seeking, ask yourself this question: Why would Ricky Rubio be in a rush to get to the Minnesota Timberwolves when he has such a loyal fan base, an excellent wage and endorsement deals, all while playing minutes from home? His game might be highly advanced but Ricky Rubio is still a kid at heart, spending off time with his buddies and regularly hanging out on the boardwalk for fun.

Former Head Coach and current ESPN analyst and scout Fran Fraschilla believes Ricky made the right decision to mold himself in Spain before coming to America.

“Ricky is mature beyond his years for a 19-year-old, but staying in Europe to play for FC Barcelona has been a wise move because he is maturing, physically and mentally,” said Fraschilla. “He is the point guard on one of the best teams in Europe at a level much higher than college basketball. His adjustment to the NBA will be much easier because of his decision to stay another year or two.”

When gauging how ready Rubio is, it is easy to think about his skills and not the reality of the situation: He’s still only 19 yRicky Rubioears old. When the time comes for him to shift his magical ball-handling, innate passing ability, and winning mentality to America, the competition of the daily grind of the NBA will take some time to get used to.

“The speed and quickness, night-in and night out, in the NBA will be Ricky’s biggest adjustment,” said Fraschilla. “Guarding Chris Paul one night and Derrrick Rose the next night will take some getting used to. But his mental quickness will offset some of his physical deficiencies. When he comes to the NBA at 20 or 21, he will be light years ahead of a normal college player because of his vast experience.”

I had the pleasure to watch Ricky Rubio in live action this year at Palau Blaugrana, FC Barcelona’s basketball, handball, and roller hockey stadium that was built in 1971 and holds 8,250 people. Admittedly skeptical after the first game, it is safe to say I am now an admirer of one of the most unselfish, intelligent, team-first lead guards I have ever seen.

By watching him play it is clear he understands that the game should be played with the importance placed solely on winning. On offense, he runs the show akin to a composer in an orchestra, dishing to the open man consistently with precision and timing. As creative as any player, Ricky is more than capable of dazzling the crowd with slick ball-handling and tricky passes, the wrap-around pass being his favorite. Though his numbers may not dazzle, the slower and more team-oriented style of play is to blame for not averaging double figures in the assists column.

Fraschilla offered an eye opening take to Rubio’s playmaking ability saying, “When it comes to seeing the game from the point guard position, he is a prodigy. There are few better passers on the planet.”

He is a capable scorer, boasting quickness to blow by his man and having a soft touch around the hoop as a finisher but as with many young players, he needs to add strength to his frame. His jump shot is a work in progress but his release point is in the right spot. Now he needs to work on tightening his form so that he becomes more consistent and can get the shot off quicker.

But what really defines Rubio isn’t so much his offense as it is on the defensive side of the ball. While most young players focus on the offensive end, Rubio has a different mentality.

“I think that there are days when you are not good enough and it’s not your day, you are not on fire and your defense always has to be there,” says the international sensation. “So that is the reason that the defense is the most important thing, because no matter how you are (offensively), you can always steal that ball, to be aggressive you can do it. If you want to attack, you can. Some days you miss things easy but it’s not your fault sometimes, but on defense it is always your fault.”

For a player so young, to have this sense of accountability is rare. To display it on the court night-in and night-out is even rarer, and that is exactly what is so impressive. The constant effort and focus that is given play after play and practice after practice is remarkable.

Fellow teammate, center Boniface N’Dong, who spent time with the Los Angeles Ricky RubioClippers in ’05-06 says Rubio works as hard as anybody. “He works very hard and he’s always in the gym before practice, so he’s a guy that has a lot of ambition and he doesn’t just count on his talent,” said N’Dong.

Comparing Rubio to Kentucky freshman sensation John Wall, the probable No. 1 selection in this year’s Draft, Fraschilla had this to say: “Both Ricky Rubio and John Wall fit the description, ‘pure point guard.’ There are few players Wall’s age that are quicker in transition. But, there are few players in the world quicker mentally, few that are better decision-makers than Rubio. They are two of the premier young guards on the planet right now.”

But as with any amateur player, of course there are some kinks in the armor and room for improvement.

“Ricky Rubio’s playmaking is NBA ready right now, but he must continue to improve his jump shot and get stronger,” according to Fraschilla. “He is still only 19 years old, so he has another couple of seasons to mature in to a player that could have an immediate impact on the NBA.”

The enthusiasm, passion and charisma that he has for the game are infinite. Whoever finally lands the smooth Spanish sensation will be getting an entertaining winner at the point guard position, the kind of player who is perfect to build around.

For now, though, his focus is on the Euroleague Final Four, and nowhere else.

“So excited! This is my first Final Four, and there are guys who have played in it before, three or four times, and they say it’s like a Kings Cup (Spanish Championship tournament), except bigger. You know, and all of Europe is paying attention to these three days, and we are so excited to play.”

Once the youngest player to play in the Spanish ACB, Barcelona has seen their young star grow up before their eyes. A few days after speaking with Rubio his FC Barcelona team easily defeated Russian CSKA Moscow in the semifinals and the Greek Olympiacos squad in the Euroleague Final. As usual, Rubio focused on the task at hand and got the job done, despite his youth.

Whenever he does finally come to America Ricky Rubio will stand out for his broken English, but his game will stand out even more. It’s just a matter of time before America really knows about Catalonia’s best kept secret.

Dedicated to an unselfish point guard and dear friend, J-RAD, who passed away recently.

Jeremy Bauman is a Sports Marketing & Management major who currently attends Indiana University. He scouts high school basketball in the New York area and posts at GothamHoops.com.