Injury keeps Ricky Rubio out of London Olympics, but his heart remains with Spain

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

EL MASNOU, Spain – Ricky Rubio is steering his BMW through the winding, hilly streets in this beach town along the Mediterranean, a beautiful woman named Anna tucked into the passenger seat. He bought himself a small house in his childhood hometown -- just two doors away from Anna's, to be close to her. Over a lunch of cannelloni and fish near the water, they celebrated her birthday Thursday.

"Here, people know me as her grandson," Rubio says. "They don't know me as much as the basketball player. I still like that." 

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Ricky Rubio (AP)

Ricky Rubio (AP)

Anna's 74th birthday falls on the day the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Saint Anne, and she's smiling so brightly as Ricky tells the story, twisting and turning through the narrow town streets. After dropping his grandmother home, Rubio heads to a recreation center in the neighboring town of Alella, where a photographer is waiting to use Europe's best young basketball player in a photo shoot to promote a charity benefiting mentally disabled children.

"Miramira," Rubio says to a special-needs boy, whom the photographer is trying to inspire to smile for a picture. Rubio starts holding a basketball out to the boy, waving it in the air, and now the child laughs and laughs and laughs.

"Bueno, bueno," the women watching coo.

Beneath Rubio's floppy hair, scruffy beard, and a sunny Spanish sky, he's wearing a blue polo, shorts, and sandals. The scars on his left knee are unmistakable, five inches where the surgeons cut into him to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and and a torn small lateral collateral ligament that ended his magnificent rookie NBA season too soon in March with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team's trainer, Greg Farnam, has been here conducting Rubio's rehabilitation during the point guard's trip home to Spain. Next week, Rubio returns to Colorado for his every six-week examination with the surgeon.

"I hope by September I can start running again," Rubio says.

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He is forever grateful to return to El Masnou, where his parents live in an apartment overlooking the sea. Life here always seemed a little slower than a few miles down the road in Barcelona, where Rubio played his first professional game as the boy wonder of 14 years old.

Though he came back here and sat courtside this week in Barcelona as Spain played Team USA in a likely precursor to the London Olympic gold-medal game, it turned into one more excruciating exercise in these moments of rehabilitation. From Timberwolves teammate Kevin Love to Rubio's brotherhood with the Spanish national team, the exhibition on Tuesday night made Rubio understand all too well again that he wouldn't get a chance to chase gold in London with the world's best players.

"Hard watching basketball and not being part of it, especially a game like that this week," Rubio says."I felt like somebody was going to have to come grab me, because I'm going to jump out there at any time and try to play.

"But in my mind, there's a goal, and the goal is recovering 100 percent and making sure I'm never going to get hurt again in that knee."

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Four years ago, Rubio was the youngest Olympic basketball player in history at 17 years old, a Spanish ACB league legend holding his own with Chris Paul and Deron Williams and Jason Kidd. Before Rubio left his house for Team USA's 100-78 victory on Tuesday, he found himself drifting back to that Beijing day while watching a Spanish TV replay of the 2008 gold-medal game, when he never did get the full chance to do his part and complete that upset victory against the Americans.

Spain played brilliantly for most of that game, pulling within a point in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal game. This was most of the world's introduction to the Spanish teen sensation, replete with a confidence and a command from Rubio that grew with every Olympic tournament game.

"In the second quarter I got hurt on my wrist," Rubio says, "and I went to the coach, and say, 'I can't shoot.' The coach say, 'It doesn't matter. Just do your best.' At halftime, it was hurting so much. I had surgery after that. I was having a lot of pain, but it was Olympic game final and I couldn't stop."

Rubio has grown up with his Spanish teammates, sharing such a kinship with them, and thinks so often about how he wants to replicate that camaraderie, that fellowship, with the Timberwolves. Minnesota's roster keeps changing, and it's hard, but during rehab Rubio sees the way that his Spanish teammates reach out with texts and calls, telling him about the moments -- the inside jokes, the basketball -- that he's missing with them now. Somehow, he still feels like a part of Spain's national team.

"It was different [with the Timberwolves]," he says."My first year, I didn't know how to act. We can have a great team together if we are family outside the court. With the national team, you are playing on your vacation. But everybody wants to go, because you play for Spain. But secondly, it's because we are friends. Not just teammates, but friends. When I get hurt, I get 12 messages, one from each teammate. ‘We are going to miss you. No matter what, we'll always going to be with you.'

"That's a real family. You feel like you're a part of it. I want to bring that to Minnesota."

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Rubio goes out of his way to call Love the leader of those Timberwolves, the best player, but Rubio showed something significant in those 41 games last season. He showed he wasn't some overhyped Euro, but a game-changer in the NBA, a ticket-seller, a point guard players everywhere would die to have getting them the ball.

When Rubio started working out in suburban Los Angeles during the lockout, he sent word to his future Timberwolves teammates that they were welcome to come join him, play ball, grab some meals, and develop some chemistry. No one showed.

"In the NBA, it's different than in Spain," Rubio says."Now that I know them, if that situation happens again, for sure we hang out. I didn't know them. New for me. I didn't know how they are. But I'm going to try to bring my experience from Europe to be a better team outside the court, be a family."

Rubio is always surrounded with family: His older brother Marc lives with him. His mother stops over to check on him Thursday afternoon. There have been the requisite doubts and depressing days in this rehab process, but Rubio moves past it all. He's relentlessly positive, well-grounded, and introspective. His upbringing in this simple town, surrounded with generations of family and old friends, spared him some of the baggage too often burdening childhood prodigies. Some teen idols never have a career, but Rubio is on his way to something significant as a global basketball star.

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Ricky Rubio is rehabbing a torn ACL. (AP)

Ricky Rubio is rehabbing a torn ACL. (AP)

Rubio is sipping ice water on the small outside deck of his single-level house on the hill, and Farnam, the Timberwolves's trainer, is preparing for an evening workout at the gymnasium. The abode is modest: a bedroom, small kitchen, and living room with a big television and surround sound. Outside, there's a small pool that edges against 12 or 13 feet of shooting space near the basket. An old hoop leans over the deck of the little pool, but looks like it's making its final stand. No more dunking from the pool, he's warned his buddies. Otherwise, that thing will come tumbling down soon.

"Why do I need more?" he says. "I have my pool. I have my room."

Now Rubio taps the table in his yard and says, "This is the most important thing, just having this to be able to hang with my friends."

Maybe all that becomes easier with a different locker room in Minnesota, something that Love said as much recently. Brandon Roy comes out of retirement. Alexey Shved is the young Russian guard, and soon the Timberwolves can sign Andrei Kirilenko to his two-year, $20 million contract. Rubio earned his respect around the NBA the way he had as a teenager playing with men in the Spanish league: He can deftly control a game with his passing, his shot-making, and the extraordinary ability to make the uncommon seem so common.

The morning after news had broken about his knee injury, Rubio was so moved to see stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant reaching out on Twitter, wishing him well, and telling him he was a hell of a player. Rubio had become the kind of NBA player other players liked watching, and that's hard to do in half an NBA season.

"That was like a big present for me," he says."They made me smile in one of the tough moments of my life."

El Masnou will always be home, but Rubio had to get away, push past the Spanish ACB, and chase his destiny in the NBA. Indeed, his arrival was spectacular, everything that people had wanted to see out of him -- and maybe more -- but he plans to keep working that knee until it is strong again, and bring more of himself back to the Timberwolves and the NBA this season. There's so much of Rubio's life, his values, here in this town on the Spanish coast, and he plans to return with all of it to the NBA next season.

Yes, it makes Rubio ache that the ball won't be in his hands in London, but it will be again soon in Minneapolis. Above all, he wants to play his part with Love to make the Timberwolves matter, to construct a winner. A teen sensation turning into a man believes he understands something of the formula. "When you're a family, you can win," Rubio says. Great point guards win in the NBA, and he knows that comes next for him. It has to come now.

And for Ricky Rubio, the understanding of bringing it all together started here on the winding, hilly streets of the town overlooking the Mediterranean, where a beautiful birthday girl named Anna lives almost next door.

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