MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For two years, Minnesota Timberwolves fans have been tantalized by the myth of Ricky Rubio.
Rubio’s Spanish league games were rarely on television in the Twin Cities, so they watched grainy YouTube highlights — a behind-the-back pass here, a nifty dribble there — to get their fix. The air of mystery only seemed to increase the hype.
The 20-year-old point guard held his first press conference in Minnesota on Tuesday, looking to pull back the curtain and introduce himself to the fans who have so eagerly anticipated his arrival.
“I was so comfortable over there, but Minnesota makes me feel comfortable too,” Rubio said. “(The Timberwolves) supported me, they were happy about my things, my winnings, in Barcelona, and I was like, oh, they want me over there. I feel that love over there. I want to give back that love.”
The Timberwolves drafted Rubio in 2009 with the fifth overall pick, but a large buyout with his Spanish team at the time coupled with Rubio’s desire to stay home and work on his game kept him from immediately heading to the NBA.
It was a delicate negotiation at times, and president of basketball operations David Kahn, assistant GM Tony Ronzone, European scout Pete Philo and coach Kurt Rambis all chipped in to show Rubio and his family that coming to small-market Minnesota and playing for the struggling Timberwolves was the right move.
“Yeah, I feel like they really want me,” Rubio said. “It giving me confidence to play over here, play for them. It helped me a lot. I’m so glad those guys are working over here with the Timberwolves because they are really good (people) and I felt like I’m at home.”
Kahn said the Wolves staff tried to make it a point since drafting him to make Rubio comfortable with them, which would ease the transition to a new culture, new city and new game.
“I think that it is important to develop relationships and to demonstrate not only to him but to his entire family how important we felt he could be to us and how much we believed in him even back then in terms of his future as an NBA player,” Kahn said.
The flashy passer showed on Tuesday that he has some game off the court as well.
He deftly handled questions from about 60 members of the media, showing a sparkling sense of humor, a boyish enthusiasm and some genuine humility, apologizing for his English even though it was more than passable.
He said all the right things, earning applause several times from season-ticket holders who were invited to watch the press conference.
When asked why he prefers to pass first instead of score, Rubio quoted Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson: “One of the best sentences ever was Magic Johnson say a basket make one guy happy, an assist two guys happy.”
But what about the Minnesota cold, a harsh climate that was rumored to have him lobbying for a trade? Rubio said he will buy a big coat and be sure that the house he lives in comes equipped with heat.
Has he visited the Mall of America?
“That’s a good question because my family want to go there, but I don’t let them because they going to take all,” he said with a smile. “I don’t mean it like that, but I’m going to try to keep my credit card in my pocket.”
And then there is the skepticism that surrounds him after his play seemed to plateau last season with Regal Barcelona. Rubio averaged only 6.5 points and shot just 39 percent last season.
“Sometimes the stats don’t say how good are you,” Rubio said. “Or maybe opposite thing, if you make a lot of stats but your team losing, that doesn’t (matter). The goal of this sport is team wins. It’s not an individual sport. If I wanted to play individual, I’m going to play tennis or something like that. But it’s a team.”
He drew chuckles when he introduced his family, including father Esteve, mother Tona, brother Marc and 14-year-old sister Laia.
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but watch out,” Rubio said. “Watch out.”
It’s already been a bit of a whirlwind here for Rubio, but that didn’t stop him from going to the gym for a workout on Monday night after a 15-hour flight and a full day of meetings with team officials and corporate sponsors.
“I think as you can see this is a big moment for him and his family,” Kahn said. “They’re very, very excited to start this. They really are. I think they feel that this is the right moment. It’s the right time. It’s the right fit.”
Timberwolves President Chris Wright said the team has sold 530 new season-ticket packages since Rubio made his official announcement last week. They have now sold 7,000 full season tickets and the premium seating courtside is nearly sold out, a big change from the scores of empty seats seen at Target Center in recent years.
“The inertia that he created because it’s sort of been such a long time coming, but now the market is responding to it,” Wright said. “It’s been absolutely phenomenal.”
And Wright only expects the demand to increase after fans and corporate sponsors see more Rubio performances, on the court and in the media.
It seems a lot to ask of a 20-year-old rookie. But then again, Rubio has been in the spotlight since he turned professional at 14.
“It’s all new experience, because here it’s big expectation,” Rubio said. “I’m so happy about that. I’m surprised, too, and I kind of like it.”
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