MINNEAPOLIS -- Ricky Rubio took a stroll through Minneapolis on Wednesday night, as he has so often before. For the first time, he did so as a visitor.
The Twin Cities were Rubio's home away from home for the first six seasons of his NBA career, and the unexpected bond that formed between a Spanish point guard and a cold Midwestern city was one of the few endearing qualities to cling to during a downtrodden period in the franchise's history.
"Last night, I was walking around the city and I felt like I never left," Rubio said Friday before his Utah Jazz faced the Timberwolves. "A lot of fans and a lot of friends here."
The Timberwolves traded Rubio to Utah in July to clear room to sign free agent Jeff Teague, a scoring point guard who better fits coach Tom Thibodeau's offensive system. So ended the fan favorite's six-year run with the team that drafted him in 2009, waited two years for him to agree to come over from Spain and at one time believed he would eventually become the face of the franchise.
That never happened, and a promising pairing with Kevin Love dissolved as well. But Rubio's work in the community, his infectious optimism and those unparalleled no-look passes left many a fan disappointed when he was shipped away.
"They were amazing when I was here and they're still amazing," Rubio said. "Since the first day I came to the airport and get out of the gates, I started feeling the love. It's amazing having that feeling. I appreciate it."
"Ricky's definitely the first one to make me feel comfortable in Minnesota," Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. "Right after I was drafted he was taking me out to dinners and lunches, making sure I was comfortable, showing me around Minnesota.
"Being able to play with him was a huge honor. I became a smarter player and learned a lot from him."
A torn ACL short-circuited an electric rookie season and the Wolves never were able to sniff the playoffs during Rubio's time here. Thibodeau was brought in last summer to expedite the latest in a long line of rebuilding plans, and the coach and the point guard never seemed to be able to get on the same page.
Thibodeau wanted a more consistent and accomplished shooter to run his offense, spread the floor and take some of the scoring pressure off of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Rubio wanted a more open line of communication with a coach who also holds the role of president of basketball operations and is known for his all-business approach.
So when the Wolves concluded the season with a 31-51 record, missing the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season, it was clear that something had to give. Rubio was tired of hearing his name come up in trade rumors and let the organization know that he would welcome a move. The Wolves sent him to Utah for a future first-round draft pick, then signed Teague to a three-year, $57 million contract to take over the offense.
Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey and coach Quin Snyder have taken pains to make Rubio feel included in the conversations that surround the team.
"They were amazing from Day 1," Rubio said. "They've been texting me, emailing me, calling me almost every week through the process all summer long. Since I came here to Utah, it was amazing having that feeling, that connection and knowing they really are on the same page."
When Gordon Hayward chose to leave for Boston in free agency, Rubio became even more important as a pass-first point guard who gets everyone involved.
"He's been aggressive," Snyder said. "He's capable of making plays defensively. There's not a whole lot we didn't know. The passing is something that we saw and is as good as advertised."
Rubio had nine points, 10 assists and five rebounds in his debut with the Jazz, a comeback victory over Denver on Wednesday. It was a decidedly Rubio performance, short on shooting and long on playmaking.
Fans showing up to Target Center on Friday night to see their point guard will recognize his game but not much else. He has a full, thick beard, long hair that he ties up in a man-bun and a tattoo sleeve on his right arm.
"I'm feeling a much more mature player, more confidence," Rubio said. "That's a different Ricky."