The best point guard you've never heard of walks through the streets of El Masnou, a seaside village 10 miles outside of Barcelona. His dark eyes hide behind a mop of black hair. He rocks Tupac on the Nano, but his drooping shorts are more skater than hip-hop. At 6'3", Ricky Rubio is tall enough to stand out in Spain, but this spring morning, among the whitewashed walls of his hometown, he's just another 17-year-old high school senior on his way to take final exams.
That night, though, Rubio is in nearby Badalona, the home of DKV Joventut, Spain's small-market hoops factory. On the floor, the third-year pro disrupts passing lanes and creates plays that don't make the stat sheet. Several times he even outpositions 7'1", 280-pound Marc Gasol for rebounds. When Pau's younger brother lays him out with a vicious elbow, Rubio gets up (eventually) and even with a hard drive and an easy dish to a man Gasol has left open. No wonder Rubio is an open secret among NBA scouts.
So why haven't you heard of him?
Because no one was talking. The kid never spoke after games nor gave one-on-one interviews; neither his club nor his parents allowed it. The Rubios turned down million-euro endorsement deals to keep their superstar son's life as regular as possible. And scouts kept quiet about the Spanish Pistol Pete Maravich to avoid the NBA's hefty fine for commenting on underage prospects. Rubio lives in a bubble, but it is decidedly about to burst. As soon as the 2008 NBA draft ended, Ricky Rubio officially became one of the hottest prospects for 2009.
Rubio was 12 and hardwired for hoops when he joined DKV Joventut's developmental program in 2002. "He reads basketball at a velocity very few can achieve," says Marc Calderon, his U14 coach. One year later, Rubio made his Spanish pro debut. The rest awaits you on YouTube. Even in grainy videos, his elegance and court awareness show clearly. Watch him chase a loose ball, toe the sideline and fake the obvious pass before flipping a no-look, behind-the-head fling to a teammate streaking to the rim.
It's okay, you can swoon a little—like the crowd of teenage girls who begged for snapshots and signatures after a recent road game in Valencia. Or the Western Conference GM who calls Rubio "a tremendous talent," then stops to make sure the rest of his comments are off the record before gushing for five more minutes. An Eastern exec cites the NBA fine before dropping this bomb. "He's the European LeBron James," he says. "He's not so crazy strong, but he does other things: the creativity, the Maravich-type stuff. He brings people out of their chairs, and he'll put them in your stands. He's a top-three pick."
So far, the bubble has kept Rubio from the hype. His is a double life: high school everyboy by day, hoops Jonas Brother by night. Even as pressure has mounted from sponsors, the team and the league to let Rubio be heard, his folks have resisted. But now Ricky has been chosen to play on Spain's Olympic team, and that will be that. Everyone is about to find out about Ricky Rubio.
His first press conference was convened in early June. Earlier in the day, Rubio sat on his bed under a Michael Jordan poster. He praised Chris Paul and Lamar Odom, lamented the NBA's emphasis on the individual and blamed poor team play for USA's international struggles. "Basketball isn't one-on-one," he said in his native Catalan. "It's five-on-five, plus the bench."
Switching to effective if blocky English, he explained how he lulls foes into thinking they have a passing lane before closing in for another steal. No, he's not ashamed to resort to trickery, not even when playing Parcheesi against Laia, his 11-year-old sister. "If I'm losing, I'm going to do everything possible to win," he said. "I do the same thing on the court." He spoke of practicing no-look passes and emulating moves he saw in videos of Maravich. "If I can do some magic, I do it." Over and over, Rubio reminded the listener that he's 17, going so far as to spin queries about his NBA future into a case for the value of higher education.
Yeah, right. Four big-market European clubs have already offered him NBA-type money, up to 2.5 million euros (nearly $4 million) after taxes in the first year. But Rubio is too competitive to pass up the chance to play night after night against the world's best. Why else would he have spent half of June in LA, working with a shooting coach hired by his stateside agent, Dan Fegan?
Then, just before the draft, Rubio left the country unnoticed, like any normal kid.
Probably for the last time.