Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Cult Of Rubio


It has become nearly impossible for a teenage basketball phenom to hoop below the radar. Gone are the days when a relative unknown could finagle an invite to some elite camp and become the nation’s hottest recruit overnight, like Tracy McGrady did at ABCD in 1996.

The scouting and recruiting apparatuses are so well-oiled that a current player with transcendent physical tools like McGrady would have been showcased and written up in reports and puff pieces before he even played a game in high school, no matter what dusty corner of the U.S. he lived in.

Today, the only intrigue in the prospect game concerns foreign players, and the greatest mystery going is how well Spanish wunderkind Ricky Rubio will fare in the NBA. Anyone reading about Rubio in the run-up to the 2009 draft (and after he was selected fifth overall by the Timberwolves) would be under the impression that he was the second coming of (insert breathless point guard comparison here). But only a select few fans/pundits in the U.S. had ever seen Rubio play outside of the Olympic gold-medal game won by the Americans in 2008. How did Rubio become a cult of basketball personality?

The legend of Rubio began its worldwide ascent with his performance in the 2006 FIBA Under-16 European Championship game. In Spain’s 110-106 victory in double overtime over Russia, Rubio had the sublime line of 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals.

The game was filmed by a spectator in the stands, and the footage begins with the camera trained on a figure that stands out in the layup line among his red jersey-clad teammates. The pro-Spain crowd cheered wildly as Rubio wrapped the ball behind his back then dropped in an acrobatic lay-in from the left side. On his next trip through the line, Rubio played to the crowd’s anticipation and threw an alley-oop to himself off the glass for a one-handed dunk.
That was just the sound check for Rubio’s rock-star performance in the game. The footage is grainy, you can’t make out faces or read numbers, but you are always aware of which player is Rubio. He was clearly on a different level than his peers in this game. He got into the lane on nearly every possession.

Rubio’s assists total could have been at least five higher had he been playing with better teammates who could handle his passes. The kid oozed confidence even through an amateur camcorder lens. The most striking aspect of Rubio’s game, as often noted, is his passing vision. A 16-year-old kid shouldn’t have that kind of feel for the game. He was also at his best in the clutch moments, taking over the scoring burden in the final minutes and hitting a long shot to send the game into overtime.

Video from Rubio’s performance leaked out on the Internet, whetting the appetite of Stateside fans. It showed just enough, and was tantalizingly incomplete and grainy. Plus, Rubio’s flashy game was tailor-made for YouTube. He had enough no-look dimes and gymnastic forays to the hoop to cobble together several “mix tapes” on the Web.

Journalists started to pick up the scent. Lang Whitaker of Slam magazine was the first American scribe to spread the gospel of Rubio, heading across the pond to actually dig into the phenomenon and banging out a feature in 2007. After that, more mainstream publications took notice, and the ball of hype picked up steam quickly.

Fans clamored for their team to draft Rubio strictly on the basis of Internet clips and second-hand stories. It was like a perfectly orchestrated guerrilla marketing campaign. It could never have worked with an American prospect, one whose game had been studied and dissected from every angle since he was a teenager.

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