Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 3/26/12
MINNEAPOLIS Listening to the foreign phrases and lilting accent, it's easy to forget that not a word Ricky Rubio is saying is in English or makes any sense. Half his tweets, a good portion of his interviews and even the occasional sentence in an English conversation are unintelligible to a non-Spanish speaker, but no matter. He just kept talking, and everyone kept up. And the steady stream of Spanish media trickled into the Timberwolves' gym all season, the rookie point guard often seemed tired, pulled in too many directions. But no matter how much the questions and the repetition might have drained him, he always seemed so comfortable, leaning back in his folding chair and mugging for the cameras, as if Spain and his fans were just on the other side of the lens. At times, Rubio looked so at ease that it was easy to erase the image of the bashful rookie occasionally tripping over his words. He was a star in Spain, and now that he's playing in the United States, that attention isn't going to go away. Visiting the NBA page of the website of the second-largest newspaper in Spain, El Mundo, yields a skewed set of news. On March 19, the image of a slack-jawed Pau Gasol making some sort of "okay" gesture with his hands peered out from the page, heralding the fact that the Lakers' veteran hadn't been traded four days earlier. Sure, it's an NBA page, but really, newspapers like El Mundo (a general, more comprehensive paper like ones in the U.S.) and Spanish sports-only publications focus mostly on the Spanish players in the league and the teams they play on. Prominently displayed stories on El Mundo's site reveal a disproportionate amount of coverage of the Lakers (Pau Gasol's team), Grizzlies (Marc Gasol's team) and Timberwolves. With fewer players to cover and fewer teams on the Spanish media's radar, stories are bigger and last longer overseas than they do in the U.S. El Pais, the Spanish paper with the largest circulation, doesn't have an NBA page on its site, but the top story on its basketball page Saturday morning was the Timberwolves' loss to Oklahoma City. Other NBA stories sprinkled throughout the page covered topics like Rudy Fernandez's injury, Pau Gasol's play for the Lakers and Rubio's ACL tear. There wasn't a single NBA story on the page that didn't somehow relate to a Spanish player that day.According to Juan Romero and the Minnesota Timbertrolls, a Spanish Timberwolves' fan group he belongs to, Spanish media do a good job of covering NBA players from Spain. However, he said, they aren't as thorough in their coverage of the rest of the league or the ACB, the top-tier Spanish professional league. And with three sports-only newspapers in Barcelona Mundo Deportivo, Sport and El9 and two in Madrid Marca and As in addition to magazines and newspapers, there are plenty of venues in which coverage of players like Rubio, the Gasol brothers and other Spanish athletes overseas appear.Rubio, though, caused the biggest media stir of any Spanish player who's come to the United States to play in the NBA. That's in part because of the rise of social networking and Internet news, which were present to a much lesser extent when the Gasol brothers and Jose Calderon, other big-name Spanish players, entered the league. But the media attention, the posters and videos and ad campaigns all bearing his image, were still an adjustment for the rookie, who had been something of a media sensation after turning pro at age 14 before the attention fell off in recent years. Not only did coverage of Rubio wane during his poorer performances in 2010 and 2011, but the Spanish media also devotes much of its overage to veteran players."I'm glad that he's getting that status here," Pau Gasol said in January of the media attention on Rubio. "I think that's always really nice and very rewarding for any player, for anybody. And he's earned it."Rubio's final year in Spain playing for Barcelona was arguably the worst of his career. He averaged 6.5 points and just 3.6 assists per game, and criticism of the way he handled the decision to move to the NBA dominated media coverage of the young star. "All the hype that was going on in his Joventut years became criticism in his last year at Barcelona," Romero said via email. "Many people said he couldn't cope with the pressure and he was going to fail at the NBA, while others said that he was mistaken when he stayed in Spain and should have gone to the NBA right after the draft because NBA style of play suited him better."Not only did the coverage shift in tone, but it also diminished. Antonio Gil, who's written about Rubio since 2007 for Spanish magazine Gigantes del Basket and Basket4us.com, agreed that much of the attention on Rubio in his final year in Spain hinged on his NBA future. Some wrote that Rubio wasn't ready for the NBA, citing his poor play for Barcelona, while others said he should have found a way to move to Minneapolis when he was drafted.Roberto Alvarez of El Pais has been writing about Rubio since the day after he made his ACB debut in October 2005. Alvarez said that though the coverage of Rubio did change when his performance dipped, he was still a star. No matter what, he was a player on the national team, and there was always interest in him as an athlete and public figure.That interest multiplied when Rubio finally signed with the Timberwolves last June. Immediately, media in Spain began to speculate about how the rookie would perform, Romero said on behalf of the Timbertrolls. Some believed he wouldn't be able to handle the pressure, and others thought that the struggling Rubio might actually be better suited to the NBA style of play."Some people were surprised, but others always thought that Ricky was going to do well at the NBA," Romero said. "And, although last year it seemed to be more people in the first group, now it looks as if everybody was in the Ricky is (going to) be great at the NBA' wagon all along."And though it's difficult for many Spaniards to watch Rubio's games live most Timberwolves games take place right around dawn in Spain they still follow him, and in a greater number than they did when he was playing in Spain. In fact, Alvarez said that he's written about Rubio often since he arrived in the United States, and Gil penned something about the Timberwolves rookie weekly at minimum before his injury. Gil said that it's been difficult to set up interviews with Rubio since he arrived in Minnesota because of the incredible demand, and Alvarez noted that the stories he writes about the point guard get a good deal of comments."I think Ricky had a big impact in the (U.S.) media, and then he showed on the court he deserved it," Gil said in an email. "There aren't many players like Ricky in the (world), and the media know it. Also he's a humble guy who you can work good with. But the most important thing is that the media is talking about him with respect."That's the biggest thing that's changed in the Spanish media since Rubio departed for the NBA: the respect has returned. Alvarez said that his tone in stories about Rubio is not necessarily one of surprise, but that Rubio has allayed his concerns about adapting to the league and his physical strength. With the way he played before his injury, it was hard for anyone to be too critical of the rookie."He was already famous in Spain before to play in the NBA, but he is more important right now," Gil said. "Everybody was waiting to see how he plays in the NBA so it's normal people write more about him now."It didn't take long for word of Rubio's injury to spread overseas on the evening of March 9, when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear. It was on the front page of sports sections and even some more mainstream media in Spain, and coverage of the injury took up a good deal of newspaper space, Alvarez said. Rubio was on the cover of Gigantes that week, and people in Spain were worried about him, Gil said. "These news shocked many fans and many people," Alvarez said. "I think Ricky is a guy with a very, very, good image, and many people feel sorry for him."As of Friday, the last time Gil had written about Rubio was March 22, when he wrote a story about how the Timberwolves were faring without their point guard. Gil said the Spanish media will continue to chronicle Rubio's recovery, and he's fairly certain that Basket4us.com, the site he writes for, will send someone to the United States to cover Rubio's recovery, though the final decision has not yet been made. It might sound like a lot, but the U.S. media has no room to scoff at the resources these Spanish media institutions are putting forward to covering Rubio. In the U.S., much of the media put the fate of a team on the shoulders of a 21-year-old who'd never even played an NBA game this season. The U.S. media has asked him everything from, "What's your favorite food?" to, "How are you liking Minnesota?" and taken detailed notes as assistant coach Terry Porter said he's pretty sure Rubio is just a normal kid who would love to go hang out at the mall.That's just as crazy as flying overseas to cover the aftermath of a knee surgery, if not crazier. Rubio has become the face of basketball in Spain to Americans, but that doesn't make him any less of a public figure in his home country. In fact, by packing up his life and traveling thousands of miles to a place many people in Spain know little about, Rubio may have just added to the mystique and celebrity that surrounds him in Spain."I love it," Gil said of the hype surrounding Rubio. "Ricky is amazing and he deserves all he has. Seriously he is a one in a life time player."Those aren't the words of a fan, and Gil was quick to point out that he's no groupie. That's his professional opinion as a journalist, and it goes a long way toward explaining the legions of Spanish media and the constant coverage. Spain loves Ricky, and really, that's all anyone needs to know. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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