MINNEAPOLIS I don't remember the first time I spoke with Ricky Rubio, but it was likely on New Year's Day after the Timberwolves' improbable win over the Mavericks, and I was probably too busy reveling in the fact that all these nice new people who I was about to work alongside seemed to be crediting me for the win. (It was my first day of work.)
So no, I don't have any idea what he said that night, or even if I talked to him. My story did contain the sentence "Rookie point guard Ricky Rubio led the reserves with 14 points, seven of which came in the fourth quarter," so at least I acknowledged his existence. At the time, Rubio was an unproven sensation, his broken English a barrier and his presence seemingly everywhere.
We could talk to Ricky whenever, watch Ricky do all the very Ricky things he did and become the player that the entire NBA wanted to watch, to talk to, to learn everything they could possibly learn about. And so we took Ricky Rubio for granted. We knew we could talk to him, albeit after a 20-minute Spanish-language interview or a seemingly interminable ice bath session, and so we waited. Because there was always something to talk about, and we had no idea on the morning of March 9 that we were about to get our last glimpses of Rubio for months.
Now, Rubio is back to practicing. He's participating fully, staying after for shooting and conditioning drills with coaches and the training staff. They're run-of-the-mill-type stuff, long-range shots and running up and down the court, but they're a novelty. They're captivating. TV cameras show up and put footage of nothing more than Rubio trotting around on the news. Because that is news, in its own strange way, or at least foreshadowing, everyone hopes. Foreshadowing that all the things Rubio did last year, all the amazing plays and split-second decisions, will be back.
Like addicts deprived of our drugs, we wait for Ricky, impatiently and single-mindedly. And so to fuel that vice, here's a look back at some of the most memorable moments of the early-2012 Rubio mania.
Dec. 26, 2011: Rubio makes his debut, putting the television announcers in a tizzy with his passes, which surprise them because you can't tell who he's going to pass to until he does. Wait, that was once surprising? How quickly we evolve. The most Ricky of highlights came in the second quarter, when he bounced a pass to Anthony Randolph in the paint, who went up for a wide-open dunk. Just minutes into his NBA career, Rubio managed to make Randolph look good, something few players accomplished before or have done since. In the same game, he also flipped a no-look pass to Derrick Williams, who slammed reverse dunk unlike anything we've seen from Williams since.
Jan. 8, 2012: Off the bench, Rubio scored 13 points and finished with a season-high 14 assists in Washington, as the Timberwolves defeated the Wizards, 93-72.
Jan. 13, 2012: Rubio's first start of the season. He played 44 minutes, logging 12 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 steals.
Jan. 20, 2012: It's pretty much impossible to go to the Target Center without seeing that photo of Kevin Love after the Jan. 20 Clippers game in which he made a game-winning three at the buzzer. That's Love's game no doubt, for what he did and for the fact that he gave the team it's best marketing image in years, but it's worth remembering what Rubio did just moments before that three: He sunk a long-range shot of his own from 24-feet out, tying the game at 98 and paving the way for Love's big basket.
Feb. 11, 2012: With 7:51 left in the third quarter, Rubio made everyone forget about Linsanity as he bounced a pass through Tyson Chandler's legs to Pekovic in the paint, who went up for the dunk.
Feb. 19, 2012: Rubio had 22 points (a season high), six assists, six rebounds and one steal in a win over the 76ers that pushed the Timberwolves to 16-16, the blessed .500 mark they chased throughout the year until his injury. His most impressive play of the night came with 9:19 remaining in the third quarter, when he brought the ball to the 3-point line, looked right at Love standing on the perimeter and then bounced the ball in to Nikola Pekovic in the paint, who went up for a thundering dunk. The highlight of the highlight? Undoubtedly the look on Love's face as he first realized he wasn't getting the ball and then saw why.
March 9, 2012: And then there's the Lakers game, when Rubio had 10 assists and 15 points before The Injury. Minnesota has been waiting ever since.
Going back and looking at all of the clips of Rubio's early-season theatrics last year, a lot of things stick out. Everyone played or at least had flashes of playing like a better version of himself. But it wasn't the proliferation of Pekovic dunks that got me, or even the things Williams used to do. It wasn't the Rubio-to-Love alley-oops. It wasn't anything that specific.
It was the team as a whole. It was playing like a winning squad, more and more so the further along the clips progressed. It was unified and more than halfway decent, and I couldn't help but think that with Rubio, the Timberwolves would have been fighting for that eight seed. They would have had a shot.
No wonder everyone is so eager for him to return. No wonder there's so much pressure. But aside from all that, the playoffs and the expectations, watching Ricky Rubio is so simple. It's fun. It's exciting. That's all it needs to be; the rest will come.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.