Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Beautiful Game

Dear Ricky Rubio,

First of all, I'm not gonna worry about the language barrier here. You speak decent English, judging from this strange clip I saw on YouTube where you get interviewed by Drew Gooden (?) on what appears to be the set of a fake news show while wearing some sort of sweater that only a Euro could pull off. And anyway, the subject I wanna talk to you about knows no language barriers. I'm talking about delight, Ricky. Or we might refer to a related term: beauty. You know as well as anyone that the most consistently delightful, purely beautiful action in basketball is a nice pass. When people fall back on that old metaphor of basketball-as-jazz, they're not thinking of dunks or blocks or Carmelo holding the ball for almost the entire shot clock and then taking a jumper. They're thinking of nice passes. There’s nothing better than a nice pass, nothing more delightful than watching a great PG improvise beauty. And ever since news came across the Atlantic about a Spanish kid playing pro ball in Europe at the age when we get driver's licenses in the States, we'd heard that you, my friend, were a purveyor of nice passes.

I'll admit, though, that I was skeptical about you. You decided to stay in Spain after you got drafted, and you hadn't been impressive in the Olympics--no double digits in scoring or assists, not even once--and then you had more unimpressive numbers in the Spanish League last year, averaging well under double digits in both categories. I understood that you were still just a kid, with room to grow, but how could you be a special player in the NBA if you couldn't even be a special player in Spain? It didn't seem possible. It isn't possible, really. Let me speak to you in soccer terms. Your situation would be like a decent bench player in the MLS--you know the MLS?--moving to Europe and dominating the Premier League. Or La Liga, if you prefer. Or let's just say the Champions League. Anyway, that would never, ever happen, correct?

And yet, I'm watching highlights the night after Christmas and there you are with six assists in your first NBA game, nice assists, most of them bounce passes of beautiful, previously unnoticed angles. When I see this, I perk up. Four nights later I see highlights of your first double double, in your third game, against the Heat. 12 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, off the bench. And more highlight passes, including a ridiculous alley. At this point my skepticism disappears. The next night I see a highlight of you against Dallas, under the basket, throwing a pass through Dirk's legs to get a teammate an open three. And this pass, like your other highlight passes, was not only delightful, but also necessary. Your passes aren’t mere tricks. This may be a difference between you and a highlight-passer like early Jason Williams. (And by the way, I saw White Chocolate sitting courtside at a Magic game on TNT last week. He has season tickets. Seriously! I've never heard of this, Ricky, a former player buying front-row season tickets to watch his sport after he retires. And he told TNT he plays in a rec league with Gilbert Arenas! A four-on-four rec league! I'm not making this up, Ricky!) After that pass through Dirk's legs and the double double vs. Miami, and this other highlight lob you threw from almost half-court, I was ready to join your fan club. (And this would be a bittersweet moment for me: the first time I joined the fan club of an athlete born in the 90's. The 90's! This isn’t crazy to you, Ricky, but trust me: it’s crazy to a grown-ass man like me.) In the days that followed I found myself checking your box scores every morning, admiring your increasingly impressive stats, and cursing the NBA and its partner networks for not scheduling T-Wolves games on national TV. This is something I never thought would be a frustration in my life.

At the beginning of the season, Mike D'Antoni called you--sarcastically, I believe--a "folk hero." And maybe part of the reason I wanted to see you play so badly was the appeal of the unavailable, the magnetism of the unknown. I always get overly excited about hard-to-find bootleg albums or out-of-print, supposedly great novels. And they almost always end up being more exciting in theory than when I finally get my hands on them. So maybe this was part of your appeal, yeah. But the other reason I wanted to see you actually play a game on TV was legitimate: In basketball and soccer and every other great sport, highlights just aren't the same as seeing a great play in real time. You know that, Ricky. Seeing a highlight reel of your best passes or Messi's best goals is not nearly as moving as seeing them occur as they happen. It's like the difference between seeing a funny fall on YouTube and actually seeing one of your friends take a hilarious spill as you walk down the street. Or it's like how the American writer Walker Percy used to say that you can't really see a painting in a museum, where you expect to see beautiful paintings, that the only way to truly see a beautiful painting would be to stumble across it in an attic or something. To stumble across something beautiful in real time, this is one of the best parts about watching sports. Witnessing the kind of play that makes us shout involuntary noises: that's what I mean by delight, Ricky. That's why I've started watching Barcelona play the Beautiful Game whenever I can, for the chance to see the little men Messi and Iniesta create a work of art in real time, and that's why I try to watch the young man Rondo and the old man Nash whenever I can, and that's why I've really been wanting to see the T-Wolves play.

So on Saturday night, the night of American Football playoffs, the night of the Saints, the night of Tebow, you and the T-Wolves came to Atlanta. I live an hour from there and I thought about making a pilgrimage, but tickets in the nosebleeds were seventy bucks for a pair, and I didn't want to help pay Joe Johnson's ridiculous salary, and plus I wanted to watch Tebow. But at home I could watch football and also watch you play a whole game for the first time. The Hawks game was your second career start, following your first start the day before in New Orleans, where you had 12/9/6. I was pumped. And you didn't disappoint.

By the end of the first quarter I had shouted "Ohhhhh!" twice, once for a behind-the-back and another for a lob from near half court, both of them completely out of nowhere. I also watched with Dominique and the other Hawks announcer as they replayed another pass twice, to try to figure out how you'd done it, how you got the pass between two defenders in the lane. I only flipped back to the Saints game when you were out--you got in foul trouble in the second--or when it was a commercial. And when you fell into the stands under the basket and left the game limping, I held my breath like it was my own child who'd come out of the game. But you came back, and Dominique resumed comparing you to Pistol Pete and said, "Rubio's tricky with the ball, I'll tell you what..." You had 7 and 7 by halftime, but more: a 7 and 7 full of surprises. The delight I felt in that first half was on par with the first time I read Charles Portis, or the first time I heard Jay-Z's "Thirty Something," or the first and only time I ate at a restaurant called Uchi.

You ended up with 18 points (a career high, at least for another week or so), 12 assists, and 5 steals. While Brady was throwing fifteen touchdown passes and the nation was continuing their impassioned philosophical debate about a 24 year-old football player, your team built an 18 point lead and then, like the young group you are, squandered it completely and went down by three in the last minute. You hit a three with 26 seconds left to tie it back up--you can shoot, too! more involuntary ohhhhs!--but then the Hawks hit a couple free throws and Love missed a shot at the buzzer and it was another loss for the T-Wolves, and suddenly I found myself feeling dejected about a T-Wolves loss (though not as dejected as I felt the next day when the Texans lost). But by then I'd already started trying to figure out how I can "share" my brother's NBA League Pass Broadband to watch you play more often. The best, most creative athletes make meaningless games as exciting as any playoff game, as long as they have the ball in their hands (or their feet), and that's what you did in ATL. You're one of the youngest guys on the youngest team in the NBA; both you and the team are going to continue to have many struggles, but you're something special, Ricky. As a Rockets fan, I probably wouldn't trade our own potentially special and extremely underrated point guard for you right now, but I'm thrilled about watching you play basketball for many years to come, watching you get even better. Take care of your gifts, because you're an artist, my friend. This compressed season will continue to feature many dirty, ugly quarters, but not when you're playing. Last night I found myself saying to my wife, "Damn, I gotta get a Rubio jersey." I haven't bought an NBA jersey in more than sixteen years, but I was serious. God bless those who create delight.



P.S. The only thing that's disappointing about you so far is your size. One element about the Barca soccer team that I love is that its two best players, two of the absolute best in the whole world, are tiny, unremarkably built, maybe even dorky-looking men. You probably already know this, but Messi had to take human growth hormone to reach 5'6". That's crazy, for multiple reasons. And the 5'7" Iniesta, according to Simon Kuper's great Soccer Men, once got mistaken for a waiter by a woman at a restaurant in Barcelona, who asked him to get her food--and he just went and got it. Star athletes in America never get mistaken for waiters, Ricky. Even the athletes at middling American colleges look distinctively like athletes in their specific sports. And at 6'4"/180, you won't be mistaken for a waiter either, which is too bad.