Good night sweet prince

About six weeks into the Timberwolves season, I saw a kid at Target Center wearing a holy card-esque Ricky Rubio “Hope” t-shirt, styled after the iconic Shepard Fairey poster that came to represent the Obama 2008 presidential campaign. Which is perfect, because that is what the kid from El Masnou, Spain dropped like behind-the-back dimes on Minnesota hoops fans this warm Midwestern winter: Hope.

Not to mention style, grace, damn good chi and a fire in the belly that has been missing on the Minnesota sports stage of late. But Rubio’s nearly instantaneous appeal goes deeper than the desires of this spectator sports-addicted burg for a winning, or even merely competitive, team. In his first three months with the Wolves, Rubio did things with a basketball that were straight out of Hogwarts, things that got even the most jaded basketball fans drooling and dialing up YouTube highlights, things that prompted Charles Barkley to champion Rubio as one of the five most exciting players in the NBA and Wolves play-by-play announcer Tom Hanneman to dub him “the Spanish magician.”

But, it was even more than that. “He’s got heart,” a freelance NBA photographer commented to me on press row before the start of a game in early January. “You can see it in the photos.”

That’s what we rallied around. That’s what inspired us. The kid’s desire to be great is palpable, his love of the game and his energy are rare and his raw mercurial talent is, more often than not, breathtaking to behold. That’s why I got over to Target Center to see him and the rest of this hungry new Wolves team as often as I could this season. That’s why I concluded a column on the Wolves (headline: “Rubio to the Rescue”) in this space last month with:

“The last Minnesota athlete to draw such gasps was the Vikings’ Adrien Peterson, who set records with speed, power, moves and a flair that was all his own, and then blew out his knee this season. Whether he comes back or not remains to be seen, but a great young athlete cut down in his prime is a reminder for all concerned to enjoy Rubio while we can.”

Ouch. Last Friday night, the lights went out at Target Center. Rubio went down with a torn ACL in his left knee, ending a rookie season that went from promising to poetic in a matter of weeks. He’ll need six to nine months for surgery, recovery and rehab, which means he’ll miss playing for Spain in the Olympics and the start of the 2012–2013 NBA season. Mourning in Timberwolves Nation has just begun; the remaining games, no matter what the outcome (the post-Rubio Wolves were comatose in a loss to New Orleans and strong in a win over Phoenix), will carry a whiff of “What if?” as visions of Rubio leading the break or ball-hawking for a steal will haunt until his return.

If that sounds overly dramatic, guess again. Unlike “Hope”-peddling politicians or even artists, a great young athlete doing what’s never been done before is what sets hearts aflame. Rubio was exuberance, toughness and promise personified, and that once-in-a-young-lifetime purity is so often why we turn to sports to try and make sense of the world. Just ask anyone who got choked up at the end of the Benilde-St. Margaret’s improbable state championship hockey game victory the night after Rubio crumpled to the Target Center floor, clutching his knee.

“Magic Johnson said it best,” Rubio said when he met the Minnesota media en masse for the first time in December. “When one player make a basket, one person is happy. When two player makes a basket from a pass, two people are happy.”  

More than two people, Ricky, because that kind of happiness is contagious, and a point guard with such extrasensory connection, anticipation, vision and selflessness spreads the love in a way that borders on music. To that end, playing with Rubio must be like playing with a great drummer, all connection and flow and synched-up rhythm, and make no mistake, Rubio plays the game — like an instrument, the way life should be played, with a machismo, romance, intensity and passion for risk-taking that can produce arias as well as a lot of turnovers and bricked free throws.

“He’s a unifier, he’s a lover,” said local rapper/writer Maria Isa at a game last month, when I compared Rubio’s universal appeal to Elvis. “He brings all the flavor to all nations.”

In the Twin Cities, Rubio’s name alone inspired grown men in bars to trill and roll their r’s as they toasted him, and for a few weeks there, rooting for the Wolves and their international roster was akin to tracking the Tour de France, the Olympics or the World Cup, all in our backyard. With Rubio at the helm, and chants of “Ole, ole, ole!” cascading down from the second deck of the Target Center, anything seemed possible.

And now he’s gone. The Wolves will soldier on and probably make the playoffs, while Rubio will either come back or become a myth (“Did you ever see him play?”) that lived for a total of 41 games on the court and forever in our hearts. Time heals, as they say, and so do hearts and knees, so no matter what, I’m going with Spanish author and poet Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who 300 years ago wrote, “The phoenix hope can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune’s spite; revive from ashes and rise.”