I awake from a deep sleep, startled by some unseen presence. Sweat drenches my shirt and I’m aware that I’m being watched. As my eyes gain clarity, they focus on the nearly naked Native American standing in the doorway. In perfect silence, he beckons me to follow.
As I gather myself and slowly stand, we are transported to an eerily familiar dreamscape. A seemingly endless desert in which a distant figure awaits us. As we stumble closer, I realise the figure is Jim Morrison, legendary frontman of the Doors who stands before me. He tells me he can help me find the answers that I seek.
I consider his offer.
“How are the Phoenix Suns not trash?” I immediately ask. Perhaps inspired by the Arizona-like setting, in which our chance meeting occurs.
As if he already knew I’d ask this exact question, he cuts me off midway through.
“Let me tell you a story… ”
(This opening may sound familiar)
People Are Strange
We are coming up to two months into the 2019/20 NBA Season. There have been a surprising number of drug-related suspensions and the Phoenix Suns are exceeding the lowly expectations that much of the media predicted for them.
It is fair to say that perhaps only those looking at the Phoenix Suns through the haze of an *altered* state would have predicted they would become a playoff contender in a loaded Western Conference. This is truly a new and psychedelic NBA.
Devin Booker is the poster boy for Phoenix’ surge and Aron Baynes is winning hearts and minds. But when I watch this team, I see a different front man. I see an artist at work, a poet on the basketball court. An architect with a bohemian facade that is able to turn even the ordinary into the sublime. A player that seems to have a unique way of seeing the floor.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
William Blake – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Light My Fire
“RICKYYYYYYYY” I can still hear the screams today, like a forgotten echo from a long lost story. The year is 2007 and a 17-year-old Ricky Rubio (plus Rudy Fernandez!) is competing in a Euroleague fixture like he has done many times before. However, the surroundings and the opposition on this occasion are a little different. He’s about to take the hallowed hardwood of the Guildford Spectrum (Surrey, UK).
The game was (predictably) a blowout win for Joventut over the Guildford Heat. There was something about the way the young Rubio moved the ball. The way he found his teammates without necessarily looking to (ultimately selfishly) achieve an assist for his own stats.
His combination of elite lateral mobility, agility and length on the defensive end, even in these formative years shone brighter than anything else on the floor that night. After watching this game I made a mental note to follow young Rubio’s career closely. He would go on to compete for Spain the following summer in the 2008 Olympics.
Break On Through (To The Other Side)
For many of the most talented and inspiring artists of their generations, the 28th birthday is a barrier through which they can’t break. Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and even our spirit guide for this article, Jim Morrison – none of them made it past the age of 27. Something about this age was different.
I’ve always wondered how these types of artists would have aged, what they would have made of a changing world and how their work would have changed. My personal thoughts are that we were likely robbed of their most valuable and insightful work.
What I want to put forward here is that we’re seeing the basketball equivalent in front of our eyes in Ricky Rubio. Now 29 years old, he’s overcome the bright spotlight that followed him as a top NBA prospect, he’s endured the criticisms that inevitably follow such expectations, and he’s overcome huge personal loss to become a hell of creator and orchestrator in the NBA.
His combination of memory, perception and vision, combined with the level and speed at which he can read the court is a rare gift. And he is no solo artist. He knows how and when to pull the strings with the instruments at his disposal to create the type of music maybe no one else could have even conceived in the first place. Where the sheet music in front of him is merely ordinary (see Phoenix Suns roster), he is able to perform a masterpiece.
The Ringer produced this brilliant video looking at the role Rubio plays in the Suns’ unexpectedly strong offense.
Even more impressive than his role with the Phoenix Suns so far this season was his capture of the FIBA Basketball World Cup trophy with Spain out in China this past summer. Spain went into the tournament potentially looking weakened in comparison to previous Spanish rosters, with a number of high profile players either missing or having retired.
The now veteran Rubio was able to take this squad, however, and lead them through the tournament all the way to capturing the trophy. For his standout individual play he was also named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
As a young player Ricky Rubio was something of a flawed genius. Never developing an elite shooting stroke, his effectiveness on the floor was often compromised. Watching him play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, it always felt as though he was chasing the perfect pass. The transcendent play is not always the best play, however, and it took a few years to shift this perpetual preference for the Dionysian over the mundane. Rubio was the basketball Marlon Brando. A rebel chasing a cause invisible to others, but that deep down he knew would bring rewards that only those who saw the game as he did understood.
As Rubio matured with the Utah Jazz, he reached that critical age we mentioned before. One can only chase transcendence for so long. Something had to give. Would Rubio’s genius combust into a failed cause? Would the light that shone so brightly as a young player start to flicker and dim? Instead, Rubio became the playmaking lynchpin for a Western Conference contender. The thing is, no one really caught on.
No one seemed to complain too heavily as the Jazz offloaded Rubio and acquired Mike Conley. But it is the Suns who are outperforming their expectations with an unfancied roster, while the Jazz have become inconsistent offensive performers.
What we are witnessing with Ricky Rubio is the best basketball of his career. He’s faced the existential crises that inevitably comes with trying to balance individual creative genius, personal loss and coming to terms with one’s limitations. Having to accept the imperfect as an unchangeable reality is unthinkable for the ultimate perfectionists, and yet Rubio has understood how to most effectively harness his ability to call on the sublime.
How he’s hurdled this invisible barrier is unclear. Maybe he was also visited by Jim Morrison in a dream? But one thing’s for sure, Ricky Rubio has broken through (to the other side).
Nick provides us with a rather unique look at basketball, often merging cultural moments from videogames and cinema with on court and sometimes off court actions in the NBA. He’s our Google Analytics guru; the perfect accompaniment to a digital league and sport. Oh, and he used to work for FIBA Media.