Rubio Part Of Basketball's Continued Growth In Spain

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Megan Schuster

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Spain has been and continues to be known for its soccer. It’s the country’s primary sport, the numbers don’t dispute it: According to a Licenses and Clubs statistics report done by the Consejo Superior de Deportes of the Spanish Government, in 2013 about 70 percent of TV coverage, TV news, sports licenses and sponserships went to soccer and only about 30 percent went to basketball.

But hoops continue to make inroads in popularity among the fanbase. As the Spanish National Team continues to hold its own as an elite international program, the ACB and the “Federación Española de Baloncesto,” or FEB, gain depth and the NBA gains Spanish-born stars—like the Wolves’ Ricky Rubio, Memphis’ Marc Gasol, L.A.’s Pau Gasol and Dallas’ Jose Calderon—the sport is currently more popular than ever.

 “Now we are closer to the NBA,” said Francisco Rabadán, webmaster for the 2014 FIBA World Cup and member of the FEB’s communications department, said. “In the ‘80s, we could not see the NBA as we can now on television. When you go to the news magazines in the morning, you can find what is happening in the NBA and what a Spanish player has done. Ten years ago, you could never find out.”

Basketball in Spain really started to gain popularity following the 1984 Olympics, where the national team lost in the Gold Medal game to the United States. The national Spanish basketball league, or ACB, also formed for an inaugural 1983-1984 season, allowing Spanierds to watch their national heros on a local level.

Inspired by the increasing visibility of these players, FEB has created programs to help foster interest in basketball in unconventional ways.

“The kids want to be like NBA players,” Rabadán said. “In FEB, we have a lot of programs with our [basketball] legends. They’ll play in the streets with the kids. We organize every week, like two times, playing in the streets with the people.”

Through these programs, FEB hopes to continually shrink the gap between the popularity of soccer and basketball in Spain. The programs also have an aim to develop basketball talent within the country.

“We are not interested in finding a player who is 17, who has never played basketball but is really tall,” Rabadán said. “We want to grow the stars.”

This was exactly the aim that FEB used when it approached Rubio, at age 9, about his future in basketball.

Rubio was quickly gaining notice within Spain, even at such a young age. He became the youngest to ever play for an ACB club—at 14 years old—and not only did he play, but he had great success throughout his years there. With him, Barcelona won a Spanish League Championship, a Euroleague Championship and other national competitions. It was this success, along with his play in the 2008 Olympics for Team Spain, that got him noticed by NBA scouts and, eventually, drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick in 2009.

Although players leave Spain to go to the NBA, they remain involved in the national team contests, their local communities, and communities around the world. Radabán says that the fame has not changed players’ attitudes toward their home country and home fan base.

“The Spanish players are close to the people,” Rabadán said. “Pau Gasol is really close to UNICEF, and Ricky Rubio last year went to Senegal for a FEB project called ‘Casa España,’ a school to help people there learn through basketball.”

Spain is set to hold the 2014 FIBA World Cup, starting Aug. 30 and running through Sept. 14. It is scheduled to be played in six different cities around Spain, featuring teams from around the world—including the United States.

Rabadán says that there is one particular outcome that the Spanish people, and especially the Spanish players, are hoping for.

“We want to be competitive, and if we are competitive we could be in the finals,” Rabadán said. “Our dream is to play a final against the USA and to beat them. We’ve lost the last two times we played against them, and in Spain there is a saying that the third time, anything can happen.”