Rubio's Flash and Maturity
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Jonah Ballow with Pete Thamel of the New York Times
Wolves editor/writer Jonah Ballow chats with New York Times writer Pete Thamel to find out how Ricky Rubio displays a flashy persona on the court and blends in with his teammates off the floor. Thamel has spent time interviewing Rubio and his family members while also covering Team USA in Turkey. This discussion also includes Kevin Love’s role on the US squad and his remarkable production during the preliminary round.
Jonah Ballow: Pete, you are about one of five writers covering the USA basketball team and you have been watching a lot of his squad and also Spain and some of the other teams. I want to focus on Ricky Rubio, you wrote an article a couple of weeks ago, talking about Rubio and his popularity, what he has meant to Spain, and coming over here to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Can you tell me what he is like off the court and what kind of person Ricky Rubio is?
Pete Thamel: Yeah, Jonah, I spent some time with Ricky and reached out to his family and I’m sure people in Minnesota and people who follow the NBA know a decent amount about Ricky and his game and seen him play in the Olympics or the Euroleague. I just tried to get to know who he is as a person a little bit. He is obviously such a unique study; he has been a professional since he was 14. It’s even beyond the American star system for sports and basketball when you really look at this guy, it’s very rare in America when you become a household name at that age, so I tried to take a couple of minutes just to get to know Ricky and his background. He becomes from a basketball family and his dad was a first and second division women’s basketball coach. His older brother plays in the second division and his younger sister is a very promising prospect on the national level as well. He still lives in the same small suburb, about 20 minutes from Barcelona that he grew up in. You know, his family has tried hard to keep his life regular.
Jonah Ballow: Watching him with his team and Spain has struggled in this World Championship. How do you see him with his teammates? Is this a guy that is a leader? Is he playing the role as a backup at this point? What are his relationships with his teammates?
Pete Thamel: Most of the prominent players on that Spanish team are five or six years older than him and he has been playing with him since he was 16 and 17 years old. The thing I took the most out of spending some time with him and around the Spanish team for a couple of days in Madrid a few weeks ago was that Ricky will blend in, that was one of his greatest qualities. I talked to guy named Elmer Bennett , who was his first mentor when he became a pro with Joventut, which is in Badalona – outside of Barcelona. Even as a 14 year old, he was able to blend in with his teammates. Elmer Bennett played point guard at Notre Dame in the late 80s – early 90s, joked with me that Ricky was young enough to be his son. His maturity was beyond his years and his ability to blend in and not draw attention to himself and just sort of be a shy, quiet, humble kid was one of the things that Elmer Bennett remarked to me on the phone and that was repeated by Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Spanish coaches, and people all around the team. I think when he does get here; it will be a different culture and a different environment than in Spain. I think that the blending in part he will do well at.
Jonah Ballow: Let’s shift gears and talk about Kevin Love. You wrote an article focusing on Love and his productivity on the court and also how he is working with this USA team. He has really found a nice niche and role as a rebounder, a guy that can fill that spot as a rebounder at the power forward and center positions. Again, looking more at this from an off the court perspective, how do you see Kevin Love fitting in with this team that doesn’t feature any of the guys from the 2008 squad that won gold?
Pete Thamel: I honestly think Kevin Love should be playing more. Considering his rebounds per minute and scoring per minute has just been off the charts. He is built for the international game because he is very skilled and Team USA sees a lot of zones and he is also very physical. International play is very physical. You know lack of skill, physicality has hurt American teams in the past, and Kevin has really filled a great niche. I cover colleges at my day job in the states and I had forgotten because I don’t follow the NBA too closely, what a great rebounder he is with two hands. Obviously, he is a transcendent outlet passer and I could watch him throw outlet passes all day. He is just an unbelievable passer. He has enjoyed being in an environment where there is pressure to win, where the team is expected to win and I really think this has been generally good for his confidence, talking to him after games. I think this is something that he is looking forward to carrying over to Minnesota. Kevin Love battled injuries in training, so there was a notion that he maybe on the bubble to get cut or he may not play that much. He has really been a revelation for the Americans during pool play.
Jonah Ballow: Do you get the feeling and the sense that this US team has the right chemistry to win gold?
Pete Thamel: I don’t know. Before the tournament I was skeptical, now that I’ve seen them, I’m less skeptical but still skeptical if that makes sense Jonah. When you look at what they have to go up against, you know they needed a last second stop in Madrid to beat Spain – Spain struggled but Spain is clearly talented. Rubio is playing a lot at the point, Marc Gasol could probably start for the Americans if he was on that team. They are very good and very explosive and Spain plays really well together and that’s one thing these American teams will never have in these foreign competitions against these European teams and South American teams. They will never have the same type of synergy from having played together since age 15 and 16. You know, USA basketball is starting to build their system a little bit like that and you can see where it’s hinting at in the future. I watched Spain play Lithuania in an exhibition game the other night, it was just an amazing display of basketball, there were no wasted touches, everyone knew where everyone was going to be, the right people took shots at all times. I haven’t seen that much during their struggles here in the World Championship, Calderon is obviously out with an injury, which is going to hurt them but I think they will play the Americans down to the final possession again.
Jonah Ballow: I talked to Tony Ronzone a couple of days ago and he said that this US team is having to deal with a little bit more of anti-US sentiment during the World Championship because there is a lot of cheering for Brazil and Spain as opposed to what happened in China where everybody pretty much backed USA. What is your sense there as far as the atmosphere and is USA walking into a road building in order to get these victories?
Pete Thamel: It’s more of a road building not because of the Turks. Some of these other nations have traveled well and then it becomes like an NCAA tournament scenario, so if it’s Slovenia versus the Americans and you are a neutral fan, who are you going to root for? You are going to root for the underdogs, so that’s what they have up against a little bit. I would say they have not faced a particular hostile atmosphere. I went to Ankara the other night to cover Turkey versus Greece and that was a hostile atmosphere. If they play Turkey here, it will be a hostile atmosphere. There’s been pinches of it, a couple of loud crowds but nothing overwhelming that I would really think changed the dynamics of the games. I would say that the crowds have been fairly timid.
Jonah Ballow: When you say hostile environment, compare that to a college basketball environment that we see like Duke-North Carolina. This puts a little bit of different spin on it, going beyond just the college basketball rivalry when you have two countries battling each other.
Pete Thamel: Yeah, they have literally been battling each other for 2,500 years. Turkey and Greece, for example, both of their independence days are because of victories over each other, so they are obviously neighboring countries and they have had four wars since 1897 with each other. They really don’t like each other politically, there is legitimate tension there and I’ve covered every basketball environment possible in my career and Turkey-Greece has a lot more passion and heat behind it than anything Duke or North Carolina could offer.
Jonah Ballow: Speaking of Duke, Coach K seems to be an amazing teacher at this point in his career and what he has done on the college basketball level and now taking on this challenge with NBA players. There really never seems to be an issue with an alpha dog or egos on this team or looking at Coach K as just a college coach. It seems like he has garnered the respect of his players, not only the Olympic team that captured gold but this squad with a whole new cast of players. How do you feel Coach K has done this in consecutive trips the USA basketball squad?
Pete Thamel: Coach K’s genius is that in a limited time like he has here, what he can do is take guys and really pigeon hole them into roles. Kevin Love for example has taken his role. His role is a grunt, a rebounder, a charge taker, a guy who can just come in give energy, give minutes, and be physical. He has done that. Russell Westbrook for example is an energy guy and he has come off the bench and given the team energy in some critical moments. Steph Curry is the shooter, Eric Gordon is a shooter, Tyson Chandler has become an energy guy as well. I think that has been his biggest strength, is getting guys to know and understand and play within their roles. He had to go to Kevin Durant to shoot more and score more because this team does not have that much offensive punch and is not that good in the half court quite frankly. I think that has been the best thing Coach K has done for this team.
Jonah Ballow: It’s incredible what he has done and I know you touched on this a little bit but do you feel that this US team is the favorite right now with Spain’s previous struggles?
Pete Thamel: I guess almost by default. I wouldn’t wager a lot of Turkish liara that they would win, let’s put it that way.
Jonah Ballow: We love following your stuff in the New York Times and obviously, there are only a handful of writers over there, so it’s great coverage, especially the stuff on Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love for Minnesota Timberwolves fans back here in Minnesota. Thank you so much for your time Pete and good luck with the rest of the trip and following the USA basketball squad.
Pete Thamel: Jonah, thanks for having me.
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