Fifteen years after Ricky Rubio arrived on the NBA’s landscape riding a transatlantic hype wave, the Spanish point guard officially exited with a whisper — announcing his retirement Thursday after 12 seasons.
While the three most recent MVP winners were foreign-born players, Rubio generated more intrigue as a teenager than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid combined. Though his NBA career got off to a delayed start, never produced an all-star appearance and ended abruptly in heart-wrenching fashion, Rubio will be remembered as a signature figure of the early social media era. His catchy alliterative name, brilliant passing and prodigy bona fides — he started playing professionally in Spain at 14 — made him an intoxicating figure for basketball die-hards grappling through a slower and uglier era of hoops and eager to watch newly-accessible tape of young players from across the globe.
Before pace and space swept through the NBA, the baby-faced and floppy-haired Rubio promised to be the engine of a fun and freewheeling show. At 6-foot-2, he lacked the size of Magic Johnson or LeBron James, yet he rifled risky bounce passes through traffic, looked off defenders with ease and appeared to have the magnetic quality shared by so many great floor generals. The Minnesota Timberwolves selected him fifth in the 2009 draft — two spots before Stephen Curry, famously, and ahead of future all-stars like DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague — even though Rubio didn’t initially seem thrilled to play for the wayward franchise.
Rubio played two seasons in Barcelona before debuting for Minnesota in 2011 at age 21, and he wasted no time racking up the assists, earning all-rookie honors and establishing himself as a fan favorite. But Rubio never blossomed into the star that so many people transfixed by his YouTube and Twitter highlights foresaw. Instead, he suffered a torn ACL during his rookie season, his production flatlined and his jumper never developed. As the years passed, the story of his career evolved from “What a prospect,” to “What a shame,” to “What could have been.”
His six years in Minnesota passed without a playoff appearance, as the dysfunctional organization fired David Kahn, the oft-criticized executive who drafted him, and cycled through Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell and Tom Thibodeau as coach. Rubio fell short of being a franchise-changer, but he wasn’t a bust, either. He made up for his shooting limitations with quality on-ball defense and the inherent unselfishness that drew so much attention in the first place, and his reliability as a solid starter paid off with a pair of playoff trips with the Utah Jazz in 2018 and 2019.
By then, Rubio’s baby face had been replaced by a thick beard, and the light joy that marked his early years gave way to a more serious chapter of his career. Rubio’s mother, Tona Vives, died at 56 in 2016 after battling lung cancer, and Rubio openly grieved her passing. Since 2021, he played sparingly and decided not to rejoin his latest team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, last summer. In his retirement announcement, Rubio alluded to mental health struggles that contributed to his decision to walk away from the NBA.
“July 30th was one of the toughest nights of my life,” Rubio said. “My mind went to a dark place. I kind of knew I was going on that direction, but I’ve never thought I wasn’t under control of the situation. The next day, I decided to stop my professional career.
“One day, when the time is right, I would love to share my full experience with you all so I can help support others going through similar situations. Until then, I would like to keep it private out of respect for my family and myself, as I’m still working on my mental health. But I’m proud to say I’m doing much better and getting better every day.”
The individual accolades and team accomplishments that eluded Rubio in the NBA are only half of his basketball story. Playing alongside the likes of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernández on the Spanish national team, Rubio won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics, a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, a gold medal at the 2019 FIBA World Cup and four EuroBasket medals.
Alongside his countrymen, Rubio enjoyed several star turns: He scored 20 points to beat Argentina for gold at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, and he valiantly poured in 38 points in a quarterfinal loss to USA Basketball at the 2020 Olympics.
Remembering Rubio requires looking back to the young Rubio, the one who made it look easy, as well as the older version, who kept battling through his evident pain. Rubio’s career didn’t go as planned, but it took him to some amazing places all the same.