Seeing an athlete clutch his knee seconds after it buckled remains one of the most depressing sights in all of sports, a painful image that shares space with shots of a pitcher walking off the mound holding his elbow and a quarterback rolling around reaching for his Achilles.
When Ricky Rubio injured his knee Friday night everyone feared the worst while hoping for the best, even if the best was also an unattractive option. “Maybe it’s just a sprain. Perhaps he just hurt his MCL. That’s the ligament that’s not as serious, right?”
But it was the ACL and it was a tear and it was the end of his sensational rookie season.
It was devastating news because of what was lost this season, but like all knee injuries there was a second component: fear of the unknown. Knee injuries certainly aren’t the career death sentence they once were, when a torn ligament meant a year out of action, followed by a return featuring a player who had lost a step but gained an ugly knee brace that went from the top of his leg to the bottom, a contraption that looked like it required the help of three trainers to strap on. Pete Maravich – whom Rubio was occasionally compared to, whether you thought that was accurate or hyperbole – suffered a knee injury at one point and was never really Pistol again. That used to be the norm. Players return now and often you can’t even tell they went away. The athleticism and explosion remain. They don’t wear a brace. Their self-confidence is as high as ever. That seems to be the norm today.
But it remains a case-by-case situation and no two players are alike. The fears over Rubio have nothing to do with his most amazing skill, his passing. He’ll never lose that ability to see plays before they develop, to be one step ahead of everyone else on the court. He won’t lose that when’s 50 and playing with fat guys in goggles and short-shorts and he won’t lose it after a torn ACL. The injury doesn’t affect his hands, which seem to deflect a pass every other defensive possession and allow him to handle a basketball as if it’s been in his palm since the day he started walking. It shouldn’t affect his shooting, or at least won’t make it any worse than it was in his final weeks on the court, an area people expected him to struggle in, although I also fully expect him to eventually develop into at least an average shooter.
People do wonder if it will affect his style, his fearlessness on both ends of the court. Maybe it will take him some time to regain confidence in his own body and that could affect his actual basketball skills. And when he does return, every time he hits the court fans will grimace a bit more, waiting for him to rise and hoping he doesn’t again clutch that knee. With time those fears will pass and that confidence in his health should return.
So while there are reasons to worry about Rubio’s future, in today’s sports medicine world you expect him to make a full recovery; the upset will be if he doesn’t.
For me, the worst thing about the Rubio injury isn’t about what it means for the 2013-and-beyond Timberwolves – after all, if all else fails, “Cool Hand” Luke Ridnour becomes the point guard of the future, just as he was the point guard of the past, right? The worst thing is that we’re robbed of watching this Wolves team at its best. The Wolves at their best weren’t one of the top three or four teams in the West and a victory in the playoffs – if they had actually made the postseason – would have certainly been an upset. But not a shocking one, not with Rubio guiding the halfcourt offense and not with an MVP candidate in Kevin Love scoring from all over and grabbing every rebound and not with Rick Adelman on the sideline and Derrick Williams off the bench and Pek banging around in the middle.
Even with the video of Rubio in pain on the bench fresh in the mind, you can almost picture the Wolves’ first-round playoff series. After suffering a blowout defeat in the opening game to the Spurs or Lakers or Mavericks, the Wolves steal one in Game 2, led by a 30-20 from Love and some key late jumpers from Beasley or Johnson (hey, you never know) or Ridnour or some other surprising candidate. Then back at the Target Center, with a crazed crowd desperate for success cheering them on, perhaps while all decked out in white shirts Target Center PR staff stole from a cult, the Wolves jump out to a big lead in Game 3. Rubio throws a no-look lob to Williams, finds Pekovic on the pick and roll and hits a running shot off the glass. Love puts it away with a late three as the Timberwolves take a 2-1 lead.
The fantasy probably ends in six games, maybe they even take it to seven. But no matter how it ended, it likely would have included must-see moments and did-we-really-see-that passes from Rubio. Now? Now the season probably ends in the regular season and if they do scrap their way into the playoffs it’s hard to see the Wolves making any noise at all.
But forget the playoffs for a moment. The nights I’ll really miss Rubio are random Monday nights or Saturday evenings, regular season games that have been meaningless in Minnesota for seven years. The Wolves have been one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch this season and it’s not just people who have been around since the glory days of Sidney Lowe and Tod Murphy who have said that. The Wolves were fun to watch partly because they looked like they had fun. The stats only tell a small part of the story when it comes to Rubio. He transformed a franchise that was the most depressing one in the league, and I’m aware the Clippers are still part of the NBA. At least the Clippers have had colorful characters, even if it’s just their absurd owner. And they’ve had hope, even though it’s usually killed by injuries or incompetence. The Bobcats? Certainly depressing, but not enough history. The Wolves have 22 years of dreadful moments and only one season when they won a playoff series. Since Kevin Garnett’s departure – and even in his final years – the Target Center had an atmosphere that would usually be found at a 7th-grade girls basketball game played at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday after school. No one wanted to watch this team play. Now everyone does. And while Rubio might not have been the biggest reason for their turnaround in the standings – give as much credit to Love and Adelman and Pek and Barea, better defense and more depth – he was certainly the reason the Wolves were alive, as a team and a franchise.
His passing was unmatched, even as his jump shot looked overmatched. He controlled the game and energized his teammates, not to mention an entire state. People rarely talk about his defense but he proved to be one of the better point guards on that end. He was entertaining, which isn’t a sin on the basketball court, no matter what your old-school coach from the 1950swho loved stalls and crew-cuts taught you. And late in games Rubio exuded confidence, even if he had struggled for three quarters.
That’s all gone now, at least for this season. There’s a fear of the unknown with a knee injury like Rubio’s. But it’s knowing what’s been lost that makes it an injury Wolves fans won’t soon forget.