Ricky Rubio’s made three more jump shots than I have this season, and his team remains below-average. He’s still recovering from his torn ACL, and it might not be until next season when he’s back to feeling fully comfortable on the court.
But he remains one of my favorite players to watch in the league. It remains thrilling to watch Rubio with the ball in his hands because you never know how he’s going to get it in the hands of a teammate. He’s fundamentally sound so it could be a simple chest pass to a man beyond the 3-point line. Just as likely? Rubio will effortlessly flick an alley-oop pass or bounce a pass between his legs — or an opponent’s — for an easy layup. Sunday against Golden State — in another one of those frustrating Wolves losses that sees them break out to a double-digit lead before giving it up and falling short in the fourth quarter — Rubio had numerous highlight-reel passes, the types of plays that lift you off the couch or have you saying “wow” in an empty apartment.
Rubio provides nightly reminders that in a game of jumpers, dunks, steals and blocks there’s still nothing that captures the beauty of the game like a perfect pass.
Magic Johnson was my all-time favorite player and Larry Bird my most hated, though that dislike had nothing to do with the majesty of Bird’s game and everything to do with the colors of his uniform. But each player filled my young basketball-playing mind with images of passing greatness, plays I spent hours trying to replicate. By the late ’80s everyone wanted to be like Mike — even if Gatorade hadn’t made it an official part of its propaganda — but I still wanted to pass like Magic and Larry.
You could make a catalogue with certain types of passes both men pulled off with regularity.
* Two-handed behind-the-head pass from the post. As his career progressed Magic become a dominant force on the block, thanks to his size advantage over other guards and his junior skyhook. If a double-team came he passed out to Byron Scott or Michael Cooper. But if another post player came over to help out, Magic waited…waited and then fired a no-look pass from over his own head and through the arms of the defenders to a teammate at the basket. Bird pulled off the same pass numerous times to Robert Parish or Kevin McHale. This is a fun one to try in rec leagues, although it’s tough getting the pass on the mark instead of having it come out too low.
* Tip-pass off a dribble. There’s more video of Larry doing this one, most famously in a clip against the Sixers. In a typical sequence, Bird dribbled in place for a few seconds before making his move to the center of the court. As the defense converged Larry made one more dribble and then slapped the ball to a teammate at the hoop for a dunk while Johnny Most screamed nonsensically.
* Half-court bounce passes. Magic’s specialty. He could stand 10 feet behind the midcourt stripe and throw a bounce pass to a streaking Worthy six feet from the hoop. They always came in low and fast and if Kwame Brown’s hands had been required to catch them they might not have worked. Fortunately Worthy’s giant mitts scooped up everything and he could catch and lay it in practically in one motion.
* The no-look pass. Perhaps the most basic of the fancy passes. It seemed like half of Magic’s 10,000 career assists came with him throwing a pass while looking in an opposite direction. One reason I give an edge to Magic in the passing department over Larry — the YouTube video above, while amazing to watch, ludicrously calls Bird the greatest passer of all time — is that Magic was better with a wider variety of passes in more situations. Halfcourt or fastbreaks, Magic saw things no one saw, not even someone with Bird’s eye. In the center of the break Magic looked left and fired right or gripped the ball in one hand, brought it to the left before dropping it off to the right.
Today’s geniuses include Rubio, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. LeBron certainly has its moments. In Sports Illustrated’s preview a scout noted that Rubio makes plays that not even Nash can make, although obviously Nash’s shooting also gives him an edge when dishing. Even as he’s aged, slowed down and chopped his hair, Nash remains one of the best shooters in the league. Opponents have to respect him, which opens passing angles when he gets a step on a defender. Opponents lay off Rubio, daring him to harm the rim from outside. Still, he manages to pick apart defenses and is a magician on the break, even if he’s not quite Magic.
I wonder who threw the first no-look pass in basketball history? And how long did he sit on the bench after his infuriated coach yanked him from the game? Bob Cousy threw some classics, but Pistol Pete might have been the first artist. In a documentary from a decade ago about Maravich, an old broadcaster said Bob Cousy in his dreams could not do what Pete Maravich did.
All the classics are in that video, from his days as a scoring machine at LSU and in the NBA. My favorite Maravich pass was when he did often. Coming down on a break, Maravich would let the ball bounce and wave at the ball with one hand before slapping it to a teammate on the wing. It’s like he tried to hypnotize the defender for two seconds and while it might not have worked against the opponent it certainly worked on the fans.
Some people did criticize Maravich for occasionally making an unnecessarily fancy pass. At times the Pistol persona overtook Pete. He’d roll a ball to a teammate instead of throwing a simple pass.
But usually the spectacular passes aren’t just about breaking out of the routine — they’re more effective than the routine play. A great passer finds a teammate no one knew was open until the ball landed in his hands. The passer uses sleight of hand, misdirection and angles no one else envisions. A routine pass could never make it through.
I still try and pretend to be Magic with the occasional behind-the-back pass in old man hoops. But my last remaining basketball fantasy is that maybe, somehow — through a charity event or a commercial shoot or a friend of a friend of a friend or just luck — I end up on the court with Magic in a pickup game. Boy he’s gotten big. The ballhandling days are long gone but the point guard mentality remains. He barks out orders in the halfcourt. Chews us out on defense. “But Magic, that was your guy.” Next time down he grips the ball in the low post and waits for the double team. I sneak along the baseline. While looking out at the 3-point line Magic fires a behind-the-back wraparound pass to me. I lay it off the glass and Magic breaks out the Hall of Fame smile. He still knows it too: There’s nothing like a perfect pass.