A group of teenage girls walked into Target Center three hours before tipoff of the Timberwolves game Saturday. They stopped and looked at a mural of each player on a wall in the skyway.
"I've got to take his picture for my friend," one girl gushed as she pulled out her mobile phone.
She didn't even need to name the player. Everyone knew.
Wolves coach Rick Adelman smirked as an overflow media contingent encircled him for his pregame chat.
"What's the big deal?" he cracked.
Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle warned his team to prepare for an emotional response from the Wolves and their fans, describing the buzz inside the building as "juice." Everyone felt it, too.
Ricky Rubio was back. And it's like he never left.
Playing in his first basketball game in nine months, Rubio demonstrated no rust or lingering problems with his surgically repaired left knee in sparking the Wolves to a 114-106 overtime victory against the Mavs.
Rubio collected eight points, nine assists, four rebounds and three steals in only 18 minutes of action that trumpeted yet another successful return by a Twin Cities athlete post-ACL surgery.
Move over, Adrian Peterson. You have company.
"I love this game, I love playing basketball and I'm never going to forget how to play," Rubio said.
Target Center came alive with Rubio's breathtaking return. A standing ovation greeted him as he checked into the game with 1 minute 47 seconds left in the first quarter. Fans cheered again as he brought the ball up court the first time. And when he threw his first alley-oop pass. And shot his first free throw.
He was just warming up.
The arena erupted when Rubio threw a behind-the-back pass to Derrick Williams for a three-pointer. And again when he zipped a bounce pass between his own legs, past a defender and into Greg Stiemsma's hands under the basket for a layup.
Welcome back, Ricky.
"When he has the ball in his hands," Adelman joked, "I'm a much better coach."
The most amazing part of Rubio's performance is that he looked like the same old Rubio. And as usual, his impact extended well beyond his stat line. His presence breathed life into Target Center. The place was electric, the mood festive. That's the Rubio effect.
Kevin Love is the Wolves best player, but Rubio is their most important one -- and there's a difference in those two.
Love is one of the NBA's Top 10 players and the game's best power forward. He scores inside or out, rebounds like crazy and makes double-double performances a nightly occurrence.
But Rubio ties it all together. He makes everyone better, even Love, who missed Saturday's game because of flulike symptoms.
Rubio influences a game in myriad ways, whether it's with his passing, his scoring or his defense. It's no coincidence that the Wolves fell apart in his absence last season.
Rubio makes this team go. His teammates feed off him and the energy he creates with his no-look passes and flair for the dramatic.
Derrick Williams is a perfect example. Saturday he played with energy and confidence and gave a meaningful contribution off the bench (16 points, six rebounds). Rubio deserves some credit for that.
The fans' love affair with Rubio also reinforced that he's their most popular player. The Wolves sold 1,750 tickets in the few hours after they announced that Rubio would make his debut. He possesses that "it" factor that makes people stop and take notice and embrace him.
"I can't say with words how [the support] feels," he said.
St. Michael resident Alicia Winker, 28, was a casual Wolves fan before Rubio arrived in the Twin Cities last season. Now, she owns a partial season ticket because of Rubio. She bought single-game tickets Friday when she found out Rubio was expected to play against the Mavs.
Winker keeps a collage devoted to Rubio in her work office. She met Rubio in Dallas last season and got her picture taken with him. She made that photo her Christmas card with this note: "From Alicia and Ricky."
So what made her a Rubio fan?
"His genuine personality and his love for the game," she said.
Rubio brought that to Target Center again Saturday night. He looked right at home.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org