DALY CITY, CALIF. - This could not be how Ricky Rubio envisioned his first NBA experience, in the cold, dank barn of San Francisco's Cow Palace, a building that had its heyday when Pink Floyd and KISS were turning out hit albums. The venue is so dim that Rubio's mother, Tona, needed a spotlight as she stood courtside Sunday and videotaped her son's new life in America.
But because the NBA lockout will not end and allow Rubio to discover just where his much-scrutinized game stands alongside bona fide NBA talent in legitimate competition, his debut came not in a Timberwolves uniform but in Drew Gooden's charity game. The young Spaniard was a participant because he is represented by the same firm as Gooden -- and, well, because there's really nothing else to do right now, and players are jumping at the chance to alleviate their boredom and alter their workout routines.
In many ways, this was the perfect game for Rubio to be seen for the first time. Behind-the-back passes were abundant; defense was not. And if there are two things Rubio clearly can do, it's handle the ball and see the floor extremely well.
But this game had a circus feel to it. There were maybe 1,000 people in an arena that holds almost 13,000. Hip hop played on the sound system the entire time -- both during the game and when Gooden was presenting a $10,000 check to the Make-A-Wish foundation. The stench of marijuana creased the air.
It was not exactly Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
"It's good," Rubio said afterward, grinning. "It's like a little step before going to the NBA. It's like practice."
Actually, it was, he acknowledged, less intense than where he has been practicing with other NBA players in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. But he had his moments. The first time he touched the ball, he came around a screen and threw a no-look bounce pass to Joakim Noah, who was rolling to the basket. Noah received the pass for a dunk, and the tone of the game was set. Rubio had some alley-oop passes. He had some other no-looks. He had some turnovers. Everything you would expect in a wide-open affair where officials were mere props.
Rubio also had a few jumpers that he hit, and a few that he missed. All came with nobody diving out at him on defense. His shot does not look crisp or natural; it looks like a work in progress. And since there was no defense played, it's impossible to gauge that part of his game.
"I don't think it's fair to judge somebody on a charity game like this," said Noah, "but obviously the reason people are talking about him is he's a hell of a talent. He can definitely distribute the ball, and then after the real competition starts we'll have to see.
"What I would tell him is don't worry about what nobody says. Don't worry about the scrutiny, don't worry about people judging you. I think I'm a player who has gone through a lot of similar things, people always would say I'm not an NBA-caliber player because I can't shoot, I'm too skinny, I can't do this, can't do that -- and I think I'm doing pretty good.
"I don't know exactly what he has gone through in Spain. I know there are high expectations, but that doesn't help you win basketball games. I think of my guy Tim Tebow: That guy has the expectations of the world on his shoulders, people say he can't throw the ball, and the guy is freaking winning games."
Rubio says he does not regret the decision to come to the NBA; it's been a lifelong dream. He says just that he is getting impatient to play, to prove himself.
Rubio sounds as if he doesn't really want to go back to Spain and play, but if the lockout continues, that move seems inevitable. He said he will give owners and players another two weeks to see if they can reach a deal on a collective bargaining agreement, and then he will explore his options at home.
"I want to play," Rubio said. "I want to do what I love to do, play on the court, you know?"