Ricky Rubio carries a Justin Bieber backpack. Follow him for a week, and you wonder whether it should be the other way around.
Rubio wears Bieber because of rookie hazing. He has shrugged at the indignity much as he shrugged off the challenges of turning professional when he was 14, emigrating from Spain and commanding an NBA team as the Timberwolves point guard at 21.
From March 5 to March 9, Rubio's schedule demonstrated the demands placed on a popular young star living in a strange city, and the joys and pains any athlete can experience on any successive days.
Monday, he orchestrated a one-point victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, then entertained a couple dozen countrymen. Friday, he lay on his back in Target Center, clutching his left knee.
Between ecstasy and agony, Rubio played host to his mother, his agent and his best friends, worked on his shooting, got mobbed at the Taste of the Timberwolves, played three games, was stalked in his off hours by concentric rings of PR flacks, television cameras and writers, and rallied a crowd before signing autographs at Ridgedale Center.
Rubio's injury ended his season as he was becoming Minnesota's most endearing athlete, but it made him no less compelling as part exchange student, part heartthrob, part basketball exotica. This is what life was like if you were Rubio during a workaday week in early March of your first NBA season, when seemingly every Minnesotan wanted to steal a lock of your moptop:
After Rubio guides the Wolves to a victory over the Clippers, he joins a group of Spanish coaches who make yearly treks to the States.
"Usually, the Spanish Institute of Coaches comes to see a few NBA games a year," said Aito Garcia Reneses. "When I knew they were going to come to Minnesota, I go, too."
Reneses, who runs the national team, met Rubio when he was 12.
"His first game I coached was 14 years old playing in professional league, and he played seven minutes and helped us win," Reneses said. "He, personally, is different. He is able to talk with somebody like me or his friend with the same naturality."
The Wolves practice at the Life Time Fitness Center in Target Center. When reporters enter, Rubio is launching three-point shots as assistant coach Terry Porter zips passes and instructions at him.
Rubio holds the goose-neck follow-through and hoists shot after shot.
"It's all about using his legs," Porter said.
Rubio steps into the weight room to stretch and lift weights, fist-bumping the Wolves strength coach and insulting the team's All-Star, Kevin Love.
"He knows a surprising number of English curse words," Love said. "It's impressive."
Rubio meets a dozen reporters. The Wolves have refused most requests for 1-on-1 interviews that weren't set up long ago. This week, NBA TV and the New Yorker are in town to follow him.
He expresses gratitude for the mild winter and the way Minnesotans have treated him. He says he has found good restaurants but misses Spanish food. He seems tired but cheerful.
"I'm a rookie," he said. "I can't complain about anything."
All of the players participate in the Taste of the Timberwolves at Target Center, but it's Rubio who gets mobbed.
He stands in front of the Mini-Ball Madness, and a woman, spotting him, screams, "Ricky-oooooo." He stands in front of the prize wheel and all demographics press up against him. Men wrap their arms around his shoulders. Women aren't sure whether to treat him like a rock star or a son.
One man grabs his arm as he's walking away. "I just want you to know that you have made me a Timberwolves fan again," he says. Rubio, always polite, nods and thanks him.
Rubio's mother tries to get Ricky and his friends to stand still for a photo. They mug, and she yells, "Ricky!"
"You know, he's not 7 feet tall," said his agent, Jarinn Akana. "He's not very imposing physically. He has that little, little boy look, so you can't believe he's doing such big things."
During a charity auction, players dispersed to the back of the room. Most sat at two tables. Love joined Porter and coach Rick Adelman. Rubio sat with his mother and friends, occasionally tossing paper wads at Michael Beasley.
The Wolves will play Portland. Rubio takes the court early for shooting drills with Porter. Nancy Scherer is celebrating her 80th birthday by watching Rubio. "Oh, I just love him," she says. "He seems like such a nice boy."
The PA announcer stretches Rubio's name like taffy during introductions and another big crowd responds. Once the game starts, Rubio faces the kind of physical play that prompted the Wolves to send tapes to the NBA offices, asking for more calls against opponents guarding him.
Rubio is in foul trouble early and doesn't play particularly well, but there are two moments that speak to his worth. In the second half, when the offense stagnates, Adelman whirls toward the bench and yells, "Ricky!" and he enters the game to a hero's welcome. Later, there is a loose ball, and Rubio dives headfirst for it, winding up beneath massive LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor.
The Wolves win, and as time expires Rubio launches the ball high in the air, looking exhausted and satisfied.
Minnesotans worried whether Rubio would take to his winter home.
"Just my spectator's opinion? The kid likes to play basketball," said teammate Martell Webster. "He doesn't care where. He could be playing in Antarctica, as long as there's a court and a hoop."
Rubio meets the NBA TV crew outside of his Minneapolis condo building. They ask to tape him walking to the car. He is wearing a hoodie and jeans. It is snowing and he looks very cold and very skinny. He walks slowly, like a man who knows he's being watched.
He drives to Target Center, and Porter works with him again on three-point shooting, then shows him video on a laptop in courtside seats. The Spanish coaches take it all in.
"Right now, in Spain, everybody is for the Timberwolves," said Juan Maria Gavalda Robert, president of the Spanish Basketball Coaches Association.
A few years ago, Robert gave Rubio a present. "A book about Pistol Pete Maravich," Robert said. "Ricky said, 'Who is he?' Once he was drafted, he knew."
It's showtime again for Rubio. Hundreds of people pack the center court of Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka. Tim Wiberg showed up at 6 a.m. to get a wristband to allow him to stand in line for an autograph, "and I was number 267," he said.
The crowd at the Taste of the Timberwolves was largely connected and moneyed. The crowd at Ridgedale is different. The crowd at Ridgedale does a lot of screaming, sometimes in Spanish, and there are dozens of children running around wearing Rubio jerseys.
Three Spanish immersion teachers from Minnewashta Elementary are wearing Spain's colors.
"We've been following him for a while, because I love Barcelona," said Christina Velasquez, who is American. She pointed at her Spanish colleagues, Midori Fujinaki and Rocio Yanes, and said, "They love him because he's Spanish and plays basketball for Spain. We all loved him before he came to Minnesota."
Rubio schmoozes with Best Buy executives and gives an impromptu speech while his mother and friends cheerfully mill about.
"He was born with this composure," his mother, Tona Vives, said through Akana, who translated. "The dad is very calm."
Her earliest memory of Rubio playing basketball?
"When Ricky was 4 and his older brother was playing, you had to be 6 to play," she said. "Ricky would watch practice from the balcony and imitate the players' movements. He came so often they asked the coach if he could play. The coach said, 'If he doesn't cry, he can play.'"
At 21, Rubio has developed the hard shell of a professional while maintaining his childlike mien.
"Ricky has this camp he runs in Spain, up in the mountains," Akana said. "They do basketball, horseback riding, a bunch of stuff. You should see Ricky interact with those kids. He doesn't have to do that. I keep saying, 'Ricky, be careful,' but when he's with those kids, there is no NBA dream. He is just a kid having fun with other kids."
Target Center is packed for a showdown with the Lakers. The Wolves have called for a "White-Out," leaving white T-shirts on every seat for fans to wear. The game is tense and close.
With less than 20 seconds left, Rubio plants his left knee and crumples to the court. Immediately NBA stars begin sending well-wishes on Twitter, but the injury is a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and one of the most endearing stories in the NBA is interrupted.
His skill and charm made him popular. He'll require toughness to come back.
"He's just fearless," said Wolves assistant coach Jack Sikma, a legendary competitor in the NBA. "Sometimes he butts up against a brick wall, but he's going to find his way around or over it."
"Without Ricky," teammate Derrick Williams had said earlier in the week, "I don't know where we'd be."