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For You, Mama

Nov 4 2019
Photo by
Courtesy of the Rubio Family
Photo by
Courtesy of the Rubio Family
Ricky Rubio
Phoenix Suns
Nov 4 2019
I

n 2015 I moved into a new apartment that I really liked in downtown Minneapolis, not far from where the Timberwolves played. In the mornings, when the fog cleared, I could look down and see the Mississippi River. The apartment was big, but not too big. I made sure it had two bedrooms so when my mom and dad came to see me, they always had a room to themselves. 

That summer my parents came from Spain to visit — which they had done a few times a year since I moved to the States in 2011. Usually they would come to watch me play or to celebrate a holiday. We’d do tourist things in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I took them to the art museum and my favorite restaurants. I took them to the Mall of America, things like that. We always had a fun time, like we were on vacation.

On this particular trip, we were going out of town and we had a drive to make. It was like most road trips I’d done with my parents. They were fiddling with the music. They were telling me gossip about friends and family back home. They’d be silent for a while, and then, no matter what, my dad would start telling a story about something from my childhood. My dad loves to do that. He loves to tell stories about me, especially the ones that I’ve already heard. 

This time he told the story about how I had decided between soccer and basketball. I was 10 years old, and how he tells it my mom made me choose one or the other. I chose soccer. It was the most popular sport and I was better at it. But Dad’s favorite was basketball — he actually coached a women’s basketball team back home. So hoops was his game. I knew it disappointed him just a little bit that I was going to give up on basketball. But then after a few weeks, soccer and I weren’t really getting along. And I missed basketball. 

Courtesy of the Rubio Family

So, I went to Mama.

I told her that I’d made a big mistake. I wanted to go back to basketball.

I remember that she said it wasn’t going to be easy — they had already paid for soccer.

“You can’t switch in the middle of the season,” she told me.

My dad worked at the local sporting club in El Masnou, so he asked the staff if there was any way to get me on one of its basketball teams. Joining a team after the season had already begun wasn’t usually allowed. But they told him that if he worked some extra hours around the club they would let me play. My dad didn’t even have to think about it. He was proud that I wanted to play his favorite game again. Even though he had a lot on his plate, he did the extra work. And Mama picked up any slack at home so he could do it.

My mom and dad, my family, that’s my team. Always been that way. I love them for it.

And 15 years after I had chosen basketball over soccer, I was driving with them on a road trip in Minnesota. 

After a couple of hours we got to our destination: the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester.

We waited in a little room for the doctor to come in. This wasn’t a new situation for us — three years earlier my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. It started in her lungs in 2012. We stayed positive. I knew she could do it. I had to believe. That’s my mama, you know? She’s my superhero. I’d seen her raise a family. I’d seen her work hard, and then find time to take her son to soccer and basketball practice after. 

And she beat the cancer. As my father would say, “We all beat it. As a family.”

Now we were back in a hospital. The doctor came in, and before he said anything, we knew. We just knew. You could see it on his face. We’d been to so many of these tests, so many of these rooms, so many of these meetings. By this point, we could see it in their eyes. It was the same look the doctor in Barcelona had had on his face in 2012 when my mom was first diagnosed.

This time the doctor said that the cancer was back — and spreading fast.

That’s my mama, you know? She’s my superhero.

It was bad.

I squeezed Mama’s hand. We all hugged.

On the drive home, my dad didn’t tell any stories.

That night, I learned something about my apartment.

The walls were thin.

I listened to my parents cry through the night. They could barely sleep. I couldn’t either. I don’t know how to put how I felt into words. I don’t. I felt so helpless. All I wanted to do was make my mother feel better. And I didn’t know how. I was just so lost.

The next day I didn’t want to be anywhere near a basketball court.

A part of me broke that night. My life changed forever. That’s my mama.

I grew to hate that apartment.


Four years earlier, in 2011 I got an apartment in Los Angeles.

I liked that apartment. It was near the beach. The NBA lockout was happening that summer, and it was before I played my first season with the T-Wolves. I’d rented a small place so I could work out every day and enjoy the weather while the lockout situation figured itself out.

My agent told me about a pickup game. He said there would be other pros there, so I went. The first time I went, there was already a game going on. I saw K.G., Paul Pierce, Paul George, Danny Granger … all these guys I’d seen and heard about for years. And they let me run with them that day. I went back as much as I could that summer. 

Sometimes, when I tell my friends back home about those games, they ask if I was ever intimidated. Yeah, maybe I was a little. But I think, at the same time, maybe people forget about 2008. They forget about Spain. They don’t remember how good our Spanish national team was — we made it to the Olympic gold medal game. I was 17. Seventeen! We lost to Team USA, but they had a crazy good team … Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade, and a bunch of other great players. 

So in 2011, I felt like I already knew how to play at that level. And I went into those L.A. runs determined to show those guys that I belonged. I’m a believer that everything in life happens for a reason — the lockout gave me the chance to test my game against some of the best in the world.

It was how I got to meet KG, too. 

After one of our pickup games, I remember he came over to me. 

“Ricky!!!!! Kid. I heard you are going to Minny?”

I nodded. 

I think he knew my English wasn’t so good yet. I was being very quiet.

KG went on and on about Minnesota and the franchise. He was going in, like: “Man, let me tell you. This place, L.A., it’s alright, yeah? But trust me. Trust me. You go to Minny … you give those people everything you got? Believe me. They’re gonna give you everything back. Trust. Trust!”

I couldn’t believe that a player like KG — the NBA champ, the Big Ticket — he’s talking to me and he knows my story.

Trust!

I’ll always remember that day. Later, I learned what Wolves fan already knew — KG speaks the truth. He was right about Minny. He was right about the fan base. When the lockout ended, it was time to report to training camp. I didn’t know a whole lot about the NBA yet — just the basics about how long the season was, and how NBA rules were a little different from international rules. 

And I knew Minny had won only 15 and 17 games in the two seasons before I got there. I knew that wasn’t good. But for me, it was a fresh start in a new league, and a new country. I remember opening night of the 2011–12 season … it was just incredible. Incredible. My mom and dad were there at the Target Center. I started the game on the bench. As I was getting ready to come in, I remember the crowd chanting my name.

I was able to find my parents in the crowd. My mama — her face. I remember she had the biggest, proudest smile.

My family. That’s my team.

Midway through my rookie season, I tore my ACL and my LCL in a game against the Lakers. I rehabbed that summer, in 2012, the same summer Mama was first diagnosed with cancer. Over the two years that followed, there were a lot of hard times. As a team, we were close to turning the corner, but we couldn’t quite get there. And I struggled to focus on basketball at times because of what was going on with my mother back home in Spain. Not everyone knew what was going on, but those who did, they left their mark on my family. The people of Minnesota were so wonderful and supportive. The fans, the staff, my teammates — everyone did their best to help me with Mama’s situation. They cared. I will remember that forever.

Jordan Johnson/NBAE/Getty ImagesOne of those people was Flip Saunders. 

Flip came back to the Timberwolves in 2014, and I got to know him and his son, Ryan. They are such a caring family. They really embody the best parts of Minnesota. In 2015, when we drafted Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 pick, Flip called me. He wanted me to work out with Karl-Anthony over the summer.

I flew back from vacation and started working with KAT right away. Our first day, Flip showed up a few minutes late. We were running some drills, and I saw Flip on the sidelines. He had a hat on, pulled down low … and he was looking skinny. Real skinny. I went over to say hello, and I told him it was good to see him. After our session he pulled me into his office.

He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

He was going through chemo that summer. 

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Flip, you look great.”

I meant it. But I don’t know if I was telling the truth to myself. Flip looked pale and skinny.

We talked for a while that day. I told him what my mom was going through, and he told me about his chemo and about the Mayo Clinic, which is actually how I ended up recommending it to Mama. Flip asked all about her, and how I was dealing with everything. He made us both forget about his own battle, if just for a few minutes. He never tried to call attention to himself. That’s who Flip was.

Three days before the season started, we were in L.A., getting ready to play the Lakers. The staff called us into a meeting.

Flip had passed away.

Everyone in the organization took it hard. It was a hard day. And I thought about Mama. By that time, her cancer had come back. She was doing O.K., but it was scary to think about Flip … the last time I saw him, I didn’t know his condition was as bad as it was.

I called my dad and demanded that he tell me the truth about Mom’s prognosis. I needed to know exactly what was going on. It was during the season, in 2015–16, but I told him I’d fly home if he said so.

That season was hell. So many ups and downs. More downs than ups. I called my dad almost every day for updates. Sometimes he had to hang up because my mother wasn’t feeling well, or he needed to cook her a meal, or she had to throw up.

I felt so far away. I’d be in some hotel, in some city, after a game, like, Man, what am I doing here? I should be with her.

During the All-Star break that year, I booked a ticket home. The break was only four days and it was a 17-hour trip, but I had to. I remember thinking about Flip. I knew he would have understood that I had to go.

When Mama opened the door, seeing her face … that’s the best feeling in the world. Dad told me that coming out there was the best medicine she could ever have. But I could see she was hurting. I held her hand as much as I could. I sat by her bed the whole time. I didn’t want to let go. She told me she wouldn’t quit. 

A day later, I had to fly back.

Two more months passed before the season ended. I did what I needed to do on the court. But it was so hard. My mind was far away. I thought of my mother all the time. After our last game of the season, I flew home again.

Mama died a few weeks later. 

When someone you love dies, it’s like a fog wraps around you. That’s how it was for me. I felt so directionless. Every year, when I would go back to Minnesota for training camp, I’d begin every day the same way: FaceTiming Mama. The first season after she died, I would wake up and think about calling her. It made me want to break my phone. But I couldn’t delete her number. I even sent her text messages sometimes. I still do. For a while, I felt like I was losing my mind — like I was talking to myself.

Alex Goodlett/The Players' TribuneFor most of that year after, I was angry. I blamed a lot of things. I blamed basketball. I blamed people around me for how I felt. I blamed everything.

I went through depression.

And I looked at basketball differently after that. I saw life differently. Nothing felt as serious as it used to. You know, like, we are just playing a game…. And sometimes it was a relief for me to just go out there and ball and forget about stuff. But that doesn’t work forever. I felt like I was treading water as best as I could but still drowning. I don’t know how to explain it. And I didn’t know how to fix it alone. I learned that when I finally got help — when I went to talk to a therapist. 

I leaned on my friends, too, and my dad, brother and sister. They brought me back to who I am, who I’ve always been — a mama’s boy.

They knew that even though Mama was gone, we could still be close to her. 

I remembered what I told Mama on one of our drives back from the Mayo Clinic.

Her whole life, all she had ever wanted to do was help others be happy. When my friends would come over when I was little, she always asked me what their favorite plate was and she would cook it for dinner. That’s who she was.

So one car ride back to Minneapolis from Rochester, on a different road trip, after more bad news, I told her something important: I told her that I was going to make sure that, no matter what happened to her, we were going to help a lot of people going through similar struggles. 

I promised her that.


In 2017, I rented a house in Salt Lake City.

I had just moved in, with a bunch of close friends. A few weeks earlier I had been traded from Minnesota to the Utah Jazz.

Everything happens for a reason.

I loved Minny. I still do. And that place, those people — they will always be in my heart. 

I mean that. Trust. Like KG said.

The opportunity in Utah was for another fresh start. My first year there was also the first year in the NBA where teams could put ads on their jerseys. The Jazz had a 5 FOR THE FIGHT patch. I learned that it was charity for cancer research.

Everything happens for a reason.

I met with Ryan Smith, the CEO at Qualtrics — the company that had helped get the patch on our jerseys — and I asked him about different foundations, and how I’d go about creating my own. That was just the start. That year, Dad and I visited a few different hospitals in Utah, including the Huntsman Cancer Institute. We met so many kids, I saw so many smiles. I think it did more for me and Dad than it did for those kids. We left that day and on the ride home, Dad said what we were both thinking.

“Mama was there today with us,” he told me. “We’re making her proud.”

A year later, I started my foundation. The Ricky Rubio Foundation. In honor of my mother.

I wanted to create a foundation where everybody feels like it’s their foundation. I wanted to take advantage of my platform as an NBA player to bring smiles, and also to raise money for social causes. I’m not going to lie here, the kids’ smiles in the hospitals really keep me going. That’s how I get fulfilled. I know that’s what Mama would have wanted. She’s right there with me.

Alex Goodlett/The Players' TribuneToday I’m not 21 years old, like I was when I first got to Minnesota. Back then, when my mama was still alive, I made a list in my head of what I wanted to accomplish as a player. One of them was to use my influence and platform to help people who need it. So I was able to cross that off the list. I still have a few things I haven’t crossed off the list.

One of them is, “Win an NBA championship.”

I’m still working on it. I’m in Phoenix now. Another new city, another new apartment and more new challenges. We’ve got a good young team that has a big potential. All great things take some time. We’re going to get there. So let me get back to you on that.

Another thing on the list is, “Win a World Cup with my national team familia.

And this summer our national team won the FIBA World Cup in China. I really wish my Mama could have seen it. It was incredible to see the way basketball touches lives over there. I grew up idolizing Spanish basketball, and to be a part of another chapter of our country’s success was really special to me. I was named MVP, and having Kobe presenting the award, 11 years after the 2008 Olympics, felt like I was closing a circle.

Basketball is very important to me. But I know I can make an impact on this world in many other ways. I know I can be many other things. And of course, one of them is still being a mama’s boy.

Every day, I am trying to do something to make her proud.

That’s what she deserves.

We’re a team.

I got us forever.

I love you, Mama.

Ricky Rubio
Phoenix Suns