Ole! Ole! Ole!

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January 30, 2012
By: Jim Walsh
Jim Walsh

It’s crazy to think that an NBA team playing in a state-of-the-art arena in downtown Minneapolis with all the media-hyping amenities of the modern world could be described as the town’s best-kept secret, but that is how it has felt the first two months of this lockout-shortened basketball season — even though there is something undeniably and unprecedentedly special happening with this young and ravenous new Wolves team.

Um, seriously?

Check the wins-losses column, and it’s the same old story: More Minnesota Mediocrity. Couple the team’s record (well under .500 at press time) with the sad fact that the notoriously reticent Minnesota sports fan’s patience has been tested of late with bland and boring losing streaks from its top-tier teams, and you can’t blame a body for ignoring the whole lot of ’em.

But go to the Target Center and it’s a different story. The buzz is on. Ticket sales are up and the youthful crowd is showing up early before games to soak in the decidedly ’70s atmosphere (young, wild, free, global, and very chill pre-game mixes), and to snap photos of all the young studs. It’s happening, for real, and it’s happening in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, where the city game should be played, at Target Center, which fostered some serious juju in October when the Minnesota Lynx won the WNBA championship.

And now this.

“They’re fun to watch.” Those four words are basketball junkie code for: This is a team that, at its best, plays together and off each other, like a jazz quintet, with something like an artist at the helm, conducting. Considering that the Wolves make their music across the street from the next-big-thing launching pad that is First Avenue/7th St. Entry, it’s easy to imagine them as a terrific new band that’s still finding its groove and identity, and is capable of playing transcendent gigs (beating Dallas and San Antonio in consecutive games) followed by flops (losing to Cleveland and Memphis in consecutive games) and delivering shoulda-been hits (close losses to league leaders Miami and Chicago).

They’re cool, in other words, because they’re raw and still figuring out who they are as individuals and as a collective, but when they do — look out.

Modern NBA history has it that successful teams have three stars around which everything revolves, and the Wolves have an exciting nucleus in third-year beast Kevin Love and rookies Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio. Toughness, grit, talent and chemistry abound, and the youth movement is being shepherded by veteran coach Rick Adelman and his staff of basketball gurus that includes former NBA studs Jack Sikma and Terry Porter.

“Hungry” barely does it in describing how Love and the other young hoops historians on this team look to Adelman and his staff during time-outs and pre-game huddles. They want to learn. They want to work. They want to win.

Whether they ever do is up to the fates, but at the moment, on a purely aesthetic level, they’re an extremely colorful group to be around: Rubio and JJ Barea make up the first native Spanish-speaking backcourt in NBA history, a fact that has drawn Latin American flags and chants of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” to the stands, and media representatives from Puerto Rico, Argentina and Spain to press row.

Love is an inspiring freak of nature whose intensity and desire to get better as a player is on display every night on the court and in the locker room. Darko Milicic (Serbia) and Nikola Pekovic (Montenegro) are the Eastern Bloc behemoths who provide a certain cartoon chemistry to the mix. Luke Ridnour looks like he should be playing pick-up ball at Lifetime Fitness across the skyway, but the eighth-year guard is having his best year as a pro.

Rounding it out is Anthony Tolliver, the old-school scrapper and dead-eye shooter; Wes Johnson, the enigmatic shooting guard whose natural athleticism screams “potential”; Anthony Randolph, the gangly shot-blocker and ferocious competitor whose development is the surprise of the young season, and Michael Beasley, the wounded diva swan and impressive physical talent who never seems to be in the same building as his teammates.

And then there’s Rubio.

Go see him play. Watch him in warm-ups, shrugging and shimmying to the music along with Love and Randolph and the others: they’re dancing, getting into their rhythm, getting in the flow, connecting with one another. To that point, Rubio (like the Gophers/Lynx’s Lindsey Whalen) is as natural a point guard as has ever played the position. His body language and style of play is more ESP than ESPN, and as anyone who has ever played the game can tell you there is nothing like a perfect pass between two or three players, and Rubio lives for it.

That kind of basketball is fun to play and fun to watch, and perhaps the greatest testament to the kid is that middle-aged ballers and pee-wees alike are invoking his name as they bring the ball up in pick-up and park board games, and trying out all sorts of passes they never dared try before. The Rubio effect, in other words, is contagious.

Not to mention a beautiful thing to behold and savor. When Rubio crosses midcourt, his “assassin’s eyes” (Kevin McHale on Larry Bird) scans the floor for open teammates, and everybody in the gym holds their breath in anticipation of what’s coming next. When it does — a blink-of-an-eye alley-oop, a no-look bounce pass, a feathery touch-pass — followed by a finger-point or high-five between the connectors, it’s as good as sports gets.

And maybe as good as Rubio gets, but from the early reviews, that seems unlikely. At the moment, he’s a very savvy rookie, still in the birthing stage, moth-before-butterfly, a champagne supernova rocket man just before take-off, with the sky as the limit. Hype aside (he still flails too often on defense and gets picked to death), all signs point to him only getting better, tougher, and more skilled with his particular brand of magic.

The last Minnesota athlete to draw such gasps was the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, who set records with speed, power, moves, and a flair that was all his own, and then blew out his knee this season. Whether he comes back or not remains to be seen, but a great young athlete cut down in his prime is a reminder to all concerned to enjoy Rubio while we can, even though in the end, maybe the truest thing you can say about him and these Wolves is that there’s nothing to say.

Yet.