A New Ricky Rubio: Living Like 'Tomorrow May Not Exist' After Loss of His Mother

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2017

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 15:  Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz dribbles up the court during the second half of the game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on December 15, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

Ricky Rubio always wanted to jump out of an airplane.

For years, it was a line on his bucket list, a mental file he treats with reverence. The thing is, he could never quite carve out the time. You know how these things go, right? There were always other activities and events in the way: basketball and family and more basketball and off-court professional obligations and more basketball. NBA players are one-man corporations, and their time and words have the ability to make or break hundreds of other businesses.

They don't get offseasons anymore, even if the league's calendar says they do.       

So, yeah, it was easy for Rubio to get lost in his professional world, to let the days float by without pausing to let life take his breath away.

But then finally, in early June, he decided that the moment had arrived. So he commissioned a company in Empuriabrava—a small, beachside tourist community in northern Spain—to take him skydiving. He invited six friends because he wanted to gift them this chance, but also because he was scared. Some were reticent, but he urged them to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Everything's set up. I got you the plane. This is your chance," Rubio implored. "You might not have another. Tomorrow may not exist."

That morning, Rubio, along with his six invitees, boarded a twin-engine jump plane. He pulled a pair of plastic goggles down over his dark, newly grown, Jon Snow-like hair and, with an instructor wrapped around his back, bounded out into the bright blue sky. His turquoise zip-up sweatshirt waved in the whisking wind.

Unable to breathe, he felt alive.

Something has clearly changed about Ricky Rubio.

You can hear it in the way he talks about his priorities, about the decisions he makes.

You can see it in him, too. Have you seen pictures lately? The silky bob that was his trademark when he entered the NBA six years ago as a much-hyped 21-year-old passing wiz? It has morphed into a man-bun. The rail-thin limbs? They now resemble the muscular parts you'd find attached to a UFC fighter. He even has a tattoo of a lion's face surrounded by what looks like flowers stretching up from his right forearm to his now-meaty shoulder.

He's transformed from the Spanish Justin Bieber into Wolverine.

"My mom would have hated it," he says as he settles into a conference room in his agent's midtown Manhattan office. A white zip-up conceals the arm sleeve, but the scruff is still jarring for anyone who remembers watching Olympics highlights of the baby-faced point guard bodying up bigger men. "She didn't like me having a beard. She always asked me to shave."

It's mid-November, and Rubio is in town with his new team, the Utah Jazz, for games against the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. There's a day between the games, which much to his pleasure, means more time in New York and more time for strolls through Central Park, right across from the hotel hosting the team.

Central Park is a special place to him. It was there that he crossed an item off his bucket list for the first time. That was about a year earlier, during a November road trip the previous season with the Timberwolves. He and Lucas Charte, his manager and longtime friend, packed up some chicken and rice from the post-practice meal prepared by the Timberwolves and made their way to the park.

For years, Rubio had wanted to visit Manhattan's lone bucolic stretch of green. He'd traveled to New York dozens of times, yet, like with skydiving, life had always leapt in the way. I'll go later, he thought, only to see later become tomorrow and tomorrow to become next time while next time would just trigger a repeat of the cycle.

That was until May of 2016, when Rubio's mother, Tona Vives, succumbed to her four-year battle with lung cancer. She was just 56.

"Going through an experience like that, it changes your life, it changes your perspective on life," Rubio says. "You're less worried about the little things and more worried about the big picture. You realize tomorrow may not exist."

He pauses.

"It's made me a different person."

In February, 2016, during his All-Star break vacation, Rubio surprised Tona with a visit to Barcelona. For nearly a week, he sat at his mother's side in the house he purchased his parents few years earlier, appreciating every moment. 

He returned to Minnesota convinced those would be the last the two would share.

The thought made him sad, which soon morphed into guilt. Tona, after all, was more than a mother. "She was my best friend," Ricky says. The two spoke on the phone every morning during Ricky's drive to practice, with Tona seemingly able to sense the moments her middle child (Ricky has an older brother and younger sister) needed her most. There was the obvious, like the time during Ricky's second NBA season when she jetted in from Spain to be at his bedside in Vail, Colorado, for three weeks after ACL surgery. And there was the more subtle, like the winter stretch early in his career when she could sense him longing for home.

He so desperately wanted to drop everything to be with her, but he had a job to do, games to play, commitments to honor.

"I wouldn't have been the same person if she would have passed away during that time," Rubio says.

Tona, convinced she could defeat her disease, kept battling, and in April, Ricky was with his family in Barcelona for what would be the final five weeks of his mother's life. He spent mornings on the patio of his parents' home working out under the eyes of his trainer. Sometimes he'd do rehab work in the pool. Afterward, he'd care for Tona the way she had once cared for him: by cooking (though nothing matched the Alfredo gnocchi she had perfected), helping her shower and traverse the home.

"It was time for me to take care of her," Rubio says. "It's hard, that change, but being there with her for those five weeks, that was my chance to show her how much I care about her."

He also made sure to do all he could to keep her spirits up. He'd initially been angered by his mother's sicknesses, probing friends like Charte for explanations. "Why her?" he'd ask. "How can a woman her age who doesn't smoke get lung cancer?" But as time passed, he became enamored with books on the power of positive thinking and slowly, that fury evolved into hope, or at least recognition of the influence his hope could have on her. A smile here, maybe from the cold water he tossed over the shower curtain. A laugh there, maybe from her claiming she, too, could him carry him down the hall. He'd crack jokes, unleashing the clever sense of humor that Charte describes as "intellectual."

These, he believed, were tools to wield against the evil trying to take his mother away. Or at least they could buy the two more time together.

On May 26, the family drove Tona to the hospital. where she took her last breath. This wasn't the first family member cancer had stolen from Ricky. His grandmother died of liver cancer when he was 10, and a grandfather died two years later of lung cancer. Just seven months after Tona, Flip Saunders, his Timberwolves coach, died of Hodgkin's lymphoma.

But this was different. This was his mom, his best friend.

"It changed him," says Knicks center Willy Hernangomez, who's played with Rubio on the Spanish national basketball team. "Now he really thinks about life, how you only live once, so you have to enjoy it."

Rubio spent this past summer checking items off his bucket list.

There was the skydiving. He also went swimming with white sharks—"in a cage," he makes sure to add—and paddle surfing in Barcelona. And, of course, there are the tattoos, which he says are to honor his mom, though he won't say how. Next up, he hopes, are a trip backpacking through Australia and a safari in Nepal, both of which sound great but have triggered some concern among his friends.

"I was thinking that maybe he was trying to get through this stuff too quickly," Charte says. "That's an obvious way for a person to try to overcome something like he went through."

Over the summer, he suggested Rubio maybe slow down, and asked him what the motivation was behind these adventures. They spoke and Rubio explained how he'd learned that no one's future is guaranteed, how he wanted to squeeze every possible drop out of life. Also, he pointed out, Charte, who runs a sports management company, was working too hard and getting caught up in his daily grind. He asked his friend when he last sat back to enjoy a sunset?

"He told me, 'Hey, we don't know if we're going to be here tomorrow,'" Charte recalls. "'We've got to get off our asses to start living.'"

In June, after a year of shopping him, Minnesota traded Rubio to the Jazz. The Timberwolves, who drafted Rubio fifth overall in 2009, were the only NBA team he'd ever played for. Minnesota had become his second home.

Still, there were reasons for excitement. As much as he loved Minnesota, Rubio agreed with the team that it was time for a change. And be began the 2017-18 season on fire, scoring more points than ever and threading wizardly passes all across the floor.

"He'll surprise you with how and when he throws it to you," his Jazz teammate, Derrick Favors, says. "I've never played with a point guard like him before"

Even with patches of struggling with his jumper—always a weakness—he's scoring a career-high 12.1 points per game—but his assist numbers, usually among the league leaders, have fallen to pedestrian levels (he's dishing 4.8 per game, a career low and 4.3 fewer than he averaged last season). The Jazz are 14-17, hanging in the playoff hunt, but Rubio has yet to discover his groove.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

This is where the ways in which he's changed begin to manifest. In years past, struggles like these would have left Rubio feeling angry and distant. He'd cancel dinner plans with friends, which was a frequent reaction to Timberwolves losses, and sometimes wins, too, if he was disappointed in his own play.


"Basketball is important, but life is what it's about," Rubio says. "I still get frustrated and angry. ... You can have a bad day, but ... you wake up the next day and you have another opportunity."

Sometimes at night, even after losses, he ventures out onto the patio of the home he's renting in downtown Salt Lake City with glass of red wine in his hand. He turns on the fire pit and gazes out into the night, his eyes settling on the mountains glowing under the moon. Occasionally, some friends will join him, but it's the nights where he's by himself that he enjoys the most.

He still thinks about Tona. He thinks about her when he does work and raises money for the Breath of Hope foundation in Minnesota and how she always talked about the privileged position he was in. He thinks about her while driving to practice when, out of habit, he sometimes reaches for his cell phone to call her. He thinks about her whenever he touches his hair, which reminds him of how she'd drive him crazy using her hands to brush it, even when he was a famous, adult millionaire.

Sitting on the patio, he also thinks about how much he has in his life and what more he still has to gain from it, even though he now realizes it can't last forever. "For 10 minutes every day, do something you love for free," he tells friends.

In his back yard with the warmth from the fire settling over him, Rubio breathes in the air. He feels alive.


Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.


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