Ricky Rubio likes putting things together. Give him a deconstructed IKEA wardrobe, the accompanying manual, and a little bit of time and he’ll build your furniture with a smile. He says there’s something both challenging and cathartic about the process, something he finds so appealing that two years ago, he saw a design for a nightstand on Pinterest and decided to build one on his own. He went to a hardware store and bought the wood, nails, and other materials he’d need, blocked out a day, and tried to create his masterpiece.
“It didn’t work,” Rubio said over the phone last week, chuckling with a tinge of disappointment. “But I did enjoy it.”
Even though his grand construction project failed (and even though he’s made upward of $80 million in his NBA career), Rubio still makes sure that he, not anyone else, assembles his own furniture—which has been a considerable task over the years. Rubio moved from Spain to Minnesota in 2011, then to Utah in 2017, and he has had to buy—and build—new objects at every stop.
That is what he’s doing now as he settles into his new home in Phoenix, where he’s living after signing a three-year, $51 million deal with the Suns in July. In that home, he’ll also have to make room for the MVP trophy he earned at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in September, where Spain stunned the world and won the gold medal. “Nobody expected us to win,” Rubio, who averaged 16.4 points, six assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in the tournament, says. “But at the same time we weren’t scared of anything.”
That victory was a perfect summer bookend for Rubio—a nice capper on his time with a familiar team before he began workouts with the Suns. And while winning it all was his main goal over the last few months, another lingered, too: finding balance.
Balance has long mattered to Rubio, especially on the court. His style of play largely centers on a combination of instinct and joy—remember when he told Alexey Shved to “change this face”?—and he looks to strike that same chord in his off-court hobbies.
He’s become a convert to yoga and meditation over the last few years, and he keeps up both practices during the NBA season. He’s also gotten pretty into chess, which he believes is a metaphor for life. “When I’m super negative I just go play chess and forget about it,” he says. He’s had a tough time finding other people to play against, especially when he’s on the road—“at my age, there’s not a lot of people willing to really spend like two hours playing chess and doing nothing”—so he’s had to resort to playing online. But whether online or not, it’s become both a form of detox and a tool.
There’s a kind of purposeful emptiness to activities like these that Rubio enjoys. He says they help him limit distractions and needless stress. Playing basketball at an elite level brings enough pressure, and he doesn’t need outside anxieties affecting him. (“The less I use my phone, the happier I am,” he says.) This mind-set played a part in his recent free agency decision, where he considered comfort over elements that other players might have prioritized, like big-city life or a franchise with a shot at a title.
“Coming from Barcelona where everything is outside, it was hard for me to stay at home,” Rubio says of his last two NBA stops in Minnesota and Utah. Rubio loves having a cup of espresso outside in the mornings, and now, he says, “I have a little patio.”
That may sound like a small thing, but it works for him. It’s all part of achieving a more holistic lifestyle—one where basketball doesn’t come above everything else. And in turn, that mind-set has worked to help him on the court too.
Spanish national team head coach Sergio Scariolo—who’s known Rubio for over a decade and recently spent time with him at the World Cup in China—says Rubio has reached a level of comfort and confidence that he didn’t previously have.
“He’s really deep, he’s really into digging into what is important for him, into his values, into his main principles,” Scariolo says. “What he’s experienced as a person, through pain, through the capacity to rebound from tough losses”—Rubio lost his mother to lung cancer in 2016—“he’s got a personal balance in his off-the-court life now.”
“I found myself again,” Rubio says. “I’m a better version of me, just because of what I went through.”
After the Spanish national team landed in Madrid following its win in China, an exhausted, jet-lagged Rubio just wanted to get home. There, waiting for him in a town 20 minutes north of Barcelona, was rest, long bike rides across the northeast Spanish coast, and food from his girlfriend’s tapas restaurant. But first, he and his teammates had to go through the glad-handing that comes with a massive achievement like their World Cup win. Spain’s king and president were waiting for handshakes, and countless fans showered the team with love at the victory parade in Madrid. As the tournament’s MVP, Rubio vacillated between relishing the moment and needing to catch some shut-eye.
“It was really hard to stay up,” Rubio says, “but you could see that we had done something special. Spain is a soccer country, and a lot of people were talking about just basketball for weeks. So it was really special.”
The accomplishment wasn’t lost on Rubio, who has been coming up in the Spanish basketball system since he was 14 years old. He remembers the glory of winning the U-16 gold medal in the 2006 European Championships and how small that victory felt just a few weeks later when he watched the national team—then led by Pau Gasol—win the FIBA World Cup. Soon after, Rubio, along with the other high-level Spanish players of his generation, got to work building the same type of cohesion they saw in their older peers.
“There is a special chemistry with the team, there is no question about that,” says Scariolo, whose first move after becoming the national team’s coach in 2009 was to bring Rubio in as the team’s starting point guard at age 18. Scariolo has seen Rubio go from a quiet early-bloomer to a vocal leader with veteran status. “We want to do whatever is possible to have this heritage pass from generation to generation.”
It took years, Rubio says, countless dinners, card games on planes, and practices to develop the fun environment and synergy that helped his team win it all in China. Watching that squad (and especially Rubio) felt, fittingly, like marveling at the tiki-taka style of pass-first fútbol that FC Barcelona, Rubio’s hometown team, popularized (Spain tied for the second-most assists per game in the tournament). Hearing Rubio speak about the experience, you get the sense that the differences between basketball at the international level and basketball in the NBA are more clear to him than most players. One is a dream come true—the other is a dream job.
“The NBA is a tricky life,” he says. “We play basketball, and we laugh while we do, but there is something that it comes along that maybe you like it or you don’t, and you have to ride with it.”
That self-awareness, combined with the evolution of his leadership, makes Rubio a valuable new addition to Phoenix. While many around the league rightfully view the Suns as a doddering franchise without a compass, Rubio saw a mutual opportunity: The team that had been searching in the wilderness for a point guard would get that and a mentor for its star player. And the sage point guard looking for a bigger role—on and off the court—would find one.
Rubio says that the way he was raised—always with an emphasis to think about others—is what’s made him want to help people off the court, whether through raising money for cancer research, or in more personal settings where he’s shared his experiences with younger players. It’s also why, on the court, he gets the most joy out of distributing the ball to his teammates. “I like to do that role where I can help them become a better player,” he says of younger players he’s played with. “It makes me feel more happy. … Something that comes from inside. It’s fulfilling and you feel good about it.”
Rubio is looking forward to playing facilitator for Devin Booker, who he knows can score 30 points a night. Rubio’s primary goal is to make those points come easier than they have in the past. “I want to see how good a scorer he is, and how good a player he has been,” Rubio says. “And if there are some areas where I can help [Booker] become an All Star, I will try to do that too.” But the Spaniard also sees this as a symbiotic relationship. He believes there are things he can learn from Booker too. Booker is one of the “best scorers ever,” Rubio says, and as a 28-year-old who is still looking to become more than just an assist factory in the NBA, he’s hoping to pick up some things for himself.
The Suns do need a lot of help. They finished with the worst record in the league last season, and Vegas projects them to have the second-worst record this season. Rubio is just one piece on the road to improvement, but it’s easy to envision how his presence—and the ball-sharing style he brings with him—will be a good antidote for a team full of young, unpolished players.
“He’s in the right time of his career and of his life to be a mentor for these guys,” Scariolo says. “In Phoenix, we will definitely see the best Ricky Rubio.”