MINNEAPOLIS – One point guard has practically been a household name since he started playing professionally at 14, a lottery pick who has made the two-year wait for his flashy passes well worth it.
The other went undrafted out of Harvard and unwanted in his first two stops in the NBA before a desperate team and a desperate coach gave him the chance he needed on the game’s biggest stage.
In their own different, yet equally dynamic ways, Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin have put their dormant franchises on their backs and given a jolt to the NBA’s long-standing mission of bringing the game to every corner of the world.
As the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, Lin is re-opening doors in Asia that some feared to be closing in the wake of Yao Ming’s retirement. He’s led the New York Knicks to five straight wins and has become an instant fan favorite at Madison Square Garden after Golden State and Houston sent him packing.
Rubio is the Spanish sensation who has fans in Barcelona watching on Internet feeds in the wee hours of the morning. His infectious play has made him an instant rock star in the Twin Cities and has the Timberwolves gunning for the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Together, they give the NBA two fresh young faces to trumpet to hoops-hungry hotbeds in Asia and Western Europe.
“The world is changing,” Rubio said after his Wolves lost to Lin’s Knicks 100-98 on Saturday. “It’s not only America, it’s not only Europe. The world is the world. It’s growing up. Every- body’s following the NBA and they love if they have some players from their cities.”
Star players from overseas or with international appeal are nothing new to the NBA, which has marketed itself globally better than the other three major American sports of football, baseball and hockey. Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki is a former MVP who won a title last year, Spain’s Pau and Marc Gasol are high-profile players and Yao helped shepherd the league into China.
But as point guards, Lin and Rubio have the ball in their hands and control of the game at all times. And while their games, backgrounds and upbringings have been nearly polar opposites, the electricity they provide serves as a tie that binds.
“Both fill up the stat sheet, both play extremely hard and both are just infectious not only in their play but their personality as well,” Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love said. “People just seem to love both of them.
“Ricky was kind of a fairy tale before he came over here and has really blossomed into a tremendous player and is only going to get better. But Lin, he really came out of nowhere.”
Lin is the scorer, having poured in 109 points in his first four starts, including 38 in a victory over the Lakers on Friday night that pushed coverage of the Super Bowl champion Giants off the back pages of the Big Apple tabloids. That’s more than any player has had in his first four starts since the NBA-ABA merger, besting Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.
Rubio is the playmaker who is fifth in the league in assists and first in steals. With every no-look pass on the break or behind-the-back dime to Love, his popularity has grown.
Fans chant “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” as an homage to his European roots and a team that fell completely off the Twin Cities sporting landscape after losing 132 games the previous two seasons has made Target Center the place to be.
The floppy-haired 21-year-old has been a fixture on the nightly highlight shows as well with his effortless lob passes that have lifted the Timberwolves (13-15) to their best start since 2006.
The Big Apple can’t get enough of Linsanity. Rubio holds the Minny-Apple in the palm of his hand. And you get the feeling this is only the beginning.