MINNEAPOLIS – From dance team members waving pompoms to signs reading "We Love You Ricky!" and a full-page ad in the local newspaper, the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled out all the stops to make Ricky Rubio feel welcome on the day of his long anticipated arrival from Spain.
About 200 people — many of them Timberwolves employees — gathered at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport Monday to cheer the 20-year-old point guard as he emerged from customs for his first extended stay in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves, and their downtrodden fans, have waited two years for the flashy passer to come over from Spain. Rubio was drafted fifth overall in 2009, but stayed in Europe for another two seasons until he could afford to buy out his professional contract with FC Barcelona.
Rubio made his official announcement on Friday, a few days after his Spanish team defeated Bilbao in the ACB League finals.
The news has energized fans who have watched the Wolves lose 132 games the last two years, and dozens showed up at the airport to roll out the welcome mat for a player they believe will help turn things around.
The group at the international entrance to baggage claim waited almost an hour for Rubio to arrive. What's a few extra minutes when you've been waiting for two years?
Rubio got a loud ovation as he and president of basketball operations David Kahn arrived. Even for a player who has been receiving attention since he turned pro as a 14-year-old, the scene seemed to take him aback.
He smiled sheepishly and signed some autographs as he was swarmed by news cameras, flash bulbs popping as he made his way to the exit.
One fan asked Rubio to sign his hand.
"Your hand?" Rubio asked with a quizzical look on his face. "All right."
Another waved a Spanish flag and gave him a fruit basket as a gift.
"I've been waiting two years for it," said Jason Strand, a pastor who wore a white Timberwolves No. 9 jersey with Rubio's name on the back. "When he got drafted a couple years ago I was super excited, but knew that he may not come over. My wife makes fun of me because I watch grainy YouTube videos of Ricky Rubio in some obscure Spanish league."
After a few minutes — and with fans and team employees showering him with chants of "Ricky! Ricky!" — he was whisked away with his family in a small bus, headed for downtown Minneapolis.
"I (just) arrive to the hotel here in MN," Rubio wrote on Twitter. "I(t) was so impresive in da airport. Thanks a lot of u guys. I feel comfortable here. Time to rest!!!"
Rubio, who did not speak with reporters, is scheduled to hold an introductory press conference on Tuesday to kick off what is expected to be a busy week of promotional appearances, charity events and orientation in a city that ideally will be his new home for years to come.
Rubio will meet with team executives, corporate sponsors and at least one of the local endorsers who will help pay his $1.4 million buyout. He'll also attend the team's draft party on Thursday night.
He visited Minnesota once very briefly after he was drafted in 2009, but this is his first real chance to get to know the area.
"Last time was such a whirlwind. ... He'll be able to come now and say this is my team, this is my new family, this is my state where I'm going to live," assistant GM Tony Ronzone said. "I think he'll have his eyes wide open and be more appreciative to what he sees and his surroundings."
The Timberwolves took out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune with a modified picture of Rubio in a Wolves jersey and "useful Spanish phrases" including:
— De nada — You're welcome.
— Caramba! Has visto que pasan? — Good gracious! Did you see that pass?
— Kevin Love es una maquina loca rebotes — Kevin Love is an insane rebounding machine.
Maybe Love should check that ad closely, too. Right after Rubio's arrival, Love tweeted: "Does anyone have Rosetta Stone entry level Spanish I can use?"
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