MINNEAPOLIS — Wherever he goes, whenever he takes the Timberwolves’ practice court, the team’s starting point guard Ricky Rubio wears a special clear beaded bracelet on his right wrist.
Except for NBA games, Rubio has worn the Lokai bracelet all the time since last season, when Arnie Kander, the Timberwolves’ vice president of sports performance, gave him two.
One was for Rubio. The other was for his mother, Tona, who was going through a third phase of lung cancer, which she was first diagnosed with in 2012. Kander thought the bracelets would help them stay connected while Tona was mostly in their home country of Spain receiving treatment.
According to the bracelet’s website, “each Lokai is infused with elements from the highest and lowest points on Earth. The bracelet’s white bead carries water from Mt. Everest, and its black bead contains mud from the Dead Sea. These extreme elements are a reminder to the wearer to live a balanced life—staying humble during life’s peaks and hopeful during its lows.”
Since last season, Rubio hasn’t taken his off. It’s also become a close reminder of the memory of Tona, who passed away in May at 56 years old.
After going through chemotherapy three times—the first two leading to remission for a short period of time—the cancer kept coming back and Tona had metastases after the last treatment, with the cancer spreading to her backbone. Tona battled to the very end, even having chemotherapy in Minneapolis to spend time with Rubio.
“She was the most positive person I ever met,” Rubio told the NBPA after a recent practice. “And she kept battling for four years and always with a smile on her face, and always giving me courage when I was the one who was supposed to give her some courage. So I’m really proud for the mom that raised me. I’m really missing her, but I remember her with the nice days.”
At only 25 years old, Rubio has already experienced a lifetime of tragedy from cancer, including this past year, which recently inspired him to take on a major community initiative.
The painful days started when Rubio was a kid living in El Masnou, a small town on the Mediterranean about 25 minutes northeast of Barcelona. At 10, his grandmother, Maria Rosa, passed away from liver cancer. Then at 12, his grandfather, Vicente, passed away from lung cancer. Vicente was a big soccer fan and would take him to the local professional games.
Also when Rubio was younger, a few parents of his friends passed away from lymphoma and lung cancer. They were in their late 40s, early 50s. With his friends, Rubio enjoyed swimming, beach volleyball, ocean activities, basketball camps and 3-on-3 streetball tournaments.
Lymphoma was the same kind of cancer that took the life of Flip Saunders, Rubio’s coach in Minnesota during the 2014-15 season. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in August 2015, he passed away just two months later. He was 60 years old. Rubio had grown very close to Saunders, admiring his love of his family, passion for basketball and commitment to the Timberwolves, where he first coached from 1995-2005.
“Cancer is one of the most dangerous and painful things that exists,” Rubio said. “It’s something that sometimes you can’t find the cure. And the pain that you’re going through and seeing the person that you love going through that much pain, it’s super hard to get through it. It’s super painful.”
Enduring the loss of Tona and Saunders during the same NBA season had a profound impact on Rubio. Working with his childhood friend and business manager, Lucas Charte, he’s currently in the process of starting his first foundation for later this year, which will be focused on cancer and children with special needs and disabilities. And he’s planning his first charity celebrity game for next summer in Minnesota, which will assist A Breath of Hope Lung Foundation with cancer research and resources. Also for next summer, he’s organizing his first academy for kids in Minnesota to teach basketball and healthy living.
Through the years, Rubio has been an ambassador of the Special Olympics, made hospital rounds to meet with children, donated money to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, hosted his Spanish academy for eight straight years in Girona (near where he grew up), and maintained a regular involvement with the Timberwolves’ community events.
Now, cancer outreach has become a bigger priority for Rubio, especially after the passing of Tona.
“It makes you realize a lot of things and makes you change, makes you think about life and makes you enjoy day by day,” he said. “I think sometimes we’re living in a happy country where we’re playing in the NBA, but not everything is fine. We’re going through a lot of things that are not good, and I think it’s part of life experience and maturity. When you’re going through that much pain, you really appreciate all the things more. It was really painful seeing my family going through that and I really want to make an impact.”
The Memory of and Motivation from His Mother
The toughest times for Rubio last season were sometimes calling Tona, who was more than 4,500 miles away in El Masnou with declining health, and she wouldn’t answer the phone. That exuded a feeling of dire concern about her condition, but also one of more composure realizing that she was likely undergoing another session of chemotherapy.
“It’s tough not being there and you wonder what the priorities are of your life,” he said. “I was lucky that I could finish the season and go back home and see her last days. If not, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself.”
While Tona was receiving chemotherapy back in Spain, she was able to continue treatment in Minneapolis for five days last December at the Mayo Clinic, which shares the same third floor with the Timberwolves’ one-year-old practice center. It was the last time she would see her youngest son play in person. (Rubio has an older brother, Marc, and younger sister, Laia.)
Regardless of her physical state, Tona wanted to keep to her tradition of having the family together in Minneapolis with Rubio during the holidays. In fact, she had three straight chemotherapy trials in Minneapolis every December from 2013-15.
“My mom was the most important chess piece in our family,” said Rubio, who’s planning to get a tattoo to honor Tona. “She was the one who put everything together, like I remember every Christmas she was making the whole family travel over here, so I didn’t spend Christmas by myself. She was the one running the show.”
Rubio vividly remembers Tona being sick and tired after her first day of chemotherapy last December. But she still wanted to come to his game that night during Christmas week, during which he tied a career-high with 17 assists in the Timberwolves’ win over the Jazz on Dec. 30, 2015. That week, she was in her regular seat at the Target Center—in the second row opposite the Timberwolves’ bench—winking at him, while Ricky communicated with her from the court to check on her.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?'” he recalled about her interest in attending. “She said, ‘No, I’m good.’ And she wasn’t good, but she wanted to prove to me and to the family that she was good. But when I saw her in the stands, it was something that I was really proud of. She was wearing a coat because it’s cold in Minnesota, and she couldn’t get sick. So it was fun to see her in the stands and see how much energy she had, and how much she battled. I tell my friends, ‘I don’t think she lost the battle because she fought all the way through without giving up. So if you don’t give up, you won’t lose the battle.'”
After Tona returned to El Masnou in January, metastases continued to appear and her outlook grew less optimistic by the day. At some point in the spring, Rubio had a critical conversation with Charte.
“That’s when he told me, ‘Bro, I’m not going to see her again,'” Charte said. “The lucky thing is we got back to Barcelona on time, and he got to be with her the last days. But it was really tough. She was the closest person of his life.”
Throughout the four-year ordeal involving Tona, basketball for Rubio was his “meditation.” Even to cope with what Tona was experiencing, and to prepare for the worst, he learned meditation techniques and read psychology books. Basketball and his new knowledge helped him to have those “free moments,” where he felt like a kid again playing in the backyard and forgetting everything else around him.
He also found a respite in interacting with children at different community events, which helped him clear his mind of Tona’s complications for a few hours. His message to kids was “enjoy life, enjoy day by day and do things that make you happy.”
“The most impressive thing was the way he faced that situation,” Charte said. “He did it in a really mature and comprehensive way, trying to push all the family to stay strong together, and enjoy until the last second. He really showed a higher level of controlling emotions and overcoming difficult situations than an average 25-year-old would.”
After playing and starting in 76 games last season, Rubio also found strength from his family after Tona’s passing in May. He was unsure of his status for this summer’s Olympics, but his family pushed him to play.
“They said that life goes on, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” said Rubio, who helped lead the Spanish national team to the bronze medal in Rio. “So I decided to go to the Olympics just for her to show her that we’re never going to give up. She’s going to keep fighting and keep going forward. Even when life is tough when you’re given some bad news or bad things happen to us, we have to keep moving forward.”
That mentality, with Tona in his spirits and the new season underway, is set on providing as much aid to those suffering from cancer and to those working to find cures for the disease.
“I want to try to help as many people and families that I can,” Rubio said.
While Rubio says he’s “lucky” to have had the means to take care of Tona for four years, his humble beginnings are always on his mind. He grew up with fewer resources, where all he needed was a pair of basketball shoes and he was happy.
Rubio is aware of how the smallest item can make a big difference, reminded of the time he met a young fan after a Knicks game in New York, as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“He had cancer and I gave him my shoes, and his smile was priceless,” he said. “It was something that had little effort to make that kid smile for the pain that he was going through. And to see his parents smiling, too, it was priceless. With the little things like that, you make a kid happy, and that’s all that matters. So if I can do anything for them to make them smile, I will—just for a day, inviting the kid to a game or having a kid spending time with me and my teammates.”
Rubio’s motto is simple: “Whatever it takes, whatever a kid asks, I will try to make it happen.”