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Zulgad: Many happy returns: Wolves serve up draft-night surprise by bringing back Ricky Rubio

Timberwolves Suns Basketball
Phoenix Suns guard Ricky Rubio (11) in the first half during a preseason NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Randy Moss was conducting a press conference following his return to the Vikings in 2010, when he informed Minnesota fans to “pull your 84 jerseys out,” because, “I think this is going to be a fun ride.” Moss could not have been more wrong — his second stint with the Vikings lasted only four games — but on that day there was great excitement about a reunion with a player who had become one of the NFL’s best wide receivers during his first stint in Minnesota.

That enthusiasm would be repeated, with far better results, when 39-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter returned to the Twins for one final season in 2015. Then there was the Timberwolves trade that brought back 38-year-old Kevin Garnett in February 2015. Much like with Moss’ return, this one did not end well, but Garnett’s first game back at a rocking Target Center a few days after the deal provided an electricity rarely felt at the downtown Minneapolis arena.

All three of these returns solidified the fact that Minnesota sports fans love a good homecoming.

On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves provided the latest trip down memory lane when they reacquired point guard Ricky Rubio in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The deal wasn’t made official, but Jon Krawczynski of the Athletic was the first to report the agreement would send Rubio and two late first-round picks to Minnesota in exchange for the 17th selection in the first round.

Rubio was never on the same level as Moss, Hunter or Garnett, but this move will register on the Richter scale of reunions in Minnesota sports. The fifth-overall pick in the 2009 draft, Rubio spent two seasons playing professionally in his home country of Spain before finally coming to Minnesota in 2011. The 20-year-old was greeted by hundreds of fans upon his arrival at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, many of whom expected him to get the Wolves back into the playoffs.

The fact Rubio had charisma, a boyish charm and wore a mop-top that would have made the Beatles proud only increased his popularity. On the court, his highlight-reel passes made turning away from the action a bad idea. Rubio added solid defense to that mix, although shooting was never a strength.

Rubio spent six seasons with the Wolves — playing in all 82 games only once — but the team never did break its postseason drought. His coaches in Minnesota included Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell and Tom Thibodeau. He and Saunders, who passed away because of complications associated with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2015, were extremely close. But Thibodeau, who took over as the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations in 2016, didn’t see Rubio as his type of point guard and traded him to Utah in June 2017.

Rubio posted a thank you to Wolves fans on Instagram shortly after being dealt, apologizing for not helping the team make the playoffs and also reserving a special mention for Saunders. “What we have in Minnesota is special and you don’t know that until you live there,” Rubio wrote.

Rubio’s return to Minnesota will be much different than his arrival nine years ago. Now 30 years old and having played nine seasons with three teams, Rubio will be expected to provide leadership and guidance on a club that is built around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Rubio has the ability to play an important role for the Wolves, but he certainly won’t be seen as a franchise savior.

Wolves coach Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son, has remained close friends with Rubio and certainly played an important role in a trade that was made by Wolves basketball boss Gersson Rosas.

The pandemic means it’s almost certain Rubio’s first game with the Wolves will be played before no fans at Target Center. Eventually spectators will return and the smart money says there will be a number of Wolves followers who take the opportunity to throw on their old No. 9 jerseys and welcome back Rubio. After all, no one loves a good homecoming like Minnesota fans.