By Bruce Leonard
Rick Rickert sought the sanctuary of his fiancees parents home in suburban Minneapolis on a Wednesday morning last June. He read from his Bible and prayed, but it did little to keep his mind off the events of the previous day: his slide in the NBA Draft from potential first rounder to the 54th pick taken by the Timberwolves, the unsettling silence afterwards among family members who looked on in disbelief, and the "bust" label that was quickly applied to him moments after the draft ended. And you thought agent Jack Bauer had a rough 24 hours.
NOVO MESTO, SLOVENIA
"It was not at all what I thought was going to happen," Rickert says in a voice that suggests hes still a bit shocked by it all. "But whats done is done. Theres no time to pout. Its time to go back to work, hit it hard, and prove the people wrong that didnt believe in you."
Rickerts quest to turn doubting Thomases into full-fledged believers has taken the former McDonalds High School All-American on a path he could have scarcely imagined when he announced he was leaving the University of Minnesota after his sophmore season to turn pro.
|People close to him marvel at his work ethic, his diamond like clarity and focus, and his bottomless cup of fuel. Its as if hes got his own Van Halen concert raging away at the back of his brain.
Just a few months removed from his draft day debacle, he has resurfaced far from the bright lights of the NBA in Novo Mesto, Slovenia after signing with KRKA of the European League. "Its a great team to get started with," Rickert says of his new employers. "Im getting a lot of the playing time and experience I need so I can come back and play in the NBA."
After watching Rickert struggle to find his mojo against fellow rookies and veterans clinging to their own NBA dreams with the Wolves summer league team, Wolves President Kevin McHale gave his young forward a choice, languish on the bench this season, or go overseas, get some playing time, and work on all aspects of your game. Rickert chose the latter.
"You cant argue with the boss," says Lew Rickert, the patriarch of a very closely-knit family. "We trust what McHale says, and Europe so far has been good for Rick. Hes getting more hands on work and is getting the chance to work on the fundamentals every day."
Getting used to the European game has taken some time. "The traveling calls are the worst, and the refs call way more ticky-tack fouls over here," Rickert laments. But after some expected initial awkwardness, Rickerts natural talent has taken over garnering him a regular spot in KRKAs rotation. He tossed in 17 points in a loss to KK Split: 15 more in a win over Geopli-Slova and now is a steady double-digit performer averaging about 13 points and 7 rebounds a game. "Things are coming along. Im always developing, growing, learning new things. Its just a good experience, as well as a life experience."
|"God has a plan for me and Im going with that. Theres a saying that hits home with me, 'Tough times never last, tough guys do.'"
His improvement overseas has not gone unnoticed by the team that sent him there. "From all reports hes doing well and making progress," says Wolves Director of Player Personnel Rob Babcock, who plans to see Rickerts progression firsthand in January. "Our biggest concern is that he stays on the weight program weve designed for him to get stronger. Wed like to see him put on 10 pounds of good solid muscle. But hes motivated to get better and he works extremely hard."
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH...
Rickerts skeptics are only too quick to point out that he still should be doing all his learning and improving wearing Gopher maroon and gold. He should have listened when coaches, scouts, and general managers all told him he wasnt ready for the NBA.
"Rubbish," says Rickert. "All talk like that does is get me motivated to prove the naysayers wrong. Im not going to let them bring me down. Things happen for a reason. God has a plan for me and Im going with that. Theres a saying that hits home with me, Tough times never last, tough guys do."
Its easy to see why words like these resonate with Rickert, because to meet him is to encounter someone who is determined not to be shaken. People close to him marvel at his work ethic, his diamond like clarity and focus, and his bottomless cup of fuel. Its as if hes got his own Van Halen concert raging away at the back of his brain.
"Ricks engine is always revving. Ive never been around an athlete who works as hard as he does to improve," says Gopher basketball coach Dan Monson, who maintains a close relationship with his former star player conversing by email on a regular basis. "He has the skill and drive to play in the NBA, but you also need the right fit. Going to Europe isnt the route he expected to take, but that doesnt mean he still wont wind up in the NBA. I believe he will get there. Remember, hes only 20 years old."
SHOOTING FOR THE NBA
Back in Novo Mesto, the 611" forward with the soft shooting touch continues to push himself practicing his trademark jump shot, pumping iron, getting stronger, improving. In his mind, he can picture himself doing battle with Shaq and Kobe, while going to battle with KG and Wally, and knocking down the winning jumper before a packed house at the Target Center. But reality dictates that hes currently paired with guys named Vujcic, Ivaskovic, and Mihajlovic, while playing in half empty arenas smaller than those when he starred in high school at Duluth East.
Rickert doesnt know if someday hell be a one-name wonder like Michael, Magic, and Larry, or todays wunderkinds, LeBron and Carmello. But ask where he plans to be in the not too distant future and he has no doubt. "Ill be in the NBA. Whether its playing for the Wolves or another team I dont know, but I will be in the NBA."