Ricky Rubio acknowledges this much: He thinks of his mother before every game he plays.
Tona Vives died in 2016 from lung cancer, rocking the Jazz point guard’s world and making him re-examine his career, his life and his impact in the world. To this day, he tries to keep her memory fresh with a pregame ritual.
“I keep it personal,” he recently told the Tribune. “But I do.”
That particular routine remains between Rubio and his mother. But he does honor her in a very public way as well, in his continuing fight to fund cancer research.
The 27-year-old point guard has only been in Utah for a few months, but he’s already made a strong impression with his robust charity efforts in state borders and beyond. He’s volunteered his time at events to speak at cancer charity events, bought tickets for families afflicted with the disease and given a lot of money to fund research.
The latest donation came in the form of an oversize check to the 5 For the Fight Foundation, which is a nonprofit partner of the Jazz. In the halls of the Huntsman Cancer Institute last Friday, Rubio handed over $20,000 for lung cancer research, and the donation was matched by Layton Construction for 40,000 cancer-fighting dollars given in a single day.
“I’m trying to give back to the community, to the people who really need that,” he said. “I’m in a privileged spot. I gotta use that. With money, by spreading the word to everybody. It’s not an easy world. We are here together to fight together.”
If those words sound cliche, they aren’t meant to be. It’s an extremely personal cause to Rubio.
As much as handing over the check meant to him, it was even more emotional to walk through the patient rooms at the institute and meet people in the trenches of that fight. He handed out his own personal brand knit caps to children that afternoon on his day off, giving many of them a way to keep warm after chemo treatments had caused their hair to fall out.
With him was his father, Esteve Rubio, visiting for the holidays from Spain. It wasn’t an easy exercise for him, and it drew up memories of long, wearisome hospital stays when Tona was sick. In Barcelona and then Minneapolis, she battled through rounds of treatment.
Ricky has told multiple media outlets that road trips with the Minnesota Timberwolves used to rack him with guilt — he often felt that he should’ve dropped his basketball commitments to spend time with his mother, who died shortly after the 2015-16 season. Being in hospitals now, with his father, help him feel like he still is fighting even though his mother is gone.
“He needed to see we’re doing it for her,” Rubio said. “It’s something that I’m really proud of to do it, having that special day to go to the hospital with him. We’re just going to keep doing good for the community.”
What’s striking to Rubio about what happened to his mother is that she seemingly had so few risks. She wasn’t a smoker, but lung cancer attacked her regardless. Rubio has also had two grandparents die from cancer when he was young, and former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015, only months before his mom.
That’s why Rubio isn’t only about funding cancer research with his wallet but getting out the word for people to get checkups. Shortly after he was traded to the Jazz, he learned that the team had partnered with 5 For the Fight for the season — which he called “like a sign from above” that he would be able to keep spreading his message.
“You learn a lot when you go through that,” he said. “Putting awareness to everybody before it happens — if I can just save one life, that’s enough. It’s about having the right resources for people to find out ahead of time.”
While Rubio has met with some struggles on court, it’s hard to argue that he’s using his time unwisely: He’s already met hundreds of cancer patients, many of them children. By the end of the season, he hopes to donate $150,000 to fund cancer research and awareness.
There’s some parts of that fight that Rubio keeps private and sacred. But he’s never too busy to help someone else in their own journey.
“All of them are fighters and are true heroes,” he said of meeting patients. “Every family, every kid, everybody has their own unique way to fight.”