SALT LAKE CITY — Ricky Rubio walked into Vivint Arena on Monday wearing a T-shirt adorned with an animated picture of Joe Ingles wearing the famous medical headband.
An hour before tipoff, he sat in the front row of Vivint Arena and talked with Donovan Mitchell. The two smiled and laughed as they talked while other Jazz players and coaches swung by to share handshakes, hugs and reminisce for only a brief moment.
As Rubio was introduced in the starting lineup, Jazz fans roared.
It almost felt like he never left.
“I had great memories over here and still have a lot of friends,” Rubio said.
He added another memory on Monday.
Rubio had 22 points, 11 assists, seven steals and six rebounds as he led the Suns to a 131-11 win over his former team.
In the first half, the Jazz played a tribute video featuring some of the top moments during Rubio’s two-year tenure in Utah. There were his hospital visits, his work with kids and of course numerous clips of when he helped lead the Jazz to a playoff series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He wasn’t the perfect player in Utah, but he was a major part of a team the fan base loved. And someone his teammates and coaches loved being around.
“What didn't I enjoy?” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said when asked about coaching Rubio. “There's certain players that you just have respect for. That's not to diminish anything from guys we've had and the guys we have now, but I think the guys on this team appreciate someone that competes way he does and wants to win.”
That same passion was evident on Monday. No, he didn’t wave for the crowd to get louder like he used to during his Jazz days when he hit a fadeaway corner 3 in the fourth that seemed to sum up the game, but he might have thought about it.
Because it still felt like home to Rubio.
He loved his time in Utah. He felt a connection to the state, to his teammates and to his head coach. He was hurt when he was part of trade rumors last season and was saddened when he ultimately wasn’t in the Jazz’s future plans last summer.
But that hasn't changed the way he felt about the team and organization.
“Yeah, it felt like the two years I spent over here,” Rubio said, “I had a really really really good time.”
Playing in Utah again let him relive some of those happy moments. And it probably didn’t feel bad to see his replacement, Mike Conley, finish with just 8 points and an assist, as Rubio put on a masterful performance.
“I will always remember the first time,” Rubio said. “It happened in Minnesota when I played six years over there, but here we bonded even more with the teammates, the staff, the crowd. After the playoffs, it was amazing.”
He might not be getting to the playoffs this year with his new team. And he might not yet have the same connection with his new home, but he is having an impact in Phoenix too.
“It’s pretty clear he’s made a lot of our guys look better on the floor,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “His leadership, his demeanor, obviously the game that he brings, the winning attitude. He’s a great dude. He’s persevered this year through a lot. That’s said a lot about him and it’s really inspired our team in moments.
“He’s come on for a big-time run this summer and the ability to change over to a new team and lead and at times manage a lot of stuff with me has been crucial for us. He’s a new dad and he’s got all kinds of stuff on his plate. I feel for him at times when I see him in the morning. He’s been huge for us.”
And he was huge for them on Monday, again.
In the same place that once chanted “Rubio. Rubio. Rubio.”
The same place that still felt like home.