While growing up in the Dominican Republic, Rafael Rubel devotedly watched online streams of college and high school basketball tournaments in the U.S.
Though he was a regular participant in some of the biggest events in and around his home country as a member of its Under-17 national team, Rubel always yearned to be a part of the big-time American tournaments and play in the spotlight that comes with them.
Gainesville High finally gave him the chance to do just that, and he has more than returned the favor.
Rubel has been a key piece of the Red Elephants’ rotation during their run to the Class 6A state championship game, which will tip off at 8 p.m. Friday, March 9, at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. He most recently scored a team-high 22 points in Gainesville’s semifinal win that set up its state title clash against defending champion Langston Hughes.
“This being my first year here, I’m really excited to be a part of this and be in such a big tournament,” Rubel said through his adopted brother Rudy Deaza, who translated from Spanish. “To finally get the opportunity to play for something like this, I’m more than thankful.”
The Red Elephants (24-6) are grateful he’s around, too.
The sophomore guard is among the team’s leaders in steals and assists while providing a dependable scoring threat, especially from beyond the arc. Gainesville coach Benjie Wood refers to every member of his eight-man rotation as a starter, and Rubel has managed to carve out a role despite his youth and a steep language barrier.
“He first began starting for us in December, and he has ever since then,” Wood said. “He gives us another dimension, another good player, another threat.”
Wood said he knew Rubel could be a contributor when he first saw the 5-foot-10 guard play last summer. That came after Rubel spent the spring semester getting acclimated to his new surroundings — and a new language — after emigrating to Northeast Georgia last December.
His adopted father, Fernando Deaza, works in the Gainesville City School System, while Rudy Deaza has a job at Gainesville Middle and is an assistant on Wood’s staff.
Deaza is the liaison between the coaches and Rubel when the language barrier gets in the way. The Dominican native mostly understands English when others talk to him, Wood and Deaza said, but he’s still learning to speak it himself.
“For the most part, we let him grasp things on his own so he can grow and understand (English) better,” said Deaza, a former player at Flowery Branch and West Hall. “When the coaches are unsure if he understands something, that’s when they come to me.”
That’s rarely an issue between him and his teammates, Rubel said, because they simply don’t verbally communicate all that much.
“We know we don’t fully understand each other, but we all speak basketball,” Rubel said. “We just go out there and play. It’s something we’ve all been doing for all of our lives.”
But his transition to the Red Elephants was bumpy at first, and not just because he was a sophomore newcomer trying to find his place among a huge group of returning players that features seven seniors.
Though Rubel’s Gainesville teammates got a feel for his playing style through summer travel ball and pick-up games, he acknowledged it took a while to gain their full trust on the floor.
Learning plays and the Red Elephants’ relentless, up-tempo system was an added adjustment. Wood said Rubel also forced things a bit too much in his first few weeks with the team, but now the sophomore is one of Gainesville’s primary ball-handlers and pressure players on defense.
“It was a bit of a tough transition for him,” Wood said. “He had a little trouble finding his niche with us at first. I thought he was trying too hard, but now he has gotten comfortable in his role. Now he’s just playing the game.”
Rubel’s efforts have helped the Red Elephants win 21 straight games, and he has a knack for providing clutch plays on the biggest stages.
On Jan. 20, he sank a long 3-pointer in the final seconds of Gainesville’s comeback 83-81 win against Buford, the defending Class 5A champion and top-ranked team in the class at that juncture. Rubel then had 13 points in the Red Elephants’ first-round playoff romp against Pope before shining in several facets against Heritage in last Saturday’s semifinal game.
In addition to his 22 points in just 21 minutes, Rubel notched three steals with a pair of assists and blocks while committing just one turnover. He shot 75 percent from the field, including a 3 of 6 mark from beyond the arc.
“I thought that was his best game all year,” Wood said.
Rubel is used to turning up his play when it matters most, like he did during the Dominican Republic’s run to the Centrobasket U17 championship in his home country last July.
He averaged 13 points, 3.6 assists, 3.4 steals and a team-high 27.5 minutes in each of his five games at the tournament that featured squads from the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico.
Winning the tournament guaranteed the Dominican Republic a spot in the 2018 FIBA U18 Americas Championship, an eight-team affair from July 9-16 in Canada. Rubel said that event will be the largest he has ever participated in, but for now, what he has seen in the Georgia state high school tournament tops his experience at the Centrobasket championship.
After watching from afar for so many years, he relishes the pressure and fanfare surrounding Gainesville as it tries to win its first state championship game since 1984.
“I like the big games,” Rubel said. “I always want to play in the biggest games against the hardest teams.”
Friday’s state title game will be the biggest of them all.