He wasn’t just KG and Pierce and Ray’s little brother — he was yours, too.
When Rajon Rondo arrived in Boston, with that spindly body and those giant grizzly bear mitts, he was only 20 years old but already oozing intrigue. Even though he spent a chunk of his rookie season playing behind Sebastian Telfair — Sebastian Telfair! — the kid conjured up at least one play every week that made you exclaim, “Whoa.”
A no-look bounce pass. A deft steal in the backcourt that was equally electric for his team and demoralizing for the unsuspecting opponent. That little hesitation that froze players in their tracks and enabled him to glide to the basket unhindered.
The athletic ability — and the exceptional court vision — was unmistakable. Tubby Smith, who coached Rondo at Kentucky, once told me his former point guard had the speed of an Olympic sprinter. What he didn’t tell me (though others with knowledge of Rondo’s time there did), was when the point guard jumped to the pros after his sophomore season, the coaching staff was strangely relieved.
It wasn’t easy with Rondo — it never has been.
Trying to chat with him during that rookie season was a herculean challenge because he often responded to dialogue with a blank expression that made you wonder if he was bored, or simply refusing to listen.
Turns out he heard everything; he just needed time to process it. One day I mentioned a sick pass he whirled back to Ryan Gomes in transition after he lured everyone — including his teammates — into believing he was going strong to the hole. The startled Gomes dropped the ball out of bounds. Rondo turned and ran upcourt with a look of absolute disgust.
When I queried him about his reaction, Rondo told me, “He should have had it, right?”
Yes, he should have.
Doc Rivers knew he had something special, but the little brother was used to doing things his own way, and Rivers, a former point guard, wasn’t going to stand for that. He hauled him in, told him his teammates couldn’t stand him. Rondo’s apparent disinterest in his coach’s comments left Doc seething, but a couple of days later, after a heap of introspection, Rondo came back around, and asked how he could be better.
It took some time, but you watched him grow up and refine both his skills and his image.
Before you knew it, Rondo blossomed into a starter, an All-Star, an NBA champion.
Even so, he remained a chameleon, trying on different hats to fit his basketball identity. One year, he was a copycat (remember him mimicking Ray Allen’s pregame routines?), the next year, a contrarian. He bonded with Kevin Garnett and adopted KG’s fierce “[Expletive] you!” visage.
Rondo threw lobs to KG and basketballs at referees. He not only mastered all the sets Rivers drew up for the Celtics, he memorized the game plans of the opponent, too.
“The most intelligent basketball player I’ve ever coached,” Doc once declared.
Rondo’s superior basketball IQ and his uncanny court vision was surpassed only by his insatiable need to be right.
All. The. Time.
No wonder his coaches have alternately wanted to hug him (he always looked like he needed one) and lock him in his room and throw away the key. Rondo and Rivers nearly came to blows in the locker room because of the point guard’s petulance. Once they retreated to separate coasts and were no longer in each other’s grill, the words became conciliatory, complimentary. There is, apparently, a coaching shelf life with the point guard, who was anointed with the middle name “mercurial.”
His current demeanor with this young, raw, vulnerable team signaled the end. He defied the wishes of his coach and GM by remaining behind in Los Angeles to celebrate his 28th birthday, rather than joining the team in Sacramento. Rondo was not scheduled to play against the Kings because he was recovering from his torn ACL and wasn’t playing in back-to-back games, but Brad Stevens expected his captain to be on the bench in street clothes supporting his team. Either Rondo didn’t fully grasp the message he sent — that he was bigger than his coach and his team — or he simply didn’t care. His uneven play these past couple of weeks suggested a disconnect that wouldn’t be repaired.
Now, just like that, he’s gone. The Celtics have dealt their most talented and marketable player for a barrel of promise. We can debate whether the barrel is half full or half empty and wonder aloud if Rondo was worth more, but it’s complicated, just like the player.
Rondo could have and likely would have walked next summer, leaving Boston with nothing. He wasn’t going to just any team; it had to be a contender or a situation where the bright lights and the big city (read: Los Angeles, New York) would ease the hurt of a rebuild.
He needed a roster with established offensive talent that would highlight his obvious playmaking skills. He wanted a max contract, which means he needed an owner who would be willing to overpay for a career 25 percent 3-point shooter and 61 percent career free throw shooter.
His final chapter with the Celtics was, in a word, disappointing.
But that should never detract from the simple fact that Boston would have never raised Banner 17 without him. Go back and peruse the footage of Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, when the Celtics annihilated the Lakers and Kobe Bryant to clinch the championship. Rondo’s fingerprints were plastered all over that game, whether he was running the break, rebounding or pickpocketing the Lakers again and again, all on a bad ankle.
That Rondo was still committed to defense, to legitimately hawking the ball, not making a stab at a steal then showing an utter lack of interest in the play beyond that.
You shouldn’t be angry with him for wanting to play elsewhere in the prime of his career, but you have a right to be irked by the disturbing pattern of defensive indifference he exhibited during his final year and a half in Boston. It was disrespectful to a new coaching staff trying to build credibility and establish a tone.
One time I sat down with Rondo and told him he had a reputation of being stubborn.
“Like Larry Bird, right?” Rondo retorted.
Well, no. Not really. Number 33 certainly had moments when he dug in his Converses and became immovable, but that’s where the similarities end.
Larry Bird came to play every day, whether it was practice, preseason, a nationally televised game or a late-night tilt in Sacramento.
So why can’t the point guard with Olympic speed show up all the time? Only Rondo knows the answer. That unmistakable flaw, along with the inability to shoot consistently and capitalize on his forays into the paint (which often left him at the free throw line, the only spot on the basketball floor where his basketball bravado seems to evaporate) is why many don’t consider him a max player or a top-10 point guard. (ESPN)