It didn’t take long for Rajon Rondo to become my favorite player. A second year point guard on a team with championship aspirations, my beloved 2008 Boston Celtics, Rondo was immediately expected to raise his game. The consummate outcast, Rondo was an unlikely candidate for a starring role. Inscrutable, unfriendly, unknowable, Rondo quickly became a cult hero. He was – is – a point guard that’s better at rebounding than shooting free throws. His competitiveness and will to win are legendary, yet he often coasts through regular season games. He’s so smart that his elementary school math teacher apparently had to create extra assignments just for him, yet he can’t seem to change with the evolving landscape of the NBA. So you begin to understand the NBA’s greatest mystery, a player that has subverted expectations at every turn.
People tell stories about Rondo like he’s some cross between Bigfoot and Hannibal Lecter and Phil Dunphy. Lee Jenkins’ Sports Illustrated profile of him in 2013 starts like this: “The toughest man pound-for-pound in the NBA is working on his third Shirley Temple, extra grenadine, as he recovers from the Connect Four incident.” In another story, he mentions showering five times a day on game day and hopping out occasionally to jot down notes. In yet another story, Rondo recounts the time he walked out of the film The Equalizer because of a plot hole. Apparently, when he got traded to the Dallas Mavericks, he was beating kids at Connect Four and telling them “No mercy.” What are these anecdotes? And who is this person?
At 31 years old, Rondo should be at the apex of his abilities right now. But the NBA’s evolution to prioritize shooting and spacing has marginalized Rondo to the point that he’s still a free agent, looking for a moderate contract from a mid-tier team. He’s still a guard that can’t shoot and, after yet another team blowup this season that Rondo was at the epicenter of, he looked like he might be on his way out of the league imminently. But Rondo reclaimed some his aura in the first round of the playoffs, when he led the underdog Chicago Bulls to a 2-0 series lead. Rondo got hurt and sat out for the rest of the series, but there was a moment when he was Rondo again. Even if it was against my beloved Celtics, it was hard not to root for him as he jumped into passing lanes, made plays for his teammates, and looked like the smartest player on the court again.
When I think of Rondo, I don’t think of the bad times (of which there are plenty). I think of his three-pointer at the end of Game 7 in the 2010 finals that gave me a glimmer of hope of hope, I think of the 44 point game against the Heat Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals when he was the best player in the world for one incredible moment, and I think of the time Dwyane Wade dislocated his elbow and he played the rest of the game with one arm. (That 44 point game is still the best I’ve ever seen anyone play. Wade hacked him on the way to the rim on a no-call in overtime. We should have won that game.) Rondo’s game has such glaring flaws and such clear weaknesses that his success always felt that much more cathartic. If Kobe Bryant is a technician like Steven Spielberg, Rondo is Akira Kurosawa.
Maybe one day, when he’s done with his playing career, Rajon Rondo will smile more and let us all in on the secret. Maybe the secret is that he leaked all those eccentric stories and he’s just a regular guy. I think I’d be okay with that. But if there’s anything I’m pretty sure of, it’s that Rondo’s anything but normal. Rondo’s career will always be a head scratcher, a puzzle whose pieces don’t seem to fit. He’s the ultra-competitive malcontent, the genius that’s too stubborn to change, and the man that went toe-to-toe with Lebron James and now lives on the fringes of the NBA. His career – his life – will always be filled more questions than answers, but I don’t think Rajon Rondo would have it any other way.