How does it end? At some cruel snail’s pace, reprieve upon reprieve until there are suddenly no reprieves left? Does it end by not ending at all? As the trade deadline fades in the rearview mirror, Rajon Rondo is still a Boston Celtic, a reality that’s starting to feel permanently temporary. Last summer the Celtics jettisoned two Hall of Famers and a likely Hall of Fame coach in a span of days, assuring that they would be among the worst teams in the NBA in the 2013-14 season. All that seemed left was the team’s most valuable and prickliest asset, an obscenely talented 27-year-old point guard nursing a torn ACL who appeared certain to be next out the door.
Fast-forward to now, and the Celtics are indeed a bad team. They’re a bad team that plays hard, they’re a bad team that’s well-coached, they’re a bad team with some good players who are on the verge of being very good players. At the beginning they overachieved, lurching to a 12-14 record in an abysmal Eastern Conference by mid-December, while prompting genuine hope among fans (or, depending where you stood on the “rebuilding” question, genuine fear) that we might be looking at something like Phoenix Suns East.
We are not. The Celtics have since gone 7-22 and now fully resemble the collection of journeymen, works-in-progress and rejected trade-bait we always thought they were. And of course there’s that point guard, still here, and still that point guard. Since returning to action Jan. 17, Rajon Rondo has been playing into form, averaging a Rondo-esque 15.2 points, 9.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds in seven games in February. He’s back to his ball-handling wizardry and eye-popping assists, even though he’s passing to Chris Johnson and Kelly Olynyk instead of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, even though every day until today has brought whispers that it could be his last in green and white.
Now we know that day won’t come for at least a little while longer, a bittersweet relief for Celtics fans who've now spent the better part of a year in a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the team’s president, Danny Ainge. The deal that sent Garnett and Pierce to the Nets for draft picks and salary detritus was shocking, and in Pierce’s case, stomach-turning. But it made sense: There was no question that Pierce and KG were on the downside of their careers, and there was little question that Brooklyn dramatically overvalued them. It was a smart move by a front office whose ruthlessness had by now won almost unconditional benefit-of-the-doubt from its fan base (a rare achievement in Boston sports, and one that’s currently enjoyed by all of the city’s major pro teams).
Rondo is different, or at least we’d like to think so, and so would he. He’s in his prime and arguably the crown jewel of Ainge’s tenure, plucked with the 21st pick in the 2006 draft and nurtured into superstardom. His idiosyncratic frostiness has led many to label him a “savant,” lodged on the nether reaches of the basketball spectrum, but he’s more of an iconoclast, an artist who breaks molds with purposeful dismissiveness, as if to prove he’s not simply better than the world, but smarter than it. A philosopher once remarked that “talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target that no one else can see,” a comment that might as well have been inspired by a pass such as this. Or, for a non-basketball example, Rondo’s legendary proficiency at Connect Four, a game that most of us think of as simple until someone starts winning hundreds of times in a row, at which point, maybe we’re the simple ones.
He’s also myopically competitive, seemingly driven not simply by winning, but by the pleasure of beating everyone else. This doesn't lend itself to being a “people person,” and Rondo’s Sphinx-like aloofness has made him an alluring but psychically distressing figure for Celtics fans. At its core, sports fandom requires an irrational emotional investment in the physical and mental abilities of strangers, as well as an equally irrational belief that said strangers will produce returns on this investment, just for us. There is something about Rondo that feels deliberately unknowable, and our most obsessive and dangerous passions are those we constantly fear are unrequited: Does Rondo love us like we love him? Would we ever be worthy of it, and is he even capable of it? Does he hate us for even wondering? These have become sleepless questions in what was supposed to be a sleepy (if dreamless) season.
It’s all further complicated by the fact that the one brain in Boston that fans revere as much as Rondo’s is Ainge’s. The general manager’s relationship with Rondo is perpetually embattled, likely because they’re so similar -- two people who secretly believe they’re the smartest person in any room they’re in will often have trouble coexisting. Ainge came close to building a blockbuster around Rondo as far back as 2009, and since then, Rondo rumors have floated around Boston as reliably as the Swan Boats. This past fall, Ainge confessed that he tried to trade Rondo for Chris Paul in 2011, a calculated retroactive leak that seemed loaded with present significance.
Since then, every faux-exasperated protestation from Ainge that he has no intention of moving Rondo has only heightened fears that a divorce is imminent. Ainge keeps reassuring that Rondo is the future, but the longer you tentatively hold that pill in your mouth the harder it becomes to swallow, and years of Ainge snuffing out trade rumor flare-ups while pointedly never entirely extinguishing the blaze has made him hard to trust. It also makes it impossible not to wonder what he might know about Rondo that we don’t.
And of course we don’t know much, and Rondo isn't telling. He’s indicated that he plans to try out free agency in the summer of 2015, comparing it to the college recruitment process he feels he missed out on (Rondo has never forgiven his hometown University of Louisville for failing to sign him and nurses a perpetual grudge against coach Rick Pitino, giving him at least one thing in common with Celtics fans). And frankly, the logical thing would be to leave, to quietly seek an offseason trade or begin plotting a long-term exit strategy for 2015. After all, Rondo and Celtics fans both know that the team as it’s currently constructed doesn't give him the best chance to win.
But someday it might, and depending on the fortunes of the draft lottery, that day might come sooner than we think. There’s a difference between wanting to win and wanting to beat people: The latter comes from a superiority complex that’s paradoxically born from insecurity, and it’s more pathological than logical. Rondo’s contempt when Ray Allen left Boston for Miami in 2012 wasn't just about Allen leaving, but where he was going: He joined the team that had just defeated him, rather than trying to even the score. He chose winning over beating people.
From this vantage point, it becomes easier to imagine Rondo sticking around, provided Ainge lets him. I hope he does, and I hope that when Rajon Rondo finally leaves the Celtics, it’s many years from now, and a situation far different than this one. Everything ends, but rest assured that Rondo intends for his ending to be better than everyone else’s.
Jack Hamilton is the pop critic at Slate and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture. Follow him, @jack_hamilton.