Commentary

Rajon Rondo: All grown up

Celtics point guard steps out of shadows, reveals true leadership

Updated: October 16, 2012, 3:04 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The veil has been lifted.

Rajon Rondo has emerged from his self-imposed exile, relenting to coaches, friends and teammates who urged him to reveal more to a discerning basketball public that has been alternately electrified, disheartened, elated and perplexed by his considerable talents and mystifying visage.

He garnered attention with a unique skill set, endeared himself to a city that places a premium on toughness when he played through a gruesome elbow injury in the 2011 playoffs. Yet he frustrated observers with his petulance, throwing a ball at one official, then three months later bumping another, the latter resulting in a postseason suspension last May.

Rondo It's time for people to recognize how much Rondo means, not only to this great franchise, but to this great sports town. It's time they got to know the Rajon Rondo we've all been embracing for some time now.

-- Ex-Celtic Keyon Dooling on Rajon Rondo

For all his brillance, three adjectives have muddied Rondo's image: stonefaced, stubborn, moody.

"Like Bird, right?" Rondo offered. "Danny [Ainge] told me Larry was the same way.''

That is an accurate assessment. Bird also proved to be aloof and ornery in the heat of competition. No wonder when the Celtics briefly courted Chris Paul with Rondo as trade bait that Larry Legend was among those keenly interested in acquiring him.

Rondo isn't going anywhere now. He is a three-time All-Star and the face of the Celtics, a veteran player on a roster dotted with new faces.

He has realized it's not good enough to be a leader in the shadows. He needs to be more visible, more transparent.

"Yes,'' he confirmed with a wry smile. "That's exactly what I'm doing.''

The Celtics are Rondo's team, or so we've been told for nearly three seasons now. In theory, it makes perfect sense: He is approaching the peak of his career playing alongside two Hall of Famers whose finest days are behind them. It is Rondo who dictates the offense, sets the tone defensively, pushes tempo and serves an extension of his coach, Doc Rivers, himself a former point guard.

Both Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Ainge repeatedly announced it was Rondo's time, even if some of his teammates weren't completely buying into that.

"Two years ago I think they wanted him to be one thing," Paul Pierce said. "But he was still learning. They were saying, 'It's Rondo's team,' but he wasn't to the point where he was that constant presence.

"They put him in a role he wasn't ready for yet."

Or, perhaps, was he thrust into a role that some of his more celebrated teammates weren't quite ready to relinquish? The former Big Three boasted a collective resume steeped in excellence. Rondo, it seemed, had to wait his turn.

Yet his younger counterparts claim Rondo has been the glue to the locker room for years. Avery Bradley said it was Rondo, not the seasoned veterans, who checked on him regularly during his rookie season to make sure he was eating right, had the transportation he needed or had someone to talk to when he was feeling lonely or overwhelmed.

Bradley was devastated when he sent to the NBA Developmental League in January 2011. "I felt like it was a punishment almost," he said.

It was Rondo who stopped by Bradley's apartment and stressed the move was a chance for him to play and improve, and Rondo who made arrangements to watch Bradley play in Maine before a last-minute change to a Celtics practice scuttled the plans.

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesRajon Rondo, with Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett, has worked at forging team chemistry, particularly this offseason.

"But it showed how much he cared about me," Bradley said. "How much he cares about everybody."

Rondo's accountability has increased as he has matured, a development that did not go unnoticed by Pierce.

"He took so many huge strides last year, he had to be the leader," Pierce said. "KG and I aren't going to be here much longer, so it's time for him to have a real voice, especially with Ray [Allen] gone.''

Rondo organized offseason workouts in Los Angeles, oversaw the basketball drills, arranged for flag football games, even tried to coax the Celtics' owners into giving them the private plane to travel to the West Coast. League rules forbid that -- "we paid our own way for everything," Rondo said -- but the trip was his idea, hatched from a conversation he had with Pierce at a Barack Obama fundraiser.

"It was Rajon's show," Garnett said.

That, insisted Keyon Dooling, is nothing new. It has been, he scolded, that way for years.

"He is the most underappreciated leader in this league," Dooling declared. "Do you know how many times we were at the Rondo family home [last season]? We were there all the time, bonding, building team chemistry.

"Honestly, our veterans didn't do a very good job of supporting him in his [leadership] role."

The dynamics were thorny. Rondo came to the Celtics as an unpolished, yet immensely gifted rookie. Initially, he was the dutiful puppy who followed Allen around, even mimicking his pregame routine. He was Allen and Pierce and KG's annoying but lovable little brother. And then all of a sudden they were supposed to anoint him their leader?

Allen resisted, even publicly expressing his disappointment that Rondo didn't follow through with the kind of disciplined, dedicated routine that Ray felt was paramount to a player's success. The two drifted apart, and by the end of last season, the unpleasant undercurrent between them was unmistakable.

"Ray was great in many ways," Dooling said. "Rondo learned a lot from him -- how to prepare, how to take care of his body, how to be professional.

"But the way Ray led was different than how Rajon did it. Not wrong, just different.

"Ray didn't know how to communicate with Rondo the way some of us could, like myself, like KG, who fully embraced Rajon.

"I love Ray. I love his family. He's a true pro. But it's unfair how this all came out. Ray had such a good relationship with all the reporters and Rondo was so quiet. So who gets all the good press?

"Sometimes it felt like Ray spent more time talking to the media than he did to his teammates.''

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty ImagesRajon Rondo admits his emotions have gotten the better of him at times and that he's still getting used to being an "elder statesman."

In the midst of a shortened NBA season that ended with a crushing Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, a curious quintet of Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Dooling, Chris Wilcox and Marquis Daniels developed such a close bond that Rondo requested the five players have their rooms situated close to one another in the team hotel.

"That was the crew," Rondo said. "We had a lot of the same hobbies. Cars, movies, shopping. And, besides Keyon, we're all pretty private."

Rondo organized the dinners, the movies, the trips to the clubs. When there was a delay in shipping Daniels' car to Boston, Rondo handed him the keys to his 2010 Challenger.

The five players settled into a rotating dinner pattern: quesadillas at the Rondos one night, steaks at the Doolings the next. Their wives commiserated and their kids played together.

Wilcox, or "Wheezy,'' as the players call him, debated his vintage Cadillac Coupe de Ville against Rondo's sparkling new Range Rover. Rondo talked politics with KG, fashion with Dooling, video games with Daniels.

"We got so close," Wilcox said. "It was the best team I'd ever been on."

It was a challenging year for all five of them, particularly Wilcox, who underwent heart surgery that ended his season.

"I've got the TV on while they are playing Miami and it really hurt me," Wilcox admitted. "I had never been in the playoffs before, so sitting home and watching them was hard."

In the middle of that heated series, Wilcox got an afternoon phone call from Rondo.

"Just checking in on you, big fella," he said.

Daniels, who fell out of Boston's rotation, said Rondo was the one who implored him to stay sharp, to stay ready.

"He's such an incredible teammate," Daniels said. "And he gets such a bad rap."

While Rondo was galvanizing his locker room, his public persona as a distant, aloof and occasionally disruptive force persisted.

"I didn't care," Rondo said. "I didn't need the attention. I didn't feel the need to go out and say, 'I'm the leader here.' I did my stuff behind closed doors.

"I knew it would play itself out eventually. I've been with the same organization for seven years. I can't be that bad of a person. Obviously, I'm doing something right.''

The chemistry this season, he said, already is better than it was in 2011-12, bolstered by the Celtics' trip overseas. Rondo bristles at suggestions that he refused to pass the ball to Allen as a result of their personal rift last year.

"Ridiculous," he said. "But that's behind me now. Honestly, I had to get past it.

"Ray is Ray. Hopefully he's in a good place. I'm happy where I am. Whatever decision Ray made is what he made.

"I didn't talk to him before he made his decision and I didn't talk to him after it, so I don't really see how it has anything to do with me."

The reasons for Allen's departure were multifaceted; he objected to coming off the bench to make way for an unproven player (Bradley), he was disappointed to learn he was nearly shipped to Utah at the trading deadline, and, according to Rivers, Allen struggled with the fact his number was called less often, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. His deteriorating relationship with Rondo was a factor, yet not The Factor.

While Daniels acknowledged the friction between his two friends, he lauded both for preventing it from affecting the results of the team.

"It probably should have been handled differently," Daniels conceded, "but I thought they both did a good job of keeping [their differences] under wraps. No one even knew about it until after the season. Give them credit for both being professional about it."

Rondo still is learning how to maintain that professionalism. He was angered when he initially wasn't chosen for last year's All-Star Game (he had missed eight games due to injury), and when the league office later added him to the roster, he seriously contemplated refusing the invitation.

"I'm so competitive that regardless of the injuries I thought I should have made it," he said. "I was upset. And yes, I'm stubborn. I got caught up in my emotions a little bit."

Garnett, Rivers and Pierce finally convinced Rondo that declining to attend the All-Star Game would have been counterproductive. Rondo ultimately agreed.

"It's called maturity," Pierce said. "When I was a young player I did and said things that rubbed people wrong. It's all part of growing. You learn from it."

Rondo continues to acclimate himself with the concept that he's one of the Celtics' elder statesmen now. When one of his teammates says, "Rondo, what do we do next?" he cannot help but recall, "That used to be me asking."

During Boston's preseason trip to Turkey, Rondo's room served as the hub of the team's social activities.

"I packed the snacks," he said proudly. "Teddy Grahams, Rice Krispie treats, Capri Suns."

Told it sounded like a stash for a bunch of 10-year-olds, Rondo protested, "Hey, the food wasn't great there. So late at night when they got hungry, they'd come knocking on my door, 'Whatcha got Rondo?'"

He is excited about his team, predicts great things for Jared Sullinger and bounce-back years for Wilcox and Jeff Green. He believes the Celtics are deeper, more versatile and more cohesive than they were last season.

Rondo cannot promise he will be able to maintain his revamped agreeable disposition from November until June. There are nights when things will go awry and he will bark at his coach, his teammates, the referees, himself.

"KG always told me what separates the great ones is that there's a certain edge you have to maintain," Rondo said. "I'm very critical of myself. I want the best for myself. My standards are very, very high, for me and my teammates."

Dooling has retired from basketball but remains Rondo's confidant and plans to travel occasionally with the Celtics. They first met when Rondo was a rookie and showed up unannounced at a union meeting, hoping to educate himself on the issues. The gesture left a lasting impression on Dooling.

"It's time for people to recognize how much Rondo means, not only to this great franchise, but to this great sports town," Dooling said. "It's time they got to know the Rajon Rondo we've all been embracing for some time now."

Rondo fervently believes he is the best point guard in the league, a declaration he has made on numerous occasions, usually with mixed results. On the Celtics' media day, when asked about his standing yet again, he grinned, then answered, "Well, of course, I'm biased."

The veil has been lifted. The little brother has grown up.

This is Rajon Rondo's team, and he has got the Capri Suns to prove it.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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