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Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Chapter 3: Like roller coasters?

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Rajon Rondo and Tubby Smith
Rajon Rondo and coach Tubby Smith didn't often see eye-to-eye during their Kentucky days together.

With 10 seconds on the clock and Kentucky trailing South Carolina by a point, Rajon Rondo got the inbounds pass and charged upcourt.

With a highly stressed Rupp Arena crowd on its feet, Rondo veered from the center of the court to the left side, where it looked like he would execute a dribble handoff with teammate Ramel Bradley. On the other side of the court, clutch shooter Patrick Sparks was curling to the top of the key for what looked like an open shot.

Rondo ignored both options. Instead, he kept his dribble alive, spun away from his defender in front of the Kentucky bench and let fly with a 3-pointer.

This was not what coach Tubby Smith had drawn up in the timeout huddle just seconds earlier -- Rondo completely disregarded it. And in the end, it did not matter. The notoriously sketchy outside shooter swished the sucker with a second left for the win.

That moment from January 2006 pretty well summed up the Rondo-Smith relationship for two rocky seasons in Lexington, Ky. Smith couldn't control his talented-but-headstrong point guard. He couldn't win without him, either.

This was the classic bad fit -- talented coach and talented player who probably would have been better off without each other.

It was not a toxic relationship -- just not a fully cohesive one. Their inability to bring out the best in each other hurt both parties in the long run. It helped push Rondo out of the top 20 picks in the '06 NBA draft, and it helped push Smith to flee a Cadillac job for Minnesota a year later.

"I think coach Smith is a hell of a coach," said Doug Bibby, Rondo's coach at Louisville Eastern High School and a strong influence in his life. "Coach Smith and Rajon have a great relationship. They still talk.

"But coach Smith had his style of play. It's a great style of play, but it just wasn't the best style for Rajon."

TubbyBall was a deliberate, half-court production that worked inside-out. The pace was controlled, and the post players were always the first offensive option.

Tethering the fast, fearless, improvisational Rondo to that system was similar to latching a thoroughbred to a harness buggy. It handcuffed some of his greatest gifts.

And as every coach who has ever tried to guide Rondo knows, you must convince him that your way is better than his way before he buys in.

"Rajon is very confident in who he is," his older brother Will said. "Tubby Smith was a very experienced coach, with a set way of doing things. Communication had to be key. They had to grow and learn with each other."

This was an ongoing process across Rondo's two-year tenure at the school. There were repeated spats and makeup sessions between the two.

After Kentucky was blistered by Indiana in December of Rondo's freshman year, the point guard declared the Wildcats had "ego problems." Smith then had a 45-minute meeting with Rondo to emphasize his leadership role, and Rondo responded with a brilliant performance against hated rival Louisville a week later.

The roller coaster continued -- great games followed by shaky games followed by statewide speculation about the happiness quotient of the point guard.

Rajon Rondo
Former Kentucky point guard Rajon Rondo has become arguably the best at his position in the NBA.

For a time, Smith actually brought his future NBA star off the bench in favor of dependable -- and highly unathletic -- upperclassman Brandon Stockton. At least Stockton could be trusted to run Smith's offense, no matter how unspectacularly.

"The years at Kentucky were great," Bibby said. "The crowd, the atmosphere and all the demands of UK basketball prepared Rajon for the pros. But he was a little bit confused in his role."

The problem with this two-steps-forward-one-step-back progression was that the coach and star player at Kentucky were on the clock. At all times. There was no time allotted for a gradually evolving relationship.

Rondo was part of a hugely touted 2004 recruiting class that was supposed to return the Wildcats to the summit of college basketball, and it didn't work out that way.

When Smith signed Rondo and fellow prep All-Americans Joe Crawford and Randolph Morris in the spring of '04, Kentucky fans rejoiced. At least, they declared, this No. 1-ranked recruiting class will get us back to the Final Four for the first time since Smith's debut season in 1998.

From that moment on, Smith's fate at Kentucky was tied to that class. And when the Wildcats failed to make the Final Four in 2004-05, then lost a ghastly (by Kentucky standards) 12 games the following season, it was time for Rondo and his coach to part ways.

Rondo declared for the draft. He was looking out for his own future, but at the same time all but dooming Smith's future in Lexington.

There was no way the Wildcats would be national-championship-good without him. But he would prove to be world-championship-good without the Wildcats.

Next chapter »

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.