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|A McDonald's All-American, Rondo wasn't always on everyone's radar as a high-school prospect.|
During the 2003-04 season, Oak Hill coach Steve Smith figures he had pro scouts at nearly every practice and every game. They came to see athletic senior wingman Josh Smith. They left talking about the ultra-quick senior point guard with the huge hands.
"I'd say eight out of every 10 scouts said Rajon was the better NBA prospect," Steve Smith said.
Both would go on to make it in the league, but Rondo's star has eclipsed Josh Smith's. Few people could have predicted that when the two arrived at Oak Hill -- Smith as a lavishly touted leaper out of Atlanta, Rondo as an enigmatic kid out of Louisville trying to shed nagging doubts about his attitude.
Rondo finally flashed onto national recruiting radar during his junior season at Louisville's Eastern High School, but before he reached Oak Hill, Steve Smith said the point guard was rated somewhere between No. 75 and 150 by many services. Clemson and Charlotte were interested, but none of the blue-chip programs were flocking to Mouth of Wilson, Va., to beg for his services.
"I was calling coaches for Rajon Rondo," Smith said with a laugh. "Should've been the other way around."
Rondo proved his worth nationally at Oak Hill. He scored 55 points in one game, had 27 assists in another. By the time he was done, he was a McDonald's All-American. But before that, he'd pledged to become a Kentucky Wildcat.
Rondo's closeness with his mom, Amber, and three siblings dictated that he stay close to home. Given that, his Oak Hill coach made calls to most of the pre-eminent schools within an easy drive from Louisville -- Cincinnati, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky. Of that group, there wasn't a lot of initial interest.
The one local school Rondo crossed off his list was the hometown school.
"He was upset with Louisville," Smith said.
During the summer before his senior season, coach Rick Pitino had secured a verbal commitment from celebrated New York City guard Sebastian Telfair -- a move that wounded Rondo, since he considered himself on par with the flashy kid from the big city.
"I saw Telfair, and he was a really good high school player," said Jody Demling, who covers recruiting for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. "But there wasn't a big difference between the two. It was just the New York City flair and hype that Sebastian had."
While most of the outside world believed Telfair was going to go pro all along, Pitino remained convinced he'd come to Louisville. He continued to recruit Rondo, but not with the urgency of a coach chasing a player he had to have.
Finally, in January of Rondo's senior year, he asked Smith to call Kentucky again to declare his interest in playing for Tubby Smith. The UK coaches agreed to come watch Rondo play after a road game at Tennessee, just 2½ hours from Oak Hill -- if they beat the Volunteers and could take the next day off.
"I've often wondered what would have happened if they'd lost that game," Steve Smith said.
Kentucky won the game, and ultimately won a point guard. Tubby-come-lately walked into the gym to watch Rondo, and about 30 minutes into the practice he told Steve Smith, "I didn't know he was that good."
After that it was over in a matter of days -- Rondo committed without taking a campus visit, and without waiting to hear from Louisville.
The move seemed to catch the Cardinals off guard. One college head coach with ties to Louisville told me just days before Rondo committed, "They've got that under control. They're going to take it slow with Rondo, stay in touch with him, and if Telfair goes pro they'll take him."
Only Rondo didn't wait for it to play out that way. By the time he made a homecoming with Oak Hill to play a game in Louisville, Amber Rondo was in the stands wearing Kentucky gear.
Ultimately, the move might have hurt both Pitino and Rondo. The guard theoretically could have produced even more gaudy statistics at Louisville in Pitino's up-tempo system than he did while struggling with Tubby's deliberate style. And Pitino might have come even closer to winning the 2005 national title -- and avoided the NIT letdown the following year.
Still, it's hard to say it was a disastrous decision in either direction. Louisville went to the Final Four in Rondo's freshman season. Rondo went in the NBA draft's first round a year later.
And before he got drafted, Rondo's Kentucky teams beat Pitino's Louisville teams twice.
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