WALTHAM, Mass. — The agony of defeat had not even had time
to wear off when Rajon Rondo plopped into a seat next to Kevin Garnett on the
team bus. The Celtics had just lost to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern
Conference Finals and there were murmurs that Garnett, who was at the end of
his contract, might consider retirement after 17 professional seasons.
Rondo, who had never spent an NBA season playing without
Garnett, meekly made his case to the man he considers a big brother.
"I'd really like it if you came back," Rondo told
As Rondo recounted the exchange last week, it was disarming
how timid he made himself sound. The Celtics point guard tends to come off as
brash, impetuous and never at a lack for confidence, but faced with the
possibility of no longer playing with his closest friend on the team, Rondo
revealed himself as the 26-year-old kid he is. While insisting that he still feels
he is the best point guard in the NBA, Rondo was honest about his sometimes
cocky ways and how he is trying to grow into a leader from the arrogant
youngster who was not always easy to get along with.
Rondo's transformation into the Celtics' leader began two
years ago in Game 3 of the conference semis against the Heat. No one who
watched the video can forget the grotesque way Rondo's elbow bent backward in
that game, and no Celtics fan can forget how Rondo returned to lead the Celtics
to their only win in that series. It was impossible for Rondo's teammates not
to respect the effort.
Until Celtics coach Doc Rivers and the then-"Big
Three" of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett sat down with Rondo prior to
last season, though, the leadership title had not explicitly been granted to
him. The coach and the three future Hall of Famers were unambiguous: The
Celtics were now Rondo's team.
"For them to have the types of careers they've had as
future Hall of Famers, to embrace and — I don't want to say 'let go,' but –
kind of let me lead the way, it speaks volumes of their character," Rondo
said. "It's not easy letting a young guy with my type of demeanor or
attitude come in and take charge. It's a work in progress. I think I've gained
and earned their respect. They see how hard I work out here in the gym. They
see the way I play the game. They see how unselfish I am. I think it was time
for me stepping up and taking the role as the leader."
Those obsessed with believing there was melodrama between
Rondo and Allen will be disappointed to hear Rondo call every member of that
"Big Three" — yes, even his former backcourt partner — "good
men." One day, when a new, young stud emerges for the Celtics, Rondo said
the way in which Garnett, Pierce and Allen passed on the reins to him will help
him know when to pass on the direction of the team to its new leader.
A changing of the guard is already well under way, according
to Garnett. Rondo and Pierce once again are the official team captains,
although even Pierce spoke of deferring more leadership responsibilities to
Rondo. Garnett believes Rondo always possessed leadership abilities, but that
he needed time to learn from his older teammates.
When Garnett signed his three-year contract during the
offseason, it assured the Celtics will have at least one check to keep Rondo in
line for the near future. If Rondo played for the Raptors or Bobcats, maybe he
would not be so grounded. So far, though, he has no league Most Valuable
Player, Defensive Player of the Year or All-Star MVP trophies like Garnett
does. He cannot lay claim to being Finals MVP like Pierce. He does not even
have a Sixth Man of the Year award to boast of like Jason Terry.
"A couple years ago, Kevin and I used to always get
into it — we still do," Rondo said. "He'll throw a few things out
there, like saying he's won every trophy possible. I haven't done that yet, so
I can't be cocky on this team. There's guys in front of me like Paul Pierce,
Kevin Garnett, who have done so much individually that I just want to strive to
be just as good or even better. I want to win those same type of individual
awards, but at the same time win an NBA championship."
Still, Rondo has not completely lost his confident air. He
reiterated his belief — shared by several current and former teammates — that
he is the best point guard in the NBA, although he allowed for the possibility
that he is biased. Such declarations tend to get laughed at or ridiculed (see
the reactions in the past to Eli Manning and Joe Flacco calling themselves
elite quarterbacks), but it would be difficult for an athlete like Rondo to
succeed without that attitude.
"You don't want to be cocky, but at the same time you
want to be confident, especially with this type of team, with this type of
role," Rondo said. "It can be kind of overwhelming to play with three
future Hall of Famers. Me being such a young point guard, if I didn't have the
confidence to play with those guys or the confidence to take charge at times, I
don't think I would've become the player I am today."
As a player, Rondo has been quite good for some time. He has
not made three All-Star teams by accident, and any point guard would kill to
participate in two NBA Finals and three conference finals in his first six
But being a good player is only part of what the Celtics
need from Rondo. They now need him to be a good leader, something that may not
come naturally but that was inevitable given how his star has risen.