BOSTON — Celtics fans became accustomed to hearing a certain player get an unusually long introduction before games over the last several years.
“The captain … and … ‘The Truth’ … Paul … Pierce!”
So if those same fans were a little taken aback by a new player with a similar intro on Friday, they weren’t alone. The player himself was caught just as much off-guard.
When Rajon Rondo jogged onto the darkened court at TD Garden, preparing to play his first game since tearing his ACL last January, he heard the public address announcer call him “the captain.” Yet while he heard it, the significance didn’t register. It wasn’t until he got back to the bench after the huddle and teammates began congratulating him on his captaincy that things started to click.
“It really didn’t hit me at first,” Rondo said. “I just knew I was the last one that was going to be called, but when I came back, a lot of guys said congratulations on being named captain. I didn’t really have a lot of time to take it in. I just wanted to get out there and play to the best of my ability.”
Rondo didn’t know he had been named captain because Brad Stevens never told him. The team waited until right before tip-off the tweet the news, and the first-year coach even hesitated to say he had named Rondo captain, preferring to stress that it was a title Rondo earned, not one the coach bestowed upon him.
“Maybe it’s something I should have done, but I think it’s something you earn through your effort, through your leadership, through your involvement in the community, all of those things,” Stevens said. “So, yeah, he earned his captaincy. He didn’t need to be named it by me. That was my thought process.”
Regardless of whether Rondo received the official captain’s designation, it was clear the Celtics had their leader back Friday. Playing on a strict 20-minute playing time restriction, Rondo called his teammates together when they were on the court and imparted advice while he sat on the bench. Phil Pressey, whose role as a backup point guard has grown in recent weeks and did not hit any snags with Rondo’s return against the Lakers, credited Rondo with his burgeoning confidence.
“I owe a lot of it to him, because even when he was out, he’s been talking to me, telling me what to do, telling me to huddle guys up,” Pressey said. “Just watching him every day in practice helps me out in the game. Having him out there on the court, you could see our team really starting to talk more and everyone starting to come together a little bit better.”
For Rondo, being a captain in itself probably doesn’t mean much. He’s never been a player for statistics or labels. His concern is winning or losing, no matter the injuries or shooting percentages. Remember, he hobbled to the finish of that double-overtime game against the Atlanta Hawks in which he tore his ACL last January.
By receiving the captain’s title, however, Rondo is carrying on the tradition of Pierce as the 15th captain in Celtics history, and that’s the true honor to him. He still thinks highly of Pierce, even if he alleges to have felt nothing when Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded last summer. The Celtics don’t put a “C” on the captain’s jersey, but if they did, Rondo would probably rather have a “PP” in its place.
“It’s definitely an honor, following Paul Pierce, who was our last captain,” Rondo said. “He held the seat for a long time, so it’s definitely something I’m proud of.”
Leadership comes with a price, though. Infamous for one-word answers and a sometimes standoffish demeanor, Rondo flashed his dry sense of humor while speaking with reporters for more than 11 minutes after Friday’s game. Being a captain means more than just leading stretches and rallying teammates when adversity strikes, Rondo begrudgingly admitted.
“It means I have to talk to you guys every day, I guess,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. I’ve been the point guard for this team since I’ve been here, so I’ve considered myself a captain or one of the leaders. It’s always been four, five voices, including Doc [Rivers], in the past, but I take full responsibility for how far this team goes. Like I said, it’s nothing new. I think I was pretty much a born leader and I embrace the role and responsibility fully, on my own.”