For Celtics Star Rajon Rondo, Perception Quickly Can Become Reality

Rajon Rondo, Roy Hibbert, Paul GeorgeBOSTON — There’s a story, probably apocryphal, of a woman meeting the famously tight-lipped Calvin Coolidge. According to legend, she told the 30th president of the United States that she’d made a bet she could get him to say at least three words.

Coolidge’s alleged response: “You lose.”

Almost a century later, Rajon Rondo treats most reporters with the same sort of reticence. He answers as many questions as he can with a single word, even when he knows his response will prompt two or three follow-up queries to get him to elaborate. When he does expound, he’s often combative, as he was last week when asked about the¬†overanalyzed birthday situation.

“Nobody knows the story,” Rondo said, “so you guys can keep making up every story you possibly can.”

We’re not here to say Rondo is wrong to refuse to tell his side of what happened two weekends ago, when he chose to stay in Los Angeles to celebrate his birthday while the Boston Celtics trekked north to Sacramento for a game in which he wasn’t scheduled to play. That’s his right. Whatever Rondo’s crime, it was minor in the big scheme of things, especially given the other big “sports” story last week was Aaron Hernandez reportedly beating up a guy in prison. Yes, Rondo has had better moments. Lots of people have had worse moments, too.

Whatever the reality with Rondo, though, the public’s perception of him has taken a hit. He contends that he doesn’t care about perception, only reality. But increasingly, perception becomes reality, particularly if someone refuses to dispel the myths.

Contrary to Rondo’s belief, the majority of people who cover the Celtics are closer in sentiment to the camp of his defenders than of his critics. We see what Rondo is capable of on a nightly basis, how glowingly coach Brad Stevens speaks of him, how little his teammates seemed to care about the birthday episode. The stories Rondo dismissed as made up merely relayed information that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Boston Herald, on the record. When we ask Rondo questions, it’s mostly to give him an opportunity to respond to outside criticism, not to bait him into slipping up.

Most fans don’t follow it so closely. I’ve been called a Rondo “hater” for isolated stories that make him look bad, despite repeated attempts to set the record straight about his unseen worth. Many fans, like Rondo himself, only see the big, bold, bad headlines and base their judgments on that, rather than the body of work.

Rondo always has been a bit of a throwback. He plays through pain, spits at excuses and would cut off a limb to win a game, especially against the Miami Heat. He’s also old-fashioned in that he believes reality matters and perception is irrelevant. It would be wonderful if that were true. But it’s not.

While Rondo was helping the Celtics battle to a close defeat against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, a similarly polarizing and misunderstood star was being honored down I-95. Allen Iverson’s jersey was retired by the Philadelphia 76ers, immortalizing a player who was far better in his prime than Rondo is likely to ever be. Yet it’s a cautionary tale for Rondo that Iverson’s career was effectively over at 32 years old, when the Denver Nuggets, then the Detroit Pistons, then the Memphis Grizzlies decided his headaches weren’t worth his declining contributions on the court. The Sixers presented him with a lifetime achievement award of sorts by signing him for the final 25 games of 2010.

Whether Rondo brings any such headaches will not matter if the perception eventually takes hold that he does. When he shrugs off setting the record straight about each supposed infraction, he isn’t hurting reporters who have to file thin stories based on his non-responses. In the long run, he only hurts himself by feeding the idea that he’s surly, uncooperative and standoffish — and not worth the trouble.

Not every general manager will look Rondo in the eye and ask him about his alleged transgressions the way beat writers do. Many will read what he said, watch his body language on TV or hear something somebody told somebody else about something he purportedly did, and write him off.

We shouldn’t expect Rondo to be fake. If his true personality is the one he shows the public, then he shouldn’t pretend to smile through gritted teeth. But we suspect that’s not really him. He dogs teammates, but he also pats them on the rear end. With them, he’s acerbic, but not unlikable.

Times have changed. A man of few words like Coolidge wouldn’t last very long in the media-driven politics of today. It wouldn’t matter how strong a candidate he was if he couldn’t communicate his message. Image doesn’t matter quite as much in basketball, but it can’t be dismissed as easily as Rondo thinks it can. If he believes he can ignore popular opinion as a mere facade, with no bearing at all on the path of his career, chances are, he’ll lose.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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