It’s not often that a professional athlete is branded with a SAT vocabulary word by the sports media, but wherever the name Rajon Rondo appears in print, it seems the word “mercurial” is sure to be nearby.
“Perhaps the most discouraging news to come out of Boston this summer regarding the often mercurial Rondo,…”
And if the Celtic star isn’t being described as mercurial, it’s probably because he’s being enigmatic.
“As the Celtics open the 2012-13 schedule Tuesday night in Miami against the title-defending Heat, the enigmatic Rondo — a fussy fashionista with a basketball assassin’s soul — reigns as their undisputed floor leader,…”
Both of these words can be useful, but when applied to Rondo they don’t illuminate him, or his relationship to the otherworldly basketball talents he possesses. They only obfuscate our understanding of him. When sportswriters first started using those words to describe Rondo they meant he was moody, tough to talk to, tough to interview certainly, but also clearly capable of giving thoughtful and funny answers (his assessment of his likelihood to play on opening night — 79% — and the 4% upgrade he gave himself today, along with his assertion that he will be a “nap time decision” are just the most recent examples). His game was similarly bipolar: his imagination on the floor was limitless, but his focus untrustworthy. Writers never knew which Rondo they would get when talking to him or watching him play. The assumption was that there were two Rondos: the brilliant technician leading the Celtics high-powered offense, and the other Rondo who emerged when his maturity faltered. This Rondo was all petulance, lazy defense and ill-advised passes.
Early on, it was assumed that the duality was connected to an immature moodiness that would dissipate with time. Those words so often used to describe him (mercurial, enigmatic, aloof) were placeholders; he was enigmatic only because we didn’t know him yet. He was mercurial because we didn’t understand him. Surely, winning a championship would allow us to know him. Becoming the Celtics’ best player as the big three grew old would force his personality and his game to calcify into something we could easily define. Maybe a knee injury and a blow to that aura of invincibility he wore so casually would force him to do away with the impatience that became palpable whenever a camera or microphone was directed his way. And then there was last year, when we thought that Rondo would surely let us know his true self as the unquestioned face of the franchise during a hopeless campaign. We were waiting for the easy narrative, for enough pieces to fall into place where we could properly pigeonhole Rondo, as both a person and a player. That has still not happened (nobody can even agree if he is a good shooter or not) and it’s pretty clear now that it never will.
Rondo is the weirdest, most mercurial, enigmatic, and inscrutable player in the NBA, which is a just a list of thesaurus words employed to say that we just don’t get him. Our greatest basketball players exist in a simple personality matrix: there’s the immature talent (Boogie Cousins), the former immature talent who grew up and “got it” (Kyle Lowry, Chris Webber, Paul Pierce), the quiet superstar (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan), the affable pitchman (Lebron James, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin), and the win-at-all costs sociopath (Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett). Where does Rondo fit into this? Couldn’t you make a case for just about every category, minus the affable pitchman? But then again, would it even be surprising if Rondo was in a series of hilarious Kia commercials? What can’t he do?
Apart from his statistics, and the fact that he’s fourth all-time in playoff triple doubles, here are some things we know about Rondo:
- He is a freak. From Lee Jenkins’ excellent 2013 SI profile: “Rondo’s hands, 9½ inches long and 10 inches wide, are the size of a 7-footer’s. His wingspan is 6’9”, common for a power forward. If built proportionally, he says, “I’d be like Magic or Oscar Robertson.” In peripheral vision tests Rondo beats everybody except Ainge, and on road trips he can recall exact directions to places he visited once. Ainge has seen him throw a football 80 yards, hit a softball 380 feet and beat 33-year-old assistant general manager Ryan McDonough in a 40-yard dash with a tire strapped to his waist. In college Rondo stole the ball from his man 16% of the time; no one else in the 2006 draft swiped it more than 5%.”
- He is a connect four savant. He challenges groups of children to simultaneous games of connect four and he beats them mercilessly.
- He never watched basketball growing up. He learned the game entirely through his own experience of it. His unique style, the chances he takes, the plays he makes that seem to have never been made before, much of that may come down to the fact that he was a basketball tabula rasa. He invented his game in a vacuum free of expectations of what the game is supposed to look like.
- He asks questions back at reporters more than any athlete I’ve ever seen. It’s often steely and cold, but it’s never hostile. He can give the most cliché sounding answers and make them seem natural and genuine, and he can give the most controversial answers and make them seem boring and cliché. He can be friendly and adversarial. His interviews are great in a subtle way. Watch how many interesting, yet very simple answers he gives in this three-minute interview.
- Speaking of interviews, he gave the greatest halftime interview of all time when he called out the Heat for crying to the refs. He wasn’t complaining about them doing it, he was simply answering a question about why the Celtics were able to get out and run. “Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition.” Rondo seems like he is at once deeply committed to the truth, and totally bored by it.
- He is best friends with Josh Smith. This can reasonably considered a red flag.
- He has been, according to this typically excellent Jackie MacMullan piece, the leader of the team for years. He was the guy who took the younger players under his wing, not just recently, but while KG and Paul were still in town. He forms deeply committed friendships with teammates.
- He once told a reporter that he had big plans for his post-basketball career, but refused to say what they were.
- He may or may not have clashed with Doc Rivers and Ray Allen.
- He takes five showers a day.
- He is an excellent roller skater.
- He said he “felt nothing” when Paul and KG left.
- Nerlens Noel said Rondo was the “biggest helper” of any NBA player while dealing with his recovery from ACL surgery.
- He is smart. He drops in on high school math classes and ends up teaching them. Danny Ainge has said that Rondo is always “the smartest guy in the room, and the most stubborn.”
- He out rebounds his height (6’1) better than anybody since Charles Barkley.
- Danny Ainge has tried to trade him roughly 3,540 times.
What are we to make of all this? It’s 2014 and the mercurial and enigmatic Rondo® is still as unknowable as he was when he entered the league in 2006. Those adjectives are no longer placeholders, they are an admission of a comprehension failure. Writers have given up trying to understand Rondo or get to know him, not because he’s dull – he is anything but – and not because he only allows access to a customer-facing version of himself (I can’t imagine Rondo ever talking about his “brand”), but because Rondo is honest and yet still we can’t figure out what type of player or person he is. He refuses all attempts at explanation or narrative. He frustrates the manufacturing of simple career arcs that we have become accustomed to as sports fans. He is a series of parts, impressions, and facts that don’t seem to fit together. He is a mystery.
There will be no “knowing” Rondo. To just sort of flippantly refer to him as mercurial and enigmatic is understandable, and a time saver, but doing so is a disservice to the complexities of one of the most dynamic athletes and personalities I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. As the 2014-2015 season begins, Celtics fans know this is very likely Rondo’s last in Boston. I personally hope that the Celtics sign Rondo to a max deal, since no free agent is coming to Boston without an established star, and try to build around him. But whatever happens, we should appreciate him for his basketball genius and also his inscrutability; we should relish the fact that in this age of social media and advanced analytics a point guard leading a marquee franchise is still capable of being so joyfully confusing. We should enjoy every last one-handed cross-court pass, every altercation with the referees, every question turned back on a reporter. We should stay vigilant in order to celebrate the plays, and there will be a few, which Rondo is the first to ever complete, not because there has never been anyone with his talent, but because Rondo was the first to see through the limitations of physics and aesthetics and will a new basketball play into existence with his daring and stubbornness.
Rondo is totally unknowable. But that doesn’t make trying to know him any less fun, and it doesn’t make his inevitable departure any less sad. For the next few months, we should bang our heads against Rondo’s contradictions and be happy that someone so intelligent and so talented wouldn’t make it simple for us to love him. It will be a sad day when Rondo isn’t around to confuse us anymore.