WALTHAM — With a sheepish grin, bulging muscles from an offseason workout program, and nothing covering his surgically repaired right knee, Rajon Rondo walked around the Celtics practice facility at media day Monday in surprisingly wonderful spirits.
If you recall, basketball pundits said the Brad Stevens hire would never work unless he convinced No. 9 he was capable of coaching an NBA team. Otherwise, that side of Rondo that has clashed with coaches and teammates, the one who has been surly and mercurial, would attempt to intimidate Stevens and would lack respect for the 36-year-old coach.
Instead, the two have bonded. Rondo actually took his first major step as team leader last week and hosted a dinner for some of his teammates, coaching staff, and ownership, a gesture to indicate that he’s all-in with this rebuilding project.
“Very humble. His communication vibes have been great with me,” Rondo said of Stevens. “Ever since he became the coach, he came to my basketball camp the week after. We got together for about an hour and a half down at my camp in Kentucky. And ever since then he’s been texting me, given me a couple of books to read, e-mailed things to look up on YouTube. I think it was important for both of us to get off to a good start, get to know one another. This is his team, this is my team. I’m very supportive of him and he’s been very supportive of me.”
Rondo had little to say about the departures of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and credited former coach Doc Rivers for his All-Star Game appearances and emergence as one of the league’s top point guards. But other than a few brief moments reminiscing, Rondo was geared on the future, his budding relationship with Stevens, his suddenly increased role as leader, and his recovery from the most serious injury of his career.
Rondo made it perfectly clear he has no intentions of being more forthcoming. He promised he would come back to action in either the fall or winter. He offered no details on his condition, other than to say the stationary bike has become his best friend.
The positive aspect for the Celtics is that Rondo has been in Boston for nearly a month. He easily could have stayed in Louisville until Sunday night, and walked into the Sports Authority Training Center with his customary scowl instead of giving the media 10 engaging minutes.
Of course, the process has just begun. The Celtics have yet to lose five straight games. LeBron James has yet to put up a 40-20-10 night at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Celtics have yet to struggle to beat Cleveland and Detroit at home. They have yet to experiment with Avery Bradley and young Phil Pressey at point guard while Rondo recovers.
This was Camelot, the day before Stevens’s first practice at Salve Regina University in Newport R.I. But it was an encouraging sign that the 27-year-old Rondo is at least understanding his importance to the future of this franchise. He is no longer the mouthy kid whose trash talk would generate headlocks from even his closest of teammates.
He has to embrace that he is the grizzled veteran of this bunch, the last remaining player from the 2008 title team. Several Celtics were still in high school when Banner 17 was raised. They view Rondo as a mentor, not a free spirit with a surly side.
Those questions about whether Rondo could co-exist with Stevens began the moment the Butler coach accepted the job. And while Rondo claimed to have been in hibernation this summer, there was no doubt that he took the perception that he could be a coach-killer personally.
“I don’t really pay attention to what the media said or what anybody said about me,” Rondo said. “I think [Stevens] has the same mind-set. He didn’t have any pre-things that he thought about me. He was very open and honest, and I think I did the same thing. What people may say is different when we cross these lines. Coach and I right off have got off to a great start, and we’ll continue to stay on those lines. I respect him as a man and as the coach of this organization.
“He didn’t come in with a negative attitude or thinking differently of me because of what the media has said. If I’ve got my teammates’ respect and the coaches’ respect, that’s all I can ask for. Everybody else really doesn’t know me.”
Stevens’s most brilliant move so far was to avoid any preconceived notions about Rondo. Taking that trip to his camp was a major sign of respect. Rondo understands that he can be difficult to deal with but he didn’t want Stevens to believe that right away.
The coach approached Rondo with a clear mind and Rondo responded with his blessings.
“Me and Brad have become best friends,” Rondo said. “We talk every day, we laugh and joke. We just had dinner the other night. I’m going to help him; he’s going to help me. He has my full support. I told him from Day 1 when he came to my camp that I’m behind him 100 percent. Whatever he wants to do, whatever he wants to change, I have an open mind. I’m ready to listen and to be accountable for what he wants to do and what he wants to be.”
Rondo is saying all the right things, and while his attitude may change when times become more difficult, it’s an encouraging start.