“Rondo, it’s like he sees the play before it happens.” — Courtney Lee
Everyone says that. So many say it so often, in fact, that it long ago reached broken-record status. But that trait is central to why Rajon Rondo is a four-time All-Star who has twice led the NBA in assists, many of them starring in nightly highlight reels because they were thrown with impeccable timing from almost impossible angles to almost unimaginable locations.
It’s also central to why the Celtics guard is legendary at Connect Four, an upright version of checkers.
He just always seems to be several moves ahead of the opposition, as his teammates, such as Lee, will attest.
One of those moves has been on Rondo’s mind for a while, even if he has kept it largely to himself. It’s a move that won’t happen for some time, but he isn’t wasting time in preparing.
“I have a long way to go,” the Celtics star told the Globe recently. “And obviously I want to play for another 10 or 11 years. But it is something that’s in the back in my mind. And it starts now. I think the process is starting now.”
The process of becoming a head coach.
“I watched Doc [Rivers] for seven years,” Rondo said. “I watched how he handled certain players, how he handled certain situations, how you handle a four-game losing streak, how you handle a 10-game winning streak.”
‘I could easily see Rondo being a very good coach in the NBA one day.’Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations
And now Rondo is doing the same with Rivers’s replacement, rookie Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“I’m watching him very closely,” Rondo said.
He watches how Stevens studies and prepares for games, how he draws up plays and picks out lineups, and how he delivers speeches.
He asks Stevens questions, about the names of the plays an opponent is running, how many times it runs each of them per game, and if he can have the clipboard — to draw up his own plays.
“He has some good ones,” Stevens said.
Atop Rondo’s priorities list is, of course, returning to the court after knee surgery last February. He has been cleared for full contact in practice, making a January debut seem likely. It’s hard to say, because he doesn’t want to rush back before he’s 100 percent, a feeling shared by the executives who view him as the franchise’s future.
As for his own future, he said coaching would be a perfect fit.
“I think it just comes natural, with me being so vocal on the court, knowing everything out there on the court — what’s going on, play-calling, guys who have it, guys who don’t have it,” Rondo said.
And he believes that, in terms of coaching, he has what it takes.
“The NBA game, I feel like, is almost second nature to me now — knowing other teams’ tendencies like the back of my hand,” he said.
Added Stevens, “My goal in coaching him is to be the best support that I can to help him be the best player that he can be, but also to start to talk about those things.”
Coaching things. And perhaps Stevens is the right man for the job.
After all, they each share traits dating to their childhoods that are so similar, it’s as if their pairing was destined.
In Indiana, Jean Glore chaired the Zionsville High School’s math department for 35 years — and in all that time, she declared Brad Stevens one of the brightest students she has seen.
“He was way up there,” she said.
Glore taught Stevens in an honors pre-calculus course his junior year, then honors calculus as a senior. She said she can’t remember him getting less than an A on anything, but she can remember him grasping concepts almost instantly and completing equations in his head.
“It came very easily to him,” Glore said. “He very easily could’ve gone into a field in mathematics and been very successful at it.”
This information is relayed to Rondo, who appeared shocked by how close to home it hits.
“My math teachers said the same thing about me,” Rondo said.
Along with coaching the boys’ basketball team at Eastern High School in Louisville, Doug Bibby taught math. The subject came almost too easy for one of his students — Rondo.
Rondo often slept through class, and when Bibby caught him snoozing, he’d call on him to complete an equation on the board, thinking he’d make an example of his slacking pupil.
Rondo would solve the equation, then resume his slumber.
“He could pretty much look at the problem and solve it mentally without working it out,” Bibby said.
Rondo didn’t bring his books, take notes, or do his homework. Yet, Bibby said, “He’d ace all of the quizzes.” Suspecting Rondo was cheating, Bibby gave him tests different from all the other students. And he aced those too, Bibby said.
Bibby came to realize that Rondo knew the material well enough, and he wasn’t trying to be a jerk.
“He was just bored with it,” Bibby said.
Rondo’s math skills are useful elsewhere, apparently.
“When we’re playing Spades on the plane, Rondo is able to count the cards and figure out pretty much what everybody has in their hands from the cards being played,” Celtics forward Brandon Bass said.
Stevens is a card player, specifically with Euchre, a popular game in Indiana.
But there’s another game that he and Rondo share in common, a game that has become almost synonymous with the Celtics point guard.
The mother is describing one aspect of her son’s childhood.
“We played a lot of Connect Four.”
The mother is Jan Stevens.
This information is relayed to her son, Brad.
But he knows where the line of questioning is headed before it even begins.
“First of all, I’m not playing Rondo until I work at it,” Stevens said.
Shortly after Stevens took the Celtics job, he flew to Louisville to sit down with Rondo at the point guard’s annual summer basketball camp.
At the camp, Stevens saw several Connect Four grids set up. Rondo had a promotion: any camper who could beat him at the game would receive a full refund of the $225 camp fee.
Rondo played multiple games at once, as he often does at events. Few games lasted long, as he’ll study the whole grid and then, after a pause, deposit the disk in the proper column, often declaring victory several moves before he has it, knowing he has his opponent trapped.
None of the campers beat Rondo at his favorite game, one that he grew up playing late into the night on the front porch growing up in College Court, a development near downtown Louisville.
Rondo plays at charity events, perhaps 20 games at each, with perhaps five events per year in the last seven, said Matt Meyersohn, the Celtics’ director of community relations.
And Meyersohn said in those seven years — and 700 games, at least — he has seen Rondo lose only once, during a December 2012 event at the Blue Hills Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester.
“He immediately wanted to play the kid again,” Meyersohn said, “and he beat him several more times.”
So, yes, despite the legend, Rondo is mortal when it comes to Connect Four.
“I beat him once,” Bass said.
“We probably played four times,” Bass said. “I lost the other three.”
Bass said he reminds Rondo about that one win, though.
“Whenever you get a win on Rondo, you have to remind him, because he’s going to remind you every time he beats you,” Bass said.
“I’ll tell you this: Rondo can’t sleep on a loss,” Bass added. “We beat him in Spades the other night. He didn’t want to get off the plane without playing again.”
Fierce competitiveness and an overpowering hatred of losing also link Rondo and Stevens, no doubt a factor in why Stevens hasn’t played Rondo yet in Connect Four.
“He better practice a lot before he plays that kid,” Bass said, “because that kid is ready for the Connect Four world championship game right now.”
Stevens keeps a Connect Four grid at his house — and Rondo asked about it.
“And I said, ‘I’m not ready to get that out yet,’ ” Stevens said.
Rondo suggested that a “Rondo vs. Stevens” Connect Four game would be a fun charity event.
“It would be, but I’ve got to practice first,” Stevens said. “But I’m all in. Let’s do that.”
Games aside, there is one trait that Rondo will need more of to become a coach. It’s a trait that has never come easy to him, and it is one that Stevens is forced to deal with plenty this season.
Bibby’s infant son required weeks of intensive care after being born, and Bibby wouldn’t leave his side, leaving Rondo to run part of his high school team’s practices before another coach arrived.
But sometimes, that other coach would pause before entering the gym, and look in to see how practice was going under Rondo. “And he said they were playing harder than if we were here, that Rajon was doing just as good a job as if I were coaching,” Bibby said.
Rondo became Bibby’s assistant, helping break down tape and develop game plans. He also confided to Bibby that, after his playing career is over, he wants to become a head coach.
“He would make a hell of a coach,” Bibby said, “but the funny thing is, stuff for him comes so naturally on the court, and I wonder if he would have a ‘Magic Johnson issue.’ ”
Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers star, was a brilliant point guard with exceptional court vision.
“Magic saw everything, like Rondo,” Rivers said.
But when Johnson became the Lakers coach near the end of the 1993-94 season, he struggled to relay what he saw to players who lacked his God-given ability or basketball IQ.
“Magic told me it just drove him nuts,” Rivers said. “I can remember him telling me, ‘I just couldn’t do it. I just could not understand why they couldn’t see what I was seeing.’ ”
Johnson stepped down with a 5-11 record, including 10 straight losses to end the season.
Rivers, a former NBA point guard who made the transition to coaching, said that, in time, he came to realize that players don’t always see what you see or want them to see.
“It’s not like they’re not trying to see it, and that’s what you’ve got to understand,” Rivers said. “They didn’t miss the wide-open guy on purpose.”
That can be hard to accept, and Rondo knows his patience can be an issue. But he said he has realized that it takes time to explain the game to others who don’t see it as well, and that you can’t talk to all players as if they all think the same.
“That’s what I learned under Doc,” Rondo said. “You may be able to yell at one guy, the other guy may shut down. It’s just knowing how to push guys’ buttons, knowing what motivates each guy and [what] doesn’t.”
In the end, it will have been helpful for Rondo to study Rivers, if only because Rondo wants to follow that same career path, but Rivers pointed out that with his move into coaching, “I was blessed because I was average [as a player].”
Rivers added, “In some ways, that helps my patience a little bit more, because even when Rondo would do something last year or in the years previous that I didn’t like, I would think, ‘[Expletive], I could’ve never done that.’ ”
Rondo is far from average, which makes patience by far his biggest hurdle, one that his high school teammate, Rusty Farris, said he doubts Rondo will be able to overcome.
“As vicious and relentless as the man is, I don’t see him as the kind to take that seat, in the coach’s chair, and test his patience,” he said.
In an interview with Tubby Smith, who coached Rondo at the University of Kentucky, the topic of Rondo having a “Magic Johnson issue” as a coach was mentioned.
“Exactly!” Smith said.
“Rajon is a special breed,” Smith added. “There’s not many people who have his God-given talents — vision, hand-eye coordination, speed, agility.
“And I remember saying to Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers, Rajon is pound for pound the best athlete, I think, in sports — not just in basketball, but in professional sports, period.”
When Rondo was at Kentucky, he and Smith talked career goals, and coaching came up.
“I’ll just say that when he gets that opportunity, you’ve got to be careful, because you’re going to be coaching people who are not going to be in your class, as an athlete or a player,” Smith said.
“And coaching takes a lot of patience. That’s the one thing I think . . .”
Smith paused, choosing his words carefully, and then he praised Rondo’s work ethic and called him a winner.
During morning shootarounds, Rivers said Rondo “clearly got perturbed when I had to go over [plays] two and three times for people. That bothered the heck out of him.”
The same was true for former Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, with whom Rondo is extremely close. And, Rivers said, if they had to go over plays too often, “You almost knew, ‘OK, an explosion is about to happen. Either Rondo, or Kevin, one of them is about to lose their minds.’”
Smith described a similar situation at Kentucky.
“Sometimes he would get bored because we would have to do it repetitively for other players in order to grasp it,” Smith said.
It was as though, Smith said, Rondo was the brightest one in the classroom and hated waiting on others to catch up.
Said Rivers, “Once he has it, he’s ready to move on.”
And Rondo often has it quickly. Bibby said his system at Eastern was complex enough that it often took players until their junior season before they fully understood it, but Rondo knew it stone cold one month into his freshman year.
Bibby explained a similar instance at Kentucky, when Rondo played under Smith.
“Tubby was like, ‘There’s no way that a freshman coming into my program — and I run a pretty complex program — can pick it up and understand it so quickly.’
“And I was like, ‘Coach, yes he can,’ ” Bibby said.
Basketball has always come natural to Rondo, even if it wasn’t his favorite sport growing up. He loved football (specifically the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre) and played quarterback in high school.
In fact, Rondo was one of the few players Smith said he ever coached at Kentucky who knew the game so well that he would say, “Hey, Coach, this play will work.” Or, “Let’s run that.”
“I don’t know if I gave him that much authority at that time,” Smith said, “but he had the ability to do that.”
In reality, Smith never gave Rondo much authority at all, and the two clashed often, with Smith benching Rondo for six games.
Rondo clashed with other coaches, including Bibby, who said when they’d argue, Rondo would defend his decision on the court, and Bibby would counter with the fact that he could see what happened from the sideline.
“But Bib, I’m on the court, I feel the game because I’m playing,” Rondo would say.
“ ‘My insight is better than yours’ – that’s what he was basically telling me,” Bibby said.
The relationship between Rondo and Stevens — one that was subject to much debate before Stevens was hired — is in its early stages, and it will evolve further when Rondo gets on the court.
For now, “me and Brad have become best friends,” Rondo said at media day.
The two talk, text, e-mail, and call each other often. Stevens frequently asks for Rondo’s input and has given him books — “I haven’t read this much since college,” Rondo said. One book, which Rondo calls his favorite, is “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck.
Stevens is known for his basketball IQ, and he described Rondo’s as “high, high, high, very high.”
“He has a mind that is well ahead of a lot of guys that play the game, period,” Stevens said.
Stevens also said that Rondo is one of the rare players who can play the game with speed and still see everything that’s going on around him. Further, Stevens said Rondo’s math skills allow him to grasp and utilize advanced statistics that, typically, only the coaches might be interested in.
“He has an unbelievable memory, which sounds nutty, but he really does,” Rivers said. “I bet I could say, ‘Hey Rondo, what play did we run when we played in a game in your first year?’ And he’ll tell you. That’s a gift.”
Also, Rondo’s ability to instantly absorb information gives him a near encyclopedic knowledge not only of the Celtics’ playbook but of those for every NBA team.
At morning shootarounds, in fact, Rivers said the Celtics assistants knew “when we were walking through the [other team’s] plays that they had to get it right because Rondo knew it.”
And if they got it wrong, Rondo would correct them.
With all that Rondo offers, Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations and a former NBA head coach himself, believes that Rondo can become a head coach.
“No question. I would say what he sees and his intelligence — I mean, he really understands the game — and by the time his career is over he’ll have played for very good coaches and he’ll have a great deal of experience,” Ainge said.
“But, yeah, I could easily see Rondo being a very good coach in the NBA one day.”
Rivers agreed, and said coaching always seemed like the natural step for Rondo, so much so that when the two talked, Rivers said often began his sentences with the phrase, “When you coach . . . ” or “when you become a coach . . . ”
“There’s guys that you know will coach,” Rivers said. “You just do.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes