Over the past 48 hours, it’s become obvious Rajon Rondo is a significant and rather controversial figure in the Boston sports scene.
There are no middle-of-the-road opinions on the Celtics point guard. The faithful either adore his game, passion, and quirky nature, or they despise him for his arrogance. There is no in-between.
So when the news surfaced that Rondo did not travel with the rest of his teammates to Sacramento for Saturday night’s game, a game he was scheduled to miss because it was the second of a back-to-back set, the criticism came pouring in for his selfishness.
Rondo remained in Los Angeles and celebrated his 28th birthday Saturday, met the team in Salt Lake City Sunday, and played against the Jazz Monday. He was in the lineup Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, scoring 22 points in the Celtics’ 115-104 win.
The team claims Rondo did not inform it of his plans to blow off the Sacramento trip and stay in Los Angeles, but a team security official escorted him to a car following the Celtics’ loss to the Lakers Friday night.
Rondo’s wife, children, and mother accompanied him to Los Angeles and he apparently attended a get-together Saturday night while the Celtics lost an emotional, ejection-filled 105-98 decision to the Kings. When asked to explain his activities that evening, Rondo, as usual, was defiant.
“I haven’t really read much about it,” he said after Wednesday night’s game. “Heard a lot of comments. Nobody knows the story. You guys keep making up every story you guys possibly can. It’s my business. Not yours.”
Privately, the team doesn’t believe Rondo missing Saturday night’s game is significant. After playing Feb. 9 against the Mavericks, Rondo missed Monday’s game at Milwaukee, staying back in Boston along with Avery Bradley, who reinjured his right ankle in the Dallas game.
The difference this time was that Rondo’s absence came in the middle of a road trip, and the perception that he remained in Los Angeles partying for his birthday while his teammates, playing shorthanded most of the season, were sweating out the second game in two nights, doesn’t help Rondo’s reputation.
He is the team captain, the senior member of the club, and a role model for a handful of younger players. The question is, if Rondo wasn’t going to play anyway, what is the purpose of him being present?
There are many reasons athletes miss games, such as family sickness or personal issues, but attending a birthday party isn’t on that list. Rondo should have cleared his absence with team officials and coach Brad Stevens before attending the party, which would have made the situation moot.
Rondo has been a model citizen in this transition season, which has been a surprise to many around the team. Players such as Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams have asked out of these types of situations, begging for trades to more successful teams instead of being the front man of a rebuilding plan.
Rondo hasn’t asked out. He has bonded with Stevens, given an open ear to his teammates, and has recovered methodically and impressively from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. It seems as if the team would have allowed him to celebrate his birthday if he had given it enough respect to inform officials of his plans.
This could be characterized as a misunderstanding but definitely not a major issue. Rondo has built enough equity to be excused for his disregard of the rules, but he has to realize that incidents such as these don’t help his perception outside the organization.
The relationship between Rondo and the Celtics has three potential routes: a long-term extension, a trade either this summer or next season, or him leaving via free agency following the 2014-15 season. Management has maintained it isn’t shopping Rondo despite the rumor that it called the Sacramento Kings to initiate talks about a deal that could have included Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick.
Rondo has called the constant speculation “annoying,” and acknowledged that the rumors around the trade deadline will only die down until NBA draft time, when the Kings, who are quite interested in Rondo, and have a deep-pocketed owner in Vivek Ranadive who wants to make a major splash to upgrade a mediocre roster, are likely to make another push.
“It’s pretty much the same,” Rondo said Wednesday night. “I think this trade deadline was the most I’ve been in trade talk, pretty much up to the deadline, but it’s not always a bad thing. Somebody wants you. You can look at it two ways. I don’t really choose to let it bother me. I try to continue to go out there and play as well as possible while I’m a Celtic.”
The best strategy for both sides is avoiding sticky situations such as these and for Rondo to continue his recovery peacefully. Ainge, who is on the West Coast scouting college prospects, likely won’t talk to Rondo face to face until next week. The two need to clarify exactly what the team expects from its leader, and Rondo perhaps needs to fully comprehend his responsibilities and understand that sometimes perception is more damaging than reality.
Those outside the organization are reacting more vigorously to this story than those on the inside, but Rondo’s actions undoubtedly irked those who are hoping he realizes how crucial of a role he has in this rebuilding project — for as long as he is here.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe.