Rajon Rondo is the epitome of the cliché about being too smart for your own good. His intelligence is both what makes him an inimitable point guard and an exasperating employee.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge conveyed the essence of Rondo in a Sports Illustrated feature last February: “He’s the smartest guy in the room and the most stubborn,” Ainge said. Rondo always has the answer, always thinks he’s right. Nine times out of 10, he is.
The two keenest, most quick-witted people I’ve come in contact with in this job are Bill Belichick and Rondo. Every interview with Rondo feels like the verbal equivalent of his patented fake behind-the-back move. Now you see it, now you don’t.
But Rondo was flat wrong to skip the team flight to Sacramento last Friday — even for a game he wasn’t going to play in — so he could stay in Los Angeles Saturday and celebrate his birthday. Even one of Manny Ramirez’s ailing abuela stories sounds better than Rondo’s it’s-my-party-and-I’ll-fly-if-I-want-to excuse.
This was that time when No. 9’s mental compass went awry, especially given his mantle as Celtics captain. He undermined and undercut the work of a rookie head coach, Brad Stevens, who has done nothing but compliment and accommodate him. He defaulted on his duty to provide the team with stability and guidance in the middle of a challenging stretch — the Celtics had blown a 13-point lead to the Lakers to lose their third straight game the night Rondo went rogue. He provided fodder for the NBA general managers who think he is a hoops high-voltage line you shouldn’t go near.
You can see the logic of Rondo’s decision to become basketball’s Ferris Bueller. He wasn’t going to play against the Kings because he hasn’t played on back-to-back nights since he returned in January from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The last time he didn’t play in the second game of a Boston back-to-back, against Milwaukee on Feb. 10, he didn’t travel. He had family in LA, and who wants to celebrate a birthday in Sacramento?
(I feel you, Rajon. I celebrated my 29th birthday covering the Patriots in San Jose, Calif.)
In Rondo’s mathematical mind it all added up to not going to Sacramento, whether he sought Stevens’s permission or not. But it doesn’t add up to conduct becoming of a captain.
Some Celtics supporters would like to sweep this incident under the parquet, pointing out that Rondo didn’t get arrested, wave a gun at anyone, or strike his spouse. He went to a birthday party.
This is the nadir we’ve now reached in society? We’re supposed to give an athlete credit for not behaving like a criminal or miscreant? Rondo-philes, you’re working too hard to deploy the intellectual countermeasures here.
This is about more than taking a birthday break. It’s about whether Rondo is the type of personality you can build a team around. It’s about whether he is maturing or just getting older.
Rondo is a math whiz, so he should have figured out the common denominator in his personality clashes — him.
He has had conflicts with his high school coach, Doug Bibby, with his college coach, Tubby Smith, with former Celtics coach, Doc Rivers, with teammates such as Ray Allen, with cameramen, with referees. Remember Rondo was suspended for Game 2 of the playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks in 2012 for bumping an official while protesting a dubious call in Game 1.
He was on his way to breaking Magic Johnson’s record for consecutive games with 10 or more assists of 46 when he was ejected from a game in November of 2012 for pushing now teammate Kris Humphries during a dust-up.
The anti-tanking advocates have spoken of the Celtics’ need to win to cultivate a positive culture. Having a captain circumvent the authority of the coach or disregard it does substantially more damage to that goal than habitual losing.
Rondo and Kendrick Perkins were on the 2006-07 Celtics, which set the franchise record for consecutive losses (18). That didn’t brand them losers for life. NBA players are impressionable, but not that impressionable. Losing can be overcome, losing respect for your coach can’t.
Rondo has made Stevens collateral damage here. The plaudits Stevens earned for getting this team to overachieve early on and consistently play hard are devalued. The real test of this job was being a Rondo whisperer.
If Stevens publicly condemns Rondo, then their relationship could be irrevocably harmed because Stevens doesn’t have the NBA credibility Rivers had.
If Stevens lets Rondo’s transgression slide, it looks like Rondo is pushing him around like a wheelbarrow.
Stevens is in a no-win scenario.
It was typical Rondo that he played arguably the best game of his comeback in the midst of the media firestorm. Rondo had 22 points and 11 assists on Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks at TD Garden as the Celtics snapped their five-game losing streak with a 115-104 victory, improving to 3-11 with Rondo in the lineup this season.
It was also quintessential Rondo — defiant, truculent, inscrutable — after the game, when he poured more kerosene on the situation.
“Nobody knows the story, so you guys can keep making up every story you guys possibly can. It’s my business. It’s my choice,” Rondo told reporters.
That’s Rondo, always right, even when he’s in the wrong.
There is another quote from that Sports Illustrated profile that is instructive.
“Everybody wants to score, score, score,” Rondo told Lee Jenkins. “So, I want to pass. I like to be different. I could never be a follower.”
But before you can learn to lead you have to learn how to follow, or at least follow proper protocol.
Sometimes doing the right thing is more important than being right.