LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The line to the best basketball camp in America, as its founder Rajon Rondo likes to call it, starts forming around 7:45 a.m., before the sun really starts cooking during the annual furnace of a southern summer.
Scores of boys and girls ages 6 through 16 don Celtics No. 9 jerseys and shirts, green socks, shorts, shoes, wristbands, and headbands. Around 8 a.m., the MidAmerica Sports Center, a large complex featuring five full-length basketball courts, opens its doors. An hour later, another day at Camp Rondo, now in its eighth year, begins.
The campers file onto the main court, where a large banner of Rondo dribbling a ball in a white Celtics jersey hangs behind a basket. Later that day, the real-life version walks in and children start chanting his name.
A mob forms, swallowing Rondo. He palms a ball in his catcher’s mitt-sized hands, holding it above their heads as they jump, trying to reach it. He smiles and laughs. They all do.
“I don’t know who enjoys this more, myself or the kids,” Rondo said.
He shakes hands with almost everyone in the building, does Q&A sessions, hops in games, and chats with campers and parents that he’s known for years, since he started the camp in his hometown the summer after his 2006-07 rookie season in Boston.
Numerous professional athletes hold sports camps, but all too often those athletes make one short appearance, only to sign autographs or take pictures.
Rondo, as usual, is different.
“Will we see you tomorrow?” campers ask as they head out after the daily session that ends at 4 p.m.
“I’ll be here every day,” Rondo tells them.
And he is.
His passion for working with youths is well known through his many charity efforts, which the NBA honored him for last December. He prefers to keep such events private, so many don’t see that side of him.
But here, that passion is on full display.
“He just loves children,” says Rondo’s mother, Amber. “He loves being around them. It’s just his nature.”
Every session they’ve ever held has been a sellout, and 336 have paid the $225 entry fee to attend the five-day period that opened Monday, said Doug Bibby, the camp’s director and Rondo’s basketball coach at Eastern High School in Louisville.
They come from all over. Four families recently trekked from Alaska, Bibby said. Two more came from Albuquerque, five from California. They come from Philadelphia, Virginia, and all over New England.
“That’s why I want to be here every day,” Rondo said. “If you have kids coming from, say, Philadelphia, they didn’t come to see me for one day. I try to come every day and show up and actually go on the court and speak to a lot of people.”
Last summer, Rondo couldn’t participate as much because he still was recovering from knee surgery. But he’s typically as active as possible.
“I want to be able to play with the kids,” Rondo said. “I like interacting with them. You know, rough them up a little bit, play a little one-on-one.”
Ever the competitor, one of Rondo’s favorite activities is joining losing teams mid-scrimmage so he can help lead a comeback.
“Yeah, if I can help them in time, I’ll do it,” he said. “If not, well, there’s only so much I can do. The little guys over here, like the 6-year-olds, they’re the best to have fun with, especially because we lower the rims and I get to dunk.”
But Rondo and Bibby also consider the camp to be much more than a meet-and-greet with a big name, especially because of how far some travel to attend it.
“We owe them a good show,” Bibby said. “We owe them everything we got.”
As many as 30 counselors assist campers through drills that emphasize ball handling, passing, shooting, defense, post moves, physical fitness, and more, with everything regimented down to the minute.
“They learn a lot,” Rondo said, adding that his staff deserves the bulk of the credit.
“It’s not just come here, throw up a ball, and you play. Each day is different. They learn something every day.”
Rondo added, proudly, “I think it’s the best camp in America.”
Bibby, a math teacher who once had Rondo in class, began one morning by stressing academics, the word of the day. Bibby also pointed out teamwork, citing the San Antonio Spurs’ recent NBA Finals demolition of the Miami Heat.
“[The Spurs] might not have had the best athletes on the floor,” Bibby said, “but they always had the best team.”
He asked how many Celtics fans were in the crowd. Many cheered. He asked how many Rondo fans there were. Everyone cheered.
Then Bibby explained a chant that they would all learn, one patterned after Rondo’s close friend Kevin Garnett. Campers were asked to beat their chest twice and then shout as loud as possible, just as the former Celtics icon always did to get hyped up.
“We call it the KG,” Bibby said. Their roars echoed off the walls. After that, hours of drills and scrimmages began.
Parents often say their kids quickly fall asleep on the car ride home.
“They’re wore out,” Rondo said. “That says it was a good day.”
Rondo sometimes can carbon date campers’ attendance based on their official camp shirts.
Some longtime returnees wear the Reebok gear the camp distributed back when that company was his sponsor; some wear Nike when it sponsored Rondo; and this year, many wore Anta, a Chinese sports apparel brand that teamed up with Rondo last year.
But there’s something else.
“It’s crazy — when I see their faces, I remember,” Rondo said.
He paused after spotting someone.
“See that woman over there?” he said, pointing.
She’s from Louisiana, he explained, where she does charity work with kids. She’s been coming to the camp for years. She came to the Celtics’ game in New Orleans last season.
“See that guy over there?” Rondo said, pointing toward a tall counselor.
He and Rondo have known each other since they were 8.
“I’ve got relationships with a lot of people here — a lot of people,” Rondo said.
Family members run the registration desk — his fiancee, mother, brother, sister, cousins, others. Childhood friends are all around, many of them counselors who have helped out since the camp began.
Rondo has plans beyond basketball, and the camp plays a role in that.
“I want to run a couple businesses when I’m done. I want to employ a lot of people,” Rondo said. “That’s why I love doing my camps. We might have more [counselors] than we need, but it’s still good.”
The camp serves other, more personal, purposes, too.
“I didn’t have a lot growing up as a kid, so I just try to give back,” Rondo told the Globe late last season.
And he said that sentiment still drives him here.
“I humble myself by thinking about where I come from,” he said.
And so he’ll sit at the table near the door where campers will pass by on the way out with their parents. He shakes hands. He calls people by name.
“Will we see you tomorrow?” the campers say.
“I’ll be here every day,” Rondo says.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.