MEXICO CITY — You can always tell when Rajon Rondo is truly annoyed by a media request or when he wants you to think he is. On Wednesday, he was delighted by the crowd who chased him around the floor at the Arena de Ciudad Mexico to grab a few minutes.
And, of course, he recognized the Boston reporters who wanted more information about his recent journey, the abrupt trade from the Celtics to the Mavericks, his embarrassing tenure with Dallas and clash with coach Rick Carlisle, and now a resurgent season with the Sacramento Kings.
Rondo, the league's assist leader and owner of four triple-doubles this season, will face his former team in the NBA's Mexico City Games on Thursday evening. It would not be genuine Rondo if he carried a "it's great to be here" mentality.
He was brutally honest about the past two years and his perception in the league that he is a malcontent. The Mavericks sent him home during the playoffs because of his attitude and lack of production. Instead of cashing in on potentially a maximum contract — something he targeted during his final year with the Celtics — he agreed to a one-year, $9.5 million deal with Sacramento to resurrect his career.
Kings coach George Karl has given Rondo the freedom he didn't have in Dallas, and he is putting up Rondo-type numbers. His 12.9-point average is his highest since 2012-13, the year he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament. And the onetime disaster from the 3-point line is shooting a respectable 35.4 percent.
"It was a learning experience," Rondo said of his time in Dallas. "Obviously, it didn't mesh well. Whether it was Coach [Carlisle], it was what it was. No excuses. I don't really live in the past. I'm here with a great team, a great coach, and we're trying to compete for the playoffs.
"I'm not playing to get on the radar. I just want to win. I do what I have to do on the court and I feel like I'm still one of the best point guards ever to play the game. I'm a pass-first point guard. I know how to run the show and George has given me the keys to run the show."
There lies the key to Rondo's success. A coach allowing him the autonomy to run an offense, giving him that ultimate trust. Rondo believes he is owed that luxury. Carlisle didn't feel that way. Since Rondo clashed with Doc Rivers, clashed with teammates at times, and would sometimes pass up an easy layup for the sake of recording an assist, the perception was that he was an aging player who no longer deserved frontline point guard status.
"It doesn't make me feel any way," Rondo said of the adulation received this season. "I'm going to [be] me regardless. My year in Dallas wasn't the best. I think I actually got off to a good start in Boston [in 2014-15] before the trade. My numbers weren't down. The trade happened, I got to a new team, try to learn the style of play, try to get to know new players who need the ball just as much as I did, obviously it didn't work for me."
Rondo may have been embarrassed by his Dallas tenure, which included being dismissed from the court after an argument with Carlisle in a game against Toronto, but he maintains he never lost his confidence.
"I never doubted myself," he said. "How the game went, the last three or four months, was the way it went."
After being so reflective, Rondo was asked what it meant for the NBA to play a game in Mexico City, and he wasn't going to play politician: "You've got to ask the NBA, man. They made us come here. I've been here for six hours, so it's hard to say [whether I like it]. The NBA tells us to do what we need to do and we have to do it."
Rondo won't dismiss his time in Boston, winning a championship at age 22, developing into a four-time All-Star, dealing with a torn ACL and dislocated elbow, practice scraps with his teammates, and emerging from the 21st overall pick with an awkward game to one of the league's great distributors and floor leaders. That all happened in Boston, and Rondo acknowledged his return to the city with the Kings in February will be a special game.
Privately he craves the respect of Celtics fans. He wants to be revered. He wants the Celtics to at least consider retiring No. 9.
"I spent nine years of my life, all my 20s, in Boston," he said. "It's something I'll never forget. It was a great learning experience. I played with Doc eight of those years and the last year with Brad [Stevens]. There's a lot of things I've learned. Both great coaches and it's helped me in my career."