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No catching Rondo

The Celtics point guard has grown from a lightning quick but inconsistent player to a star of staggering potential

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / May 17, 2009
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The stick-thin boy and his bike crashed to the pavement. Once. Twice. Training wheels were not an option for 4-year-old Rajon Rondo. "They'd slow me down," Rondo told his mother, brushing off a couple bruising tumbles with mounting impatience. At that moment, life was all about racing around his Louisville, Ky., neighborhood with the big kids. About keeping up.

"He was determined not to be left behind," said his older brother William. "By the end of the day, he'd learned how to ride the bike on his own."

There would be no slowing down the future Celtics point guard. As far back as family and friends remember, speed has defined him. Also competitiveness in the extreme, and stubbornness - and that special brand of arrogance so often packaged with a supernatural gift. Rondo has mesmerized and frustrated those who have known him best, and those who have tried to coach him.

He still does. The outcome of tonight's Eastern Conference semifinal Game 7 between the Celtics and Orlando Magic depends, as much as anything, on Rondo being more mesmerizing than frustrating.

"Rondo's a very complex person in a lot of ways because you see this great competitor, you see a kid that works on his game," said Danny Ainge, general manager of the Celtics. "Sometimes, I don't want to say he's misunderstood, but he could make life easier on himself by not being so stubborn. But that stubbornness makes him really good."

Really good, and determinedly elusive. Rondo rarely talks to reporters at any length, and even more rarely opens up. He offers only glimpses of his off-court self, of the man who lights up around his 15-month-old daughter, Ryelle, who dotes on his mother but never mentions his father, who delights in taking local youths from troubled families on shopping trips; of the person behind the inscrutable game face and astonishing talent. As soon as you think you've got him, he's gone in a blur.

But fame is finding him. With Kevin Garnett sidelined by injury, the point guard has enjoyed more of a national coming-out party than he did during last year's championship run. He has earned inclusion with Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen in any conversation about the Celtics' present.

And at 23, he is right at the center of talk about the team's future.

It all starts with his transcendent speed, the power to reach an unmatchable gear and dominate. Former Kentucky men's basketball coach Tubby Smith tried to rein in Rondo for two college seasons and recalled that "sometimes Rajon thinks he can be in two places at one time because he's that quick." When at full speed and fully focused, the 6-foot-1-inch Rondo appears everywhere on the court, a blur of big hands, long arms, and lithe body.

This postseason, he has racked up playoff triple-doubles on a pace equal only to Celtics legend Larry Bird. He stopped chasing the big kids long ago. And that includes the best NBA point guards.

"You don't have to mention me with the top point guards," said Rondo. "I feel I'm with the top point guards anyway. The commentators can say, 'Those [other] guys are the top point guards. They're the future of the league and this and that.' But what they say don't make me go. . . . If I keep working hard, I feel like no one's better than me."

Sometimes his game betrays his words. Despite his championship ring, Rondo plays like someone determined to prove something. The better the opposing point guard, the harder he competes. Edginess simmers just below his expressionless surface. Some part of him is still that kid who would not be left behind.

As soon as the street lights came on, Rajon and his siblings dashed home. No wandering around the neighborhood after dark. Rondo family rules. The front porch became a hub of nighttime activity. Connect Four and card games turned into knock-down, drag-out battles. When Rondo lost to his older brother, he would snap, "Let's go again." He wouldn't stop until he had figured out a way to win. In everything.

"We probably challenged each other on who could eat the fastest," said his first cousin and best friend, Jermaine Bentley.

Rondo remembers a happy childhood, crediting the atmosphere of spirited competition and his tirelessly devoted mother. Amber Rondo worked the third shift at tobacco giant Philip Morris, but saw her children off to school in the morning, drove them to practice in the afternoon, and never missed a game. And Amber kept the family going when the children's father left. Rajon was seven years old.

"As a family, we stuck together and we prayed about it," said William. "We became closer. We just kept moving. We had to keep going. My mother never missed a beat and we didn't either."

When Rajon speaks of his childhood it is as though his father never existed. No self-pity or anger. Just silence. But he is very clear about the kind of father he wants to be to Ryelle.

"Fatherhood has made me more mature," said Rondo. "I never get down too much because I have something to look forward to. She makes me happy. I could be going through anything, but as long as I have her by me, I'm stress-free, worry-free, carefree about the world."

At critical junctures, Amber Rondo was there for Rajon, making sure he kept moving in the right direction. She steered him toward basketball when football was his first love, knowing the sport would be less punishing on his skinny frame. She bridged the divide between Rajon and his coaches, especially early in his career. She backed former Eastern High coach Doug Bibby when he defied the school principal and benched Rajon to try to get his mercurial star's attention.

"It was the right thing to do," said Amber Rondo. "You can't go through life doing whatever you want to do without there being consequences."

She was the one person who could cut through her son's tough-mindedness.

"If it was otherwise, I probably wouldn't have played sports," said Rondo. "I tried to quit high school basketball a couple times."

As a high school freshman, Rondo was suspended from 14 of 28 games for tardiness, missed practices, and study hall absences. Bibby said he "didn't know which Rajon was going to come to practice" or if he would show up.

He tried to reason with his star point guard. Then he tried to run him ragged as punishment. Nothing left an impression. Finally, Bibby benched Rondo whenever he didn't care enough or work hard enough.

Looking back, Rondo said, "I needed that." He needed someone to push him before he could push the Celtics.

"Coach Bibby and I didn't get along at first," said Rondo. "He pushed me very hard. I didn't really care for basketball. So, it was like, 'Why are you pushing me to play or be something I'm not?' I guess he saw something in me that I didn't."

As a sophomore, Rondo missed only a handful of games due to suspension. As a junior, he was a model student-athlete and gained the interest of high school basketball factory Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Rondo transferred from Eastern to Oak Hill for his senior season. At first, the admitted "mama's boy" felt lonely and out of place, and wanted to return home from the isolated Oak Hill campus.

But then he might fall behind. Rondo knew he needed to stay to challenge himself against the best players. He thrived at Oak Hill, outplaying teammates and opponents tagged as potential NBA stars, and catching the eye of Ainge. He began envisioning a professional career.

At Kentucky, Tubby Smith repeatedly asked for patient play - wait for the play to unfold, for the game to come to you. But patience was far from Rondo's mind. He was in a rush to get to the next level, and it didn't matter much to him whether his teammates could keep up.

"He'd want his teammates to run with him," said Smith. "I would tell him, 'Rajon you've got to slow down because you're just so far in front sometimes. It's like a relay. You've got to receive the baton in the exchange zone or we're disqualified.' "

Finally, an exasperated Smith benched the sophomore standout for six games. Rondo was simply not playing within the Kentucky system, yearning for open-court freedom and believing he could rely on natural athleticism. Truth was, the deliberate style of Kentucky basketball never really suited Rondo or his game. The NBA was a better fit. Everyone saw it.

When Rondo declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore season, rumors of a personal conflict between player and coach surfaced. Both men said that was never the case, but Rondo's difficult reputation would precede him into the pros.

"It was a point guard and a coach," said Rondo. "Sometimes we were on the same page. Sometimes we weren't. It's just how it is. It's how me and Doc [Rivers] is. You don't always see eye to eye."

But the rumors hurt Rondo's draft value. Smith talked to Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Ainge prior to the draft.

"He's a little stubborn, but a lot of great athletes have that in them," said Smith. "I don't think I've coached a better athlete than Rajon Rondo at any level. Pound for pound, size for size, I'd put Rajon up against anybody."

By the time the Celtics and Phoenix Suns completed a 2006 draft-night deal for the point guard, Ainge and company knew exactly what to expect. But for Rondo, draft night wasn't what he expected. Being picked No. 21 was a tough lesson in patience. He described the wait to hear his name as "the longest time ever in my life." But his falling draft stock didn't bother him for long. He figured a young Celtics team meant plenty of opportunity to play. Full-speed ahead, again.

When the Celtics gather for post-practice free-throw shooting, Rondo starts chattering away. He jokes. He talks trash. He goes over plays. "People say he's quiet and we say he never stops talking," said Rivers. "That's the facade that Rondo created."

Or maybe it is that Rondo has outgrown the quiet discomfort of a young NBA player finding his place. He acts like a team leader now, like someone confident he will be around awhile.

Despite his obvious talent, Rondo split time at point guard with Delonte West and Sebastian Telfair during his rookie season. As the Celtics limped to a 24-58 record, Rondo averaged 23 1/2 minutes per game. He expected more, and more was expected. The mesmerizing moments were few and far between.

"I've come a long way since my first year," said Rondo. "I had a 'me' aspect instead of a 'we' aspect. I've grown a lot as far as putting the team first."

More playing time has helped him grow. Rondo became the Celtics full-time starting point guard in his second season, taking control of a team with championship intentions.

"I was pretty confident going into last year's playoffs because I didn't have anything to lose," said Rondo. "Everybody expected me to fail and us not to go far because of me."

Now, Rondo is setting the bar higher.

"I do tend to play a little better against those premier guards," said Rondo. "I don't know if it's because I have a chip on my shoulder or what. I'm going to try and break that habit. I'm going to try and average triple doubles against everybody. It's as simple as that."

He knows tonight would be a good time to make good on his plan.

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