Love Him Or Loathe Him, Rajon Rondo Was Truly One of a Kind

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Well, doesn’t this just fit the narrative of the mercurial, mesmerizing Rajon Rondo. Right when you think you’re about to solve one of the lingering mysteries about him, he goes off in another direction.

It’s a small thing, this silly recent obsession of mine, no big deal unless basketball is a big deal to you.

I’ve long wondered how he pulled off that particular flashy and unique dribble in his overflowing bag of point-guard tricks.

Yeah, you know the trick. No, not the Plastic Man fake-behind-the-back-pass-turned-scooped-layup. The other one. The one that looks oh-so-casual and like a mirage all at once, the behind-the-back bounce that seems to travel counterclockwise to every other action on the court, the one that freezes the defender no matter whether Rondo is on the fly or setting up the offense, the one that looks like a carry yet it is not a carry at all, the one that made you appreciate his talent for tormenting an opponent on a whim and left you aggravated that he did it only on a whim.

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Yeah, you know the one. This one, right there at the 11-second mark:

I think I’ve figured out the basketball physics off it. I’ve figured out his sleight of hand. Yessir, after eight-plus seasons of watching Rondo dazzle distinctively and with world-class distinction, of watching him emerge as the mercurial, essential kid brother to three superstars on the 2007-08 champs to the supremely skilled but scarred veteran on this year’s fledgling rebuilding project, I figured out how he does that one particular #*@*# dribble.

And the trick? The basketball never touches his other hand. It’s a one-handed behind-the-back dribble, and it’s just as ridiculous in execution as it is ridiculous that it took me so long to solve it.

Or sort of solve it. Semi-solve it, maybe. I mean, I’m pretty sure that’s how it works, what I’m seeing there. That’s what it looks like on slo-mo replay I’ve watched so often that Tommy Heinsohn’s “Put THAT on the REEL!” bellow echoes in my mind long after I’ve escaped the delightful YouTube rabbit hole of Rondo highlights. But I still can’t quite tell with 100-percent certainty that there’s nothing more to it. I’m gonna have to go watch it another dozen times to be sure.

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Only Rondo, man. Only Rondo can inspire you to write 300 words on one trick in his repertoire on the morning after he says goodbye. He was a polarizing figure here, probably the most polarizing Boston athlete since Manny Ramirez, and I don’t know about you, but I adored the individual genius of each of them. I miss Manny, six years after he left. I already miss Rondo, and damn do I envy Dallas fans who get to watch him work with Dirk Nowitzki.

The trade is good for him, good for the Mavs, and good for the Celtics too. They got three useful players, another No. 1 pick, and a trade exception that is as intriguing as a trade exception can possibly be. He’s almost 29, is wasted on a lousy team, and could walk away at season’s end. The time was right. That doesn’t mean it’s fun seeing the last vestige to the beloved 2007-08 champs depart. That unforgettable season cannot be so long ago already.

Yeah, I know some around here won’t miss Rondo. Like I acknowledged, he’s polarizing, and a polarizing player with obvious flaws (such as 33 percent shooting from the foul line and 41 percent from the field) is going to have his detractors. It was always complicated.

He could be stubborn and petulant, fully aware of his own brilliance and unafraid to wield it. He didn’t bang his head on the stanchion like Kevin Garnett or wear his heart on his sleeve like late-career Paul Pierce; he almost dared you to dislike him, and some were all too willing to do so. He was perceived and portrayed as an enigma wrapped in riddle, tangled in eccentricities, and wheeling around on roller skates while playing a game of Connect 4.

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He certainly was different, unlike any other player we had ever seen. His most similar player in terms of career quality and shape based on win shares is Phil Pressey’s dad Paul, which really doesn’t work at all. To me, this distinctiveness is another reason to appreciate him. In terms of attitude — whether we’re talking toughness, confidence, or even occasional indifference — I’ve always thought he shared a commonality of spirit with a favorite of a different era, Dennis Johnson.

Staying in the great ’80s for a moment, consider this: Had someone asked you in advance of the 2006 NBA Draft which prospect had the most in common with Larry Bird, you would have said Adam Morrison, and don’t even bother denying it. The answer is Rajon Rondo. I’m not making a direct comparison. That would be foolish. But they have more than a couple of traits in common, some of which are actually held against Rondo.

It’s true. We can start with toughness (Rondo played with a dislocated elbow after Dwyane Wade’s cheap shot — that was the equivalent of Bird banging his chin on the floor against the Pacers in ’91), but there’s also stubbornness (a trait New Englanders possess and should appreciate in Rondo), hyper-competitiveness (neither had any interest in befriending opponents), otherworldly creativity (inbounding the ball off Wade’s back) …

… hustling to the point of embarrassing an opponent (in this case, Jason Williams) …

… and most relevantly — and this is the one that for some ridiculous reason is attributed to Rondo as a flaw — plays his best when the spotlight is brightest.

Remember the 29-point/18-rebound/13-assist masterpiece against LeBron James and the Cavs in the Eastern semifinals in 2010, when the Celtics trailed the series 2-1? Or Game 2 of the East finals against LeBron’s Heat in 2012, when Rondo had 44 points, 10 assists, and 8 rebounds? There aren’t many players in the league who can say they’ve been the best player on the court in a meaningful game against LeBron. Rondo has done it twice. He had more than his share of moments against Derek Rose, too.

I’ll miss watching him rise to the occasion in those moments here, and I’m certain the Connect 4 whiz who’s also a genius at connecting five on the court will do the same for Dallas. I’ll miss those abstract and full stat lines — in his final Celtics game he had 13 points, 15 assists and 7 rebounds in a win over Orlando, a perfectly Rondoian way to go out.

He has one more game at the Garden this season, however. Rondo returns with his new Mavericks teammates on January 2, and I can tell you two truths about that right now:

Beneath the bright lights in his old city, he’s going to put on a show. As if he wouldn’t be motivated enough, the game has been moved to prime-time. Put him down for a triple-double right now.

Also: The Celtics production team that puts together those superb welcome-home video montages had better get to work on the highlight video now. Because there is a hell of a lot to choose from. Might I suggest including a certain dribble-move?

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