In the face of logic and ravages of age, the Boston Celtics are in the midst of a revival and have a real shot at making a run in the NBA playoffs.
But in Game 1, the Celtics came out flat against the Atlanta Hawks. A bad call on a jump ball caused their point guard to lose his temper and bump a referee. They lost, and had to play the second game without him.
They did win, bringing the series back to Boston tied 1-1. After the game, that guard was apologetic and thankful to his teammates, but also surprisingly brash.
“I feel like we’ve already won the series,” he said.
Meet Rajon Rondo, basketball’s answer to the one and only Pedro Martinez.
★ ★ ★
My personal basketball revival has been a few years in the making. After following the Celtics fervently from early childhood through high school, I lost the team by virtue of losing the sport. As nearly any fan will attest, the NBA of the late 1990s was a sore sight. Beyond Michael Jordan, the league was just the thugs of the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, wrestling each other to the ground by the time the playoffs rolled around. The skill of Magic Johnson was replaced by the flash of Allen Iverson. Instead of Hakeem Olajuwon bringing grace to the front court, Karl Malone would just bulldoze his way to the finals each year. At least Jordan and Pippen were there to stop him.
By the time the second Lakers dynasty was in full swing, I was mostly out of the picture. I kept one eye on the Celtics, paying close attention to Paul Pierce and being mostly amused by Antoine Walker, but the NBA had fallen to fourth or fifth on my own sports list.
That started to change when I moved to Phoenix. There, it was impossible to ignore Steve Nash whipping the ball around the court in all configurations. He was fast, creative and near magical, and whenever his back kept him off the court, the rest of the Suns fell apart. Plus, the Suns were the only team in the area with any sort of passionate fan base, and it was easy to get sucked into the atmosphere of the game.
The next season, the Celtics had their own revival. Kevin Garnet and Ray Allen were brought in to augment Pierce, giving birth to Boston’s second Big Three. Sparking them, though, was a second-year point guard whose skills and maturity were in question all season. Rondo, of course, held his own that season, and in his own way made a name for himself. He wore his headband upside down. He never smiled, but he never scowled, either. I’d never seen a point guard pull down 15 rebounds in a game. He was kind of in his own world, separated from the hype and the spotlight, yet impossible to ignore.
In the coming seasons, the Big Three aged, up to now. Garnett has been reborn as a center. Pierce is the crafty veteran who still lives for the moment. Allen is a threat off the bench. And Rondo has become the singular focus, a player who can drop a triple-double at will. When teams don’t give them his full attention, he makes them pay. When he feels any sort of slight, he explodes. When he’s on national television, he thrives.
He lives for the moment, much like another one of my favorite athletes ever.
★ ★ ★
While the Boston Red Sox have long been New England’s most popular team, the current revival of madness was started by Pedro Martinez upon his arrival in 1998, an ace whose approach could not be matched, a personality bigger than the cramped Fenway clubhouse.
He was fearless. His performance outsized his frame. And he was able to do things on the mound that no one had seen in the game since Sandy Koufax. His command of his fastball, curveball and changeup were unlike anything the Red Sox had ever had.
And he had attitude. Faced with a so-called curse, he called for the masses to “wake up the damn bambino, maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.” Above mere performance, he was brazen. He had style. And he got the job done.
Of course, Rondo falls along those same lines. Whenever reports surface that Danny Ainge wants to trade him, Rondo seems to answer with stretches that leave statisticians shaking their heads.
What do the two athletes share? Incredible focus, blind determination, a love of the spotlight and a casual nonchalance towards their own brilliance. Like Martinez before him, Rondo’s reaction to the amazing always appears to be a non-reaction. When he does something on the court I’ve never seen, like a Houdini pass to Allen at the arc, he acts like it’s 12:15 on a Tuesday. Big deal, been there, what’s next.
He’s consistently amazing. Like Pedro, Rondo gives off a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. Even if he’s not the greatest ever to play the position, a la Magic or Nash, pay attention, because no one has seen anything like him before. We may never see anything like him again.