On a postpractice early afternoon at the Chicago Bulls workout facility, just across from the United Center, the players—stars and scrubs, vets and rooks—have vanished into the bowels of the building to simmer in a whirlpool, stretch a balky back, grunt and heave in the weight room. The gaggle of journalists has packed it in, too, save for a straggler murmuring questions to one of the athletes.
Suddenly, having not so much appeared as materialized, Rajon Rondo is beside me. I knew I’d spaced out a little waiting on him. Still, it was a pretty neat trick, the kind of magician’s stealth, I imagine, that has made the Bulls’ new point guard one of the deftest passers and craftiest thieves in NBA history. (He ranks in the top 30 all-time in both assists and steals per game.) As Jimmy Butler put it earlier in the day, Rondo has an uncanny ability to see “things before they develop”—even and especially one of his not-so-favorite things: doing an in-depth interview.
But prescience and caginess are not the only qualities he’s known for. He also has a way of getting in your face—or at least the faces of coaches, refs, and opponents—a notoriety that has dogged him throughout his career and is the chief reason he finds himself here in Chicago, playing for his fourth team in three seasons.
He is a man full of contradictions—prodigy smart and ruthlessly competitive on and off the court. (Just ask the teammates he’s schooled in his favorite off-hours obsession, Connect Four.) But he’s a genius who repeatedly does dumb things: picking fights with coaches, getting baited into on-court spats and shoving matches, and, in one case last December, unleashing a homophobic rant at a ref.
At the moment, though, having lanked over to a set of bleachers along the facility’s west wall and leaned his elbows up on one of the slats, legs splayed before him on the gleaming wood floor, Rondo, 30, lolls with an almost Zen-like calm.
I had been forewarned that this interview could go a few different ways—that Rondo, depending on his mood, could be combative, surly, contrarian, thoughtful, generous, or all of the above, all in the space of a few minutes. That made me a bit nervous as I read off to him a list of words that coaches, teammates, and sports pundits have used to describe him: eccentric, mercurial, enigmatic, quirky, odd, unconventional, and, hardest for me to get out, a cancer.
What comes to mind, I ask him, when he hears those?
As he considers the question, I study his face. It’s a complex face that, like the man himself, is inscrutable: soft and fierce, boyish and hardened. His eyes are wide set and scaffolded by slanting brows. The forehead, high and smooth, tapers down to a long chin. His head is small—at least for his broad shoulders and preternaturally long arms and ball-mauling hands. All this combines to give him the look of another creature considered both noble and disquieting: a praying mantis.
After a few moments, he looks up at me.
“If you don’t know me personally, if you don’t know what I’ve put into this game, then I could give two shits about what you write about me or what you think about me,” he says, his face and demeanor remaining placid. “I am who I am. I’m unique. I’m my own self.”
He lets a beat pass.
“I’m a poet.”
It was an unexpected but in some ways absolutely apt response to a question that has evaded the understanding of even those who know Rondo and count themselves among his biggest admirers and best friends: Who is he, really?
The question is particularly pertinent to Bulls fans still reeling from a Game of Thrones off-season that saw the departure of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, two core members of a team that, until last season, had seemed ascendant. That one of their replacements was Rondo unsettled fans even more.
“Chicago Bulls Unwise to Buy into Rajon Rondo’s Heavy Baggage,” blared the headline of a Sports Illustrated article that graded the signing an F.
“Chicago Bulls’ Rajon Rondo Signing Makes No Sense,” echoed Forbes.
“What a fucking joke,” one wag (“your friendly BullsBlogger”) added in a post for SB Nation. “A giant middle finger from [management] to Bulls fans.”
The skepticism was the only thing not stunning about the deal. Consider: Since Rondo seized the NBA spotlight in 2008 as a pivotal cog in the Boston Celtics’ most recent championship run, his career has been marked at every stop by controversy of one sort or another. First came a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for large parts of two seasons, the kind of chilling occurrence certain to cause ugly flashbacks to Rose. Then there was the bickering with head coaches, starting with the frequent jawing on the sidelines with the Celtics’ Doc Rivers, with whom he reportedly almost came to blows; after that, the rocky relationship with the Dallas Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle, who benched him repeatedly; and finally last year’s season-long strain with George Karl, then of the Sacramento Kings.
On the court, Rondo has flourished—at least stats-wise. But he’s also racked up a portfolio of suspensions—six games in all, including five alone in 2012 for making contact with one referee, for flinging a ball at another, and for taking part in an on-court fight.
Some of his run-ins came against a player who is now his teammate: Dwyane Wade. The two first scuffled in the 2011 Eastern Conference championship, an altercation that left Rondo with a dislocated elbow. Then in the 2012 conference finals, Rondo was hit with a flagrant foul after he yanked Wade midair on a lay-up. Rondo’s response? It was Wade who was the “dirty player.”
Two other factors seemed to argue against a Rondo signing: Under Bulls president John Paxson, the team has portrayed itself as committed to “character guys.” And its general manager, Gar Forman, justified trading Rose and Noah by saying the team wanted to get younger and more athletic. Rondo is certainly the latter, but at 30 years old—what many pundits call a “hard 30”—he doesn’t exactly seem the linchpin of a youth movement.
Given the seeming contradictions, I asked the team’s head coach, Fred Hoiberg, about the rationale. In answering, he defended both the decision and the player. Far from being a distraction, Rondo “instantly brought the young guys in and took them under his wing and worked them out every day,” Hoiberg said. “He’s the best voice on the floor that we have. His ability to be vocal in our coverages and plays makes it easier on everybody. It rubs off on everybody.”
Before the signing, in fact, Hoiberg sat down with Rondo to review film. The coach came away convinced that this was the point guard he was looking for to run an upbeat offense. “He’s one of the top guys in the league at getting the ball up the floor in a hurry,” Hoiberg told me. “If our guys are willing to run every possession, we’re going to get some easy shots at the rim, and we haven’t been getting those.”
As for meshing with the team’s two other alphas, Butler and former nemesis Wade? “I’ve liked what I’ve seen,” Hoiberg said. “They’ve all bought into a leadership role, and when you’ve got as many young players as we do on this roster, you’re going to need multiple leaders.” For his part, Rondo has been nothing if not deferential, telling reporters in his first press conference, “This is Jimmy’s team.”
That’s not to say that Hoiberg didn’t seek assurances. One of the first people he talked to, the Mavericks’ Carlisle, turned out to be a most unlikely advocate. “He came up to me and said, ‘You know, I think you and Rondo are going to be great,’ ” Hoiberg recalled. “You’ll be great for him, and he’ll be great for you.”
Rondo shares that view. “[Hoiberg’s] personality is different than every other coach I’ve played for,” he tells me. “He’s pretty quiet. He’s not as dominant. He’s not micromanaging every play like a god. I don’t want to play for a coach who wants to stand up and call every play, so it kind of worked out both ways.”
He adds, “We’re not always going to agree. That’s just part of it. We’ll continue to grow and go from there.”
Easy to say. But what happens when they do disagree? Perhaps vehemently?
“We come in the next day and we talk as men and we go from there,” Rondo says. “We both have a job to do. You can’t let emotions get involved with what the common goal is: to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”
One thing you can say about Rondo: He’s blunt. If he doesn’t agree with the premise of a question, for example, he lets it be known. Like when I ask whether it’d be silly to interpret his move to the Bulls as a chance for a “fresh start.”
Why should he need a fresh start? he presses. “I think I had a great year last year. I had the referee incident, but I don’t think that has anything to do with my basketball play.”
Indeed, his 11.7 assists per game for the Kings equaled a career high. And his 3-point shooting, at 36 percent, was his best ever. Yet he was criticized by observers for not elevating the rest of the team’s play and for generally being a pain in the ass.
Even Hoiberg’s praise, while appreciated, is, in Rondo’s mind, just a simple statement of fact. “Maybe I’m looking at it wrong, but I don’t really doubt myself too much,” Rondo says.
Be it cockiness or candor, such pointedness has marked his personality since his boyhood days in Louisville, Kentucky. Take his view of his father’s leaving the family when Rondo, the middle of three children, was in elementary school. That had to have been hard, I venture.
Rondo shrugs. “It wasn’t too painful. I was so busy.”
One thing that kept him occupied was sports. Was basketball his true passion? Not really. “It was just kind of something to do,” he says. “I thought at first I was going to be an NFL quarterback. I played until I was a freshman in high school. Then, once I started to become better than a lot of my peers [in basketball], people thought I had a really good chance. I tried to get focused and just lock in.”
His analytical ability (he was by all accounts something of a math whiz in school), combined with his big hands and long arms, made him a natural point guard. His brainpower also helped him excel at that other game he picked up as a child: Connect Four. “I beat everyone who would come over,” he says. “I would always try to be two or three steps ahead of my opponent, and I guess it’s the same thing on the court.”
After playing two seasons at the University of Kentucky, he was thought of highly enough to be the first point guard taken in the 2006 NBA draft—though not highly enough for the Phoenix Suns, who took him with the 21st pick, to keep him. They immediately traded him to the Celtics.
The doubters wasted little time. “When I first came into the league, they thought I would be a bust,” Rondo recalls. “I remember one article when I got drafted, the local newspaper in Kentucky, the reporter had so many things to say about how I wouldn’t make it in the league and this and that.”
Rondo quickly proved him wrong, helping a superstar-laden Celtics team to a championship in his second season and making the All-Star team four years in a row, from 2010 to 2013. Things began to unravel, however. The 2012–13 season started well—Rondo went 13 straight games with 10 assists or more. But that streak ended when he was ejected—and suspended for two more games—for fighting with Kris Humphries after the former Mr. Kardashian hard-fouled Rondo’s teammate, Kevin Garnett. (Garnett, with whom Rondo is still in touch, once described Rondo as “the most probably hated” player in the league.)
Then, that January, Rondo tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Midway through the 2014–15 season, as part of a rebuilding move, the Celtics traded him to the Mavericks. After Dallas dumped him at season’s end, he signed a one-year deal with Sacramento. There came the encounter that caused perhaps the most damage to an already controversial résumé.
After being slapped with two technicals by referee Bill Kennedy, Rondo called the official a “faggot” twice. He was suspended for a game, and Kennedy subsequently came out as gay. Rondo twice tweeted what he considered apologies (“My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period!” read the first one) but was forced to issue a third after a barrage of criticism that the earlier statements were inadequate: “I want to be clear, from the bottom of my heart that I am truly sorry for what I said to Bill.”
When I ask Rondo about the incident, his PR representative interrupts. “I think we can move on at this point,” she says. But Rondo insists on answering. “I would do it differently,” he admits.
In signing Rondo, the Bulls’ front office has largely avoided questions about his temperament. Instead, the focus has been on his toughness and ferocity as a competitor. “He is a battle-tested veteran who has been an All-Star and NBA champion,” Forman said in a statement after the signing. “He is a terrific distributor and playmaker who we feel will be a great addition to our team.”
But for how long? Rondo’s $28 million, two-year deal is reportedly really a one-year deal with a “mutual” option for the second year, meaning that both the team and Rondo must want him to stay. Whether it’s with the Bulls or another team, Rondo plans to keep playing for a while. “I feel like I have at least seven or eight more years,” he says. “I take great care of my body, so me being at the end of my career, I don’t think that.”
As for questions about his character, Rondo again shuns the pat answer. No, his temper is not gone, he says, nor is the passion, the intensity, or the competitiveness. But he has begun using meditation to help center himself. “I started that last year,” he says. “I just ground myself and think positive thoughts. I do it the night before a game. Right now, I’m doing it before the game as well.” Bottom line: “I just have to be careful when I say things.”
Otherwise, he doesn’t “give a damn” about the criticism, he says: “The world feeds off of negativity. That’s in sports, that’s in life, period. That’s the bed I’m in right now, but it doesn’t keep me from going to sleep at night. It doesn’t keep me from doing the things I want to do with my family or positive things I try to do in the community.” (Rondo has two kids with a former longtime girlfriend.)
In that regard, he made his presence felt in town even before he joined the Bulls. Last year, while still in Sacramento, he worked with a Chicago branch of the NAACP to arrange—anonymously—for a limo to pick up 10 middle school boys from the West Side’s Garfield Park and take them downtown to Del Frisco’s, where he joined them for dinner. “I kind of related so much with them and I wanted to be of help,” Rondo explains. “They didn’t have any positive males in their lives. I thought I had it bad growing up, but to hear their stories was incredible.”
As he thinks back on that night, Rondo does something he is not known for: He smiles.
And then emerges a partial answer to the riddle that is Rajon Rondo. He tells me that his coach in high school gave him a piece of advice: “When you’re down, you may be bawling on the inside, but at the same time, you don’t want to show your cards; just keep a poker face and go back to dig in.”
The philosophy stuck. “I try to smile a little bit more, but at the same time, this is how I play the game,” he says. “Your teammates can’t see the up and downs, the emotional hijacks. It’s just got to be a steel poker face; go out there and lead the troops.”
Beyond that, the poet shrugs. “This is who I am,” he says. “I’m going to be me until I go in the grave.”