A couple of weeks ago, the day after the Celtics won Game 2 of their series against the Cavs in Cleveland, I spent a couple of hours hanging out with Celtics PG Rajon Rondo. Doc Rivers had given the Celts a day off, but instead of me going up to Boston to see Rondo, I only had to travel as far as 57th Street here in Manhattan; with a day to kill, Rondo had stopped in New York City for the day to attend the premiere of Just Wright, in which he has a cameo.
I met up with Rondo in the lobby of the Four Seasons, where he was crashing for the day, and where he was hanging out post-lunch, rocking a white t-shirt, jeans and pair of red Vans. He also had on a pair of customized Celtics headphones with the word “UBUNTU” printed on the side. We went up to his suite and, with TV One playing the background, we talked for a while, about basketball, about life, about how he got to where he is today, about playing with the Big Three, and a lot about fame and how he’s been received and perceived.
The great irony, of course, is that in between me interviewing him and this story dropping in next issue of SLAM (it hits the streets next week, and Ben will do a post on the site when it drops), Rondo has gone from being seen as a key supporting player for Boston to perhaps their most important, from unknown to casual fans to being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
My full interview with Rondo will be in SLAM 140.
For now, here are some bits and pieces…
LW: Last night on TNT, at halftime of the game where you finished with 19 assists, Charles Barkley gave his top three point guards.
RR: I heard, I didn’t see it.
Charles said his top three point guards were number one, Deron Williams, number two was Chris Paul, number three was Derrick Rose. Chris Paul was on the set and he didn’t seem too happy about it.
I heard about that. But Charles, he’s gonna speak his mind.
So my question to you is, where do you think you rank?
Me? I think I’m one. I feel like I’m the best at what I do. That’s just how I put it. That’s how I play. I love my match-ups against those three guys, every time I play against them. I’m biased, but I feel like I’m the best.
Do you play better when you think that way?
I play better, I think, when there’s more pressure on. But I’m still a pass-first point guard. All three of those point guards have different roles, those three guys you named. They have to initiate offense. Speaking of Chris and Deron, every time down they pretty much have to create everything for their teams. Same with Derrick now. Me, the reason I’m probably not considered top three with them is because I’m playing with the Big Three. But that’s people’s opinion. I’ll continue to get better, as I’m sure those guys will. But that’s just people’s opinions. I feel like I’m the best.
But you made the All-Star team this year.
Yeah, but people probably don’t even know I made the All-Star team. Some don’t, some do.
But you played down the stretch when it mattered…
Yeah, but Bron was running the point. I was just out there (laughs).
* * *
LW: You played all kinds of sports growing up, right?
RR: I played, baseball, football, basketball.
What did you play in baseball?
Pitcher and shortstop, some centerfield.
Could you hit?
I could hit a little bit. I played baseball at Oak Hill when I was in high school, actually. I stopped hitting the ball when they started throwing curveballs to me; I couldn’t hit those for nothing. Then I got hit with a ball, and after that it was like, I don’t want to bat any more. Somebody pinch hit for me. I got hit in the leg with a 90 mile an hour fastball. I was like, that’s enough. I’ll stick to basketball.
At some point you must have realized that you had a future in basketball, right?
When I went to Oak Hill. I went to Oak Hill, and I knew Josh Smith was going to the League. I thought, OK, if he’s going to the League out of high school, and I’m just as good as him and put up the same numbers, even though we’re different positions, I was confident. I knew I could play, because we’d traveled across the country playing against the best high school players, going to ABCD camps, playing against guys who were considered pro material like Sebastian Telfair and Shaun Livingston. I was like, I can do this for real. So I got serious and started working at it. That was before my senior year.
When you decide to go to Oak Hill, that’s like going off to college.
You know, I went and didn’t even take a visit. It was crazy. The first two months were the hardest months ever. Because you don’t really know anybody, there’s no cell phone signal, reception.
And it’s in the middle of nowhere.
Middle of nowhere, no money, just stuck on campus, living in a room with a guy you just met. My first roommate was a guy named Marcus Nicks, another point guard. We got along but we were battling for the position. Then me and Josh became roommates and we were tight ever since.
* * *
LW: You got drafted by Phoenix and traded to Boston. Do you ever think about what would’ve happened if you ended up with Phoenix?
RR: I wouldn’t have a ring. I wouldn’t be playing (laughs). I mean, I would be learning the game, but I think the best way to learn the game and get experience is by playing. Playing behind Nash would be a good thing, but I’m probably learning more having the ball in my hands and playing for Coach Rivers, who was a point guard in the League for so long.
Has playing in the NBA been what you thought it would be like?
I didn’t know what to expect, really. I wasn’t a big NBA fan growing up. I didn’t watch it. I just knew it was the highest level of basketball you could be at, and I just wanted to be there.
What was the closest NBA team to Louisville?
Pacers. It’s an hour-and-half drive. I never went to a game.
Had you ever been to an NBA game as a fan before you actually played in a game?
My first NBA game as a fan was a Miami Heat game in the Playoffs in 2006, right before I came to the League. Derek Anderson invited me to a game. It wasn’t the Finals — they did win it that year — but it was the Playoffs. I didn’t watch the NBA until maybe my freshman year of college, because I was trying to get there. It just wasn’t interesting to me.
It’s always funny to hear guys who grew up watching it. Guys your age, their favorite player of all time will be someone who played in the early ‘90s.
Yeah, I don’t know any of those guys. KG always gets on me about that, and the older guys on my team. I mean, I’ve never even seen Jordan play, really. I just didn’t watch it.
So you’d never really seen Kevin play.
Never seen Kevin play.
Do you feel like that puts you at a disadvantage at all?
Nah, not really. Some people try to mimic their games after certain players, but I never really did…
It’s probably a good thing, because you don’t learn any bad habits trying to copy other dudes.
Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing. I don’t think it’s hurt me. I’ve become a student of the game, so I try to get better and watch other point guards, try some of their moves if I like them.
You put Hakeem’s Dream Shake on the Cavs the other night.
I’ve never seen him play, though. I’ve never seen Hakeem play, never seen that move. I always do that move, and Kevin always tells me it’s the Dream Shake. To me, it’s the Rondo Shake.
* * *
LW: Was it hard fitting with Kevin, Paul, Ray and those guys?
RR: No, not really. I’m a little different. I’m never really in awe of people. I don’t get caught up in the moment when I’m playing with people. And if they didn’t want me there I’m sure I’d have been gone. They traded 7 players the year before, so I was there for a reason. And if I didn’t get the job done, I’d have been out of there. It’s a business, and I’m confident in what I do. They respect me, I respect them.
Did you look at it as a business last summer when Danny Ainge was critical about you to the media?
Yeah. Had to. I mean, it was frustrating, of course, hearing stuff like that. Especially after the season we had — I though we had a pretty good Playoffs last year. I thought things were going good, but it seemed like the complete opposite. And I started hearing stuff I hadn’t heard all season, coming out of nowhere. That’s when I learned that business is a part of it, but at the end of the day we got a deal done.
Was that the first time you had to deal with that, the politics? Or the “politricks,” as Rasheed would call it?
Yeah, I would say so. Especially at that level. And the media’s big in Boston. So I was doing an interview for Dunkin’ Donuts, and all the media is doing is asking me about the trade rumors and all this stuff. They just went straight to all that stuff.
They ask like one question about donuts and then ask about Danny Ainge?
Yeah, right, get right to the point. (Anchorman voice) “Well what we really want to ask you…”
Hey, I’ve done it too.
* * *
LW: Do you feel like you’re a role player?
RR: I’m a role player. What did Shaq say? I’m a high-level role player.
Eventually you have to become one of the superstars, right?
Eventually, but they can have it for now. It doesn’t bother me if I’m considered a superstar, as long as I continue to improve on the court and produce.
I don’t believe you that it doesn’t bother you.
It don’t. I feel like I’m the man, that’s how I put it. But if people don’t consider me that, I’m not bothered if you say I’m not a top five point guard. Every night I prove it, but that’s just how it is.
What about wanting to be seen as a superstar not just in the basketball sense, but as a personality, in Boston and around the world?
I don’t like that stuff. I’m fine with not doing that. I’m cool. I don’t have to be the man. I don’t have to be on every billboard in Boston, be the face of the Boston Celtics. If that’s not me, that’s not me. I’m fine. I’m low-key. I don’t really like having the spotlight on me, really. There’s people who want it. And then there’s people who do deserve it, but could care less. Me? I’m cool.