In Your Face

12.02.12

Rajon Rondo: NBA’s Most Valuable Rebel

Pushy, combative behavior used to be embraced in professional basketball. Sujay Kumar says the Celtics outspoken point guard should be celebrated for keeping the tradition alive.

Usually in halftime interviews, NBA players whip out stock phrases that all basically boil down to the same bland sentiment: “This game will be decided by point differential.”

But earlier this year, when Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo was asked what holes were being exploited in the Miami Heat defense, the league’s bad boy didn’t hold back: “Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition.”

Twenty-six-year-old Rondo isn’t afraid to smack talk—or literally smack—anyone. He’s been suspended three times in the last 10 months. There was the incident where he threw a ball at a referee. Then he chest-bumped another referee. (He blamed it on a “trip” and “momentum.”) Then last week, he instigated a “pushing war” with Brooklyn Net Kris Humphries. Rondo was banned for two games, and Humphries was left searching for a tetanus shot for the lacerations streaking his shoulder.

The NBA likes to say it’s “Where Amazing Happens,” but historically it’s also been where legendary players get scrappy. Michael Jordan perfected the face-push. Larry Bird put in his application for French Lick’s best boxer. So why is Rondo, one of the best players in the league, criticized for being “dirty”?

Rondo looks less like a point guard and more like a cartoon Spider-Man with broad shoulders, long sculpted arms, and giant hands. A former football star, he was passed up by 20 teams in the 2006 draft before being picked by the Phoenix Suns and then traded to the Celtics.

He’s had to grow up quickly. In his first full season as a starter in 2007–08, Rondo was an unknown, anchoring a “Big Three” of future Hall of Famers: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. They won the championship. Since then, he’s babysat a Celtics team that increasingly looks like it’s ready for a geriatric home. He’s morphed into an all-star and assist machine. Not only is he fun to watch, he’s even embraced the limelight by doing things like interning at GQ and revealing that he loves Rollerblading. All this without smiling, of course.

Even when the Celtics inexplicably thought about trading Rondo last year, he played better, seemingly fueled by anger. Then there was the historic overtime loss to the Heat, when Rondo played every single minute and had 44 points, 10 assists, and 8 rebounds. Even LeBron James was amazed.

Rondo is almost Roger Federer–like. Usually, he’s emotionless. He’ll go through periods where he’s too timid and detached from the game. The next second he’ll slice through defenders at superhigh speed. He gets pummeled, twisted, and tossed around the court by bigger bodies, but you can never tell if he’s even aware that he should be in pain. Rondo’s almost too calm. Until he explodes.

The brawl with Humphries—though no one really needs a reason to smack that guy around—showcased the “Rondo push.” It’s come to be as signature a move as the tear drop and behind-the-back fake. He did it here to Ron Artest. And here to Dwight Howard. And here to Dwyane Wade. He essentially does it any time a friend gets knocked down. Twenty years ago, this may have been fine. But this whistle-happy era is not your father’s NBA. The league has changed since the Malice at the Palace, when fans and players got into a horrific brawl.

Why is Rondo, one of the best players in the league, criticized for being “dirty?”
Rondo Confronts Humphries
After the hard hit on Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett, teammate Rajon Rondo confronted New Jersey Nets' Kris Humphries one on one, and soon it became a free-for-all. (Jim Davis / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

But while today’s players retweet each other and hand out pregame high-fives like they were BFFs, Rondo’s philosophy of treating the opposing team like they’re the enemy is refreshing. He isn’t auditioning for the Portland “Jail Blazers.” He hasn’t choked a coach. He’s not throwing brutal elbows. There’s no malicious intent. He’s just keeping it real. But someone should really tell him you just can’t mess with referees.

This edge is good for the NBA. Why not go back to the days of bad boys? You know, guys with massive egos who talk trash about your mother and shatter your ankles (not literally). As Garnett would say, it’s a bar fight. Rondo, with his cockiness and propensity to take on the league’s best in talent and fisticuffs, is the best at what he does. And in case you weren’t aware of that fact, he’ll be happy to tell you.