Rajon Rondo will be back, but to understand why the NBA will miss him while he's gone, we should probably start by talking about this video. The one where Rajon Rondo is doing 100 different bizarre ball tricks after the opening tip of every Celtics game. That'll always be my favorite Rondo highlight, because there's nobody in the NBA who would ever give us anything like it.
Aside from being a great player, Rondo's also the strangest superstar in the NBA. The closer you watch him, the harder it is to describe what you see.
Look at this Boston Magazine piece from Alan Siegel where he takes 19 different NBA writers trying to describe what makes Rondo so much fun. Bill Simmons called him a cat, SB Nation's Tom Ziller called him the Queen on the Celtics chess board and Canada's Bruce Arthur called him "an eccentric little basketball wizard." Last May he played 53 minutes and scored 44 points with 10 assists against the , and I called him an obnoxiously brilliant superfreak. He ties your brain in knots.
As a player: You never know when he'll explode like he did in that Heat game or whether he'll decide to be just a great pass-first point guard instead of the best player on the floor. Maybe he's the belligerent teammate who the Celtics spent two off-seasons dangling in trade talks and (maybe) drove off Ray Allen, but more and more he's become the killer who KG, Doc Rivers, and Paul Pierce would choose from a hundred other players in the NBA.
To take one anecdote from an old Adrian Wojnarowski article:
Rondo was a young guard during the Celtics' championship chase in 2008 when a teammate remembered one of the coaches giving him a Hawks playbook to study overnight. They were in the opening-round series, and the coaching staff outlined the top 15 or so plays Atlanta would likely run on Rondo. The next day, the coach quizzed Rondo on the plays. He asked about three or four, and Rondo ran through the details for him. And then, the coach asked about another play in the book – only Rondo shot back that it wasn’t in the book, that the Hawks didn’t run the play. ... That’s Rondo, and that’s part of one of the most beautiful minds in basketball.
As the years have passed, everyone's slowly caught on to what makes him great.
I was watching Rondo on All-Star Saturday night in Orlando last year. All night long, the NBA's biggest superstars were sitting courtside for all the different events, and every time a new superstar would pop out of the tunnel, guys like LeBron and Wade would move down to make room in the front row. Then Rondo came out about halfway through the night and nobody moved. So instead of sitting with every other All-Star that night, Rondo just stood about 30 feet away, watching by himself behind the baseline. I would've felt bad, but it was all too perfect.
Of course he didn't try to squeeze in next to LeBron and Wade and Westbrook and Durant. He gives no fucks about being part of the NBA superfriends. He wouldn't really fit. And that's why it's been so much fun watching him turn into a superstar anyway.
Rondo's not gone for long, and this isn't a eulogy or anything. In the grand scheme of things, missing a year shouldn't be that big of a deal, and he'll be back melting our brains soon enough. But to understand why basketball addicts were so depressed by Sunday's news, you have to understand Rondo as more than just a good player. His weird, OCD antics will make you laugh. He'll make you gawk as he wraps his endless limbs around and somehow through the defense. His presence will makes the Celtics competitive, always, even though he'll sometimes disappear and drive you crazy. And then sometimes he'll hit another level where he becomes unstoppable and leaves everyone kinda dumbfounded.
It's all there, distilled into one gawky weirdo. The guy who's incredible and hilarious, tougher and smarter than anyone realizes, moody or the perfect teammate depending on whose story you're reading, but always hypnotic because you never know what's coming next, even as you're trying to figure out what you just saw. The current Celtics team may be dead now, but here's to hoping Rondo comes back and better and stranger than ever, because there's just nobody else like him. The one NBA superstar who doesn't fit with the rest sorta personifies why we love the whole league.