Rajon Rondo was never looking for attention.
It wasn’t there for him anyways, not at first.
Rondo was an unconventional selection for Oak Hill Academy’s point guard. Many wrote him off because of his offensive limitations. But head coach Steve Smith was drawn to Rondo’s court vision and defensive prowess, and even if he didn’t light up the scoreboard, he knew he could count on the senior if he needed a basket.
Scoring in big numbers wasn’t Rondo’s role. That was more of Josh Smith’s game. The current Atlanta Hawks forward was the standout on the team, the hot prospect with sights set on going straight to the NBA. He dunked, he blocked shots, he wowed spectators with his athleticism. In turn, he attracted the attention.
“Josh got most of the limelight,” Oak Hill Academy head coach Steve Smith told CSNNE.com in a telephone interview. “When people would come to do stories on Oak Hill that year, they would always talk to Josh because he was this high-profile guy and Rajon would always take a backseat. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. He would just go out and play. He didn’t care what people said, what they wrote. If they highlighted another player, that was fine with him. He just wanted to win. He’s the main reason we won that year. He’s the guy that made us go.”
That season Rondo let his game do the talking as Oak Hill Academy finished the season a perfect 38-0. He was named to the 2004 McDonalds All-American Team along with players including Smith, Dwight Howard, Rudy Gay, and future NBA teammates Glen Davis, Al Jefferson, and Sebastian Telfair.
Even as Rondo was on the stage of the nation’s top high school basketball players, he never gravitated any more toward the media spotlight.
“He was a confident player,” said Smith. “He thought he was as good as anybody else, maybe he thought he was underrated, especially back when he was in high school. But he wouldn’t go around tooting his horn about it. He kept to himself and he’s not that type of guy. He’s not going to open up to a lot of people but if he gets to know you, he does.”
Smith continued, “He’s always been the type of guy who kind of keeps things close to his vest, doesn’t say much about his past, doesn’t say much about where he came from. To the guy off the street or the people that don’t know him, I think a lot of people might think he’s standoffish or maybe a shy guy. But once you know him, he’s a great guy to be around. I’ve noticed with his friends and with his teammates, he always opened up to those guys a lot more. But he was kind of a quiet guy even at a young age.”
Rondo went on to play two seasons at the University of Kentucky before entering the NBA Draft in 2006. 21 picks into the evening, the Phoenix Suns selected the 20-year-old point guard and traded him to the Boston Celtics.
Rondo’s first role was playing back up to Sebastian Telfair, whom the Celtics had acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers on the same night they traded for Rondo. But when Telfair got injured, the rookie started 25 of his 78 games that season.
That summer Telfair was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the Kevin Garnett trade and combo guard Delonte West was dealt to the Seattle SuperSonics in the Ray Allen deal. That left Rondo at the point.
In only his second NBA season (2007-08), Rondo was running the floor for a trio of future Hall of Famers. And if he didn't want to be in the spotlight, he didn't have a choice anymore.
With the formation of the new Big Three, Paul Pierce, Garnett, and Allen, the Celtics became the hottest team in the NBA and an instant title contender. The influx of media attention was a complete 180 from the previous year in which the Celtics went 24-58 and made headlines for an 18-game losing streak. In just one season, they won a championship.
This sudden change forced Rondo to grow up in front of a larger audience than he had expected.
“I didn’t have that option,” Rondo, now 26, told CSNNE.com. “It was difficult. I didn’t want it, but I guess my play asked for it or grabbed that type of attention. So I’ve tried to embrace it.”
Rondo has established himself as one of the league’s top point guards during his six-year career. He is a three-time All-Star, led all players in steals during the 2010 season, and currently ranks second in assists per game. On Sunday he recorded a jaw-dropping 18-point, 17-rebound, and 20-assist triple-double against the New York Knicks.
Yet over the years, Rondo’s impressive plays on the court have been contrasted with reports of his frustrating behaviors. Talk surrounding personality issues have become nearly as prevalent as discussions about his game and often come up when his name is mentioned in trade rumors.
“I try to keep it even keel on the court, even demeanor, never too high, never too low. But off the court, I think I’m a fun guy to be around, especially if I like you,” he said with a laugh. “I’m pretty much like a go-with-the-flow guy. I’m laidback, I’m very competitive. I pretty much think I can do anything if you put the challenge to me, so I just try to have fun while I’m doing it.”
“Actually, my sister, she calls me Oscar like the grouch because I work her a little bit,” Rondo continued. They get on me, call me a divo. Doc (Rivers), KG, they get on me, say I’m high maintenance. I just try to fly under the radar. I just tell them they’re the same, obviously I’ve learned from guys that’s in front of me (laughs). My coach is a leader, Kevin’s my vet, so if I get it, it’s from them (smiles).”
Said Rivers, “He’s just trying to be a better leader. He’s being consistent at it, he’s doing a great job. I think he’s trying to be more outward. People forget about how young he is. It just takes him some time. We call Kevin that (a divo), we kid around with that. But he has a chance to be better than just a great player. He can be a great leader too. If he can do both, that’s big for our team.”
Rondo didn’t become a basketball player because he wanted to hold press conferences for throngs of reporters. There are the days like February 12 when he posted 32 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds against the Chicago Bulls and did not to speak to reporters after the Celtics win. His lack of a postgame appearance became a topic of discussion in the media.
“It’s about the team,” Rondo explained. “The main thing is that we won, simple as that. Triple-double or not, we got the win. That’s their opinion. I don’t have anything to say to that.”
The reality of the situation, though, is working with the media is part of the gig, especially in a big market such as Boston. While it hasn’t always been easy for Rondo to embrace that side of the job, he knows it is something he has to become accustomed to.
Take a game in January as an example. Ray Allen, one of the league’s most accessible players who addresses the media at his locker before every game, was out of the lineup. Instead, Rondo sat in a chair in the middle of the Celtics locker room. He fielded questions from a circle of reporters for nearly half-an-hour and said he was taking Allen’s place for the night. He was following the advice of his veteran teammate.
“I just told him that he had to seize these opportunities more than let them go by,” Allen told CSNNE.com. “When you’re an athlete and people are curious about what you say, how you think, how you work out, you have to give people that access. At some point, people want to support you more, whether it’s more people coming to games, more people are fans of yours, and you become more likeable. It always has long-term implications. You might make an All-Star Team one year when maybe you’re on the cusp of not making it. All those things have an implication on how your career pans out and how people view you.”
There are times, though, when Rondo would prefer not to let the cameras and microphones in. His community outreach is very personal to him.
Along with the Boston's Got Wings program with Red Bull (in partnership with Boston Parks and Recreation Department) in which he helps refurbish basketball courts around Boston, Rondo also spends time with the MSPCC (Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and other organizations in the area.
He hopes to start an educational community program to offer children a place to go with access to computers and tutors. The building would also include a gym to stress the importance of fitness and give them a fun reward for completing their work.
Rondo prefers the focus to be placed on the cause rather than himself. But just as he has been advised to be more accessible with the media before and after games, he understands spreading the word about his community service can benefit those he is trying to help.
“I try to do a lot of things in the community,” he said. “I don’t want to get a lot of media attention, but at the same time, I want to bring awareness to what things I’m trying to do.”
There is yet another side to Rondo. In addition to the team player who doesn’t seek out individual accolades and the community advocate who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself for helping others, there is a public figure who enjoys being seen in a different kind of light.
As in, lights, camera, action.
Rondo has been featured on magazine covers, is a Red Bull athlete, has a sneaker campaign with Nike, and made a cameo appearance in the movie Just Wright.
“I just turn into a different person,” Rondo said. “I don’t like taking photos in public, but a photo shoot I don’t mind. Something just clicks and I get into a mode. I love clothes and I love to dress up and I just feel different when I have on those clothes.”
He is currently featured as part of Foot Locker's Advantage Academy with Blake Griffin, Amar'e Stoudemire, Russell Westbrook, and Deron Williams. With a beret and glasses, "Mr. Rondo" teaches the "drama of quickness."
“It’s humbling,” he said. “In my house, I have so many different magazines around the house with me on the cover. It’s a blessing, for one. But at the same time, I just try to keep doing what I’m doing best. If I try to keep a clean image, do the right thing on and off the court, then I think those things will continue to come.”
In less than 10 years Rondo has transformed from a high school student who was overshadowed by his teammate to a young NBA champion thrust into the spotlight to one of the league’s most recognizable faces who plays it up for the camera.
And underneath it all remains a fiery point guard who just wants to win.
“It’s very unusual for a guy who is high-profile like he is now,” said Smith. “He’s had a lot personal accolades that I don’t think he really cares about, he just wants to win. I know in Boston he’s like, all I want to do is win again. He wants to win, that’s more important to him than any individual goals.”
Said Rondo, “I just don’t like the attention. I don’t need the attention. I’m fine with who I am. I don’t want to grab the attention and seek attention. As long as the people I’m affecting, as long as I’m touching their lives and they know it’s coming from a good place, I don’t have to have the attention.”
Somebody else can have it.