Now that it's really over, there's not much point in overanalyzing it. Rajon Rondo is gone, and even though we spent literally years anticipating that this would happen, it still feels empty and harrowing and a little disgusting that it's now a reality. Rondo is now a Dallas Maverick, and the Celtics' identity as we once knew it is torn to shreds. That hurts.
This may ultimately prove to be a good trade. It may not. I'm really not sure, and I won't lose sleep over it either way. To me, that's not the point. While I like Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder, and I'm intrigued by what Danny Ainge can do with three first-round picks in the 2015 draft, and I'm excited to see how Marcus Smart responds to the additional playing time, it's hard to think deeply about any of those things right now.
What the Celtics really gave up last night, in addition to a four-time All-Star point guard in his prime who happened to be on an expiring contract, was the last gasping breath of a distinct era in franchise history. Rondo was a Celtic for parts of nine seasons; for six of them, the team was a serious playoff threat and one of the most compelling stories in the NBA. They even got to raise the 17th (and possibly last, for a good long while) championship banner to the TD Garden rafters. Rondo was a great player in Boston, but he was more than that. He was a part of history, and for a franchise that values history more than just about any other in American sports. That's a hard thing to trade for bench guys and draft picks. Again, not saying it's wrong, necessarily - just that it's hard.
I love analyzing the game of basketball more than anyone loves anything, but on a personal level, I'm also quite nostalgic and have trouble sometimes with change. Seeing Rondo go was difficult for me. I'm still working on processing it, truth be told.
I first came into contact with Rajon Rondo in 2009. I was a 23-year-old kid, fresh out of college and covering the NBA for my very first "real job," trying to find my way around a new locker room, a new building, a new organization. Needless to say, it was a lot to take in. I struggled at first. I stayed quiet for a while, overwhelmed by the presence of longtime stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace. Even Brian Scalabrine scared me a little bit.
I eventually found myself gravitating toward Rondo. He became my favorite Celtic to talk to, to think about, to write about. I think it's because I saw a lot of myself in him - he was also 23, also a youngster in a workplace surrounded by accomplished veteran guys, but also dedicated to his craft and confident in his abilities. "Man," I thought. "I only hope to someday be as good at this writing thing as Rajon Rondo is at basketball."
I don't know if I'll ever reach that level, per se, but I'll always be appreciative that I had Rondo in my life as... I dunno. A weird sort of role model, I guess you could say. I've been watching Rondo closely for the last five years, and I've learned a lot about myself by pondering both his brilliance and his faults. I see a lot of myself in those, too - I know what it's like to be reclusive at times, overly emotional at times, to have trouble with authority figures in certain situations. I'm now 28, as is Rondo, and while I've picked up a lot of wisdom and life experience in the last half-decade, I also know I've got a lot left to learn. But I also know that since way back in '09 when I was just a wide-eyed kid out of college, I've had Rondo as a source of inspiration.
Rondo's known for being cold and withholding with the Boston media, and that reputation is not unwarranted. He once kept a group of us reporters waiting for him outside the Celtics' training room for a full 75 minutes waiting to interview him - a team record, to the best of my knowledge. But he does open up in rare instances, and it's a blessing to hear him share his insights.
My favorite Rondo interview moment came during the 2010 playoffs. He turned in a "podium game" performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland, outplaying LeBron James and turning in 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists to even the series at two games apiece. (They would win in six, eliminating the Cavs and effectively ending LeBron's first stint in Cleveland.) In Rondo's postgame presser, the conversation started to take a turn away from merely recapping the game, instead venturing into Rondo's status as team leader. So I picked up the mic and I asked him - is it a challenge being a leader on a team full of veterans, when you're just 24? I was asking for selfish reasons. I wanted to know his secret to being assertive as a young kid in the workplace. I absolutely loved his answer:
"It’s a little bit of a challenge, but they are guys that respect me and what I do. I’m sure I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want me leading this team. When they made that big trade [for Garnett in 2007], I think seven or eight players were traded that summer. I’m here, obviously, for a reason - those guys trusted me, the staff trusted me and the organization did. So I’m very confident in what I do. Doc [Rivers] and I are becoming better as coach and player on the same court, we’re always on the same page, it feels. As far as being a leader, I just have to continue maturing. Each year, I’m going to continue to get better."
Rondo revealed himself over the years as a guy who's just looking to fit in, build relationships and bond with people whom he can really trust. Who hasn't struggled with challenges like those, at one point or another in their lives? I know I have.
I think Rondo's whole nine years in Boston represented one long quest to find trust. I'm sure it wasn't easy for him - one by one, his closest confidants in the Celtics' organization were torn away from him. First Al Jefferson in 2006; then Kendrick Perkins in 2011. Later, in that fateful summer of '13, he lost Garnett, Pierce and Rivers in the blink of an eye.
Eventually, Rondo was the last one left. It's bizarre to realize that now he's gone too. Where does that leave us?
I'm not unique. I'm a 28-year-old guy who was born in Boston and followed the Celtics my whole lifetime. There are countless people like that. Some of you reading this right now might even be nodding along.
I think what makes Rajon Rondo special is that he represents an entire generation of fans like us. The Celtics have a proud history and a long-lasting tradition of winning, but there are many many fans who aren't old enough to remember most of it. For us, that 2008 team is all we have. It's not that I don't appreciate those other great teams of Celtic lore - on the contrary, I absolutely devour anything I can learn about them through reading books and watching old videos of their performances - but I don't have the same perspective. I didn't live through it.
On that note: One of my favorite pieces of sportswriting ever is a silly little throwaway column that Bob Ryan wrote on June 19, 2008, a couple of days after the Celtics won their 17th title. It was just a "top 10 list" piece, in which he listed his favorite teams in Celtics history, but it's special to me because he ranked the 2007-08 team second ever and, in so doing, he explained the unique role of that team in franchise history. Here's what he wrote:
"This was a championship for a Lost Generation of Boston Celtics fans. These are people for whom Bill Russell, the greatest winner in American team sports, and Bob Cousy, the legendary 'Houdini of the Hardwood,' are like figures out of King Arthur's tales. These are people for whom John Havlicek, basketball's consummate 'sixth man,' and Dave Cowens, the mercurial redheaded center, are as personally relevant as comic book characters. These are people for whom even the great Larry Bird is just some guy wearing short-shorts who pops up occasionally on ESPN Classic. These are the people who were too young to mourn fallen soldiers Reggie Lewis and Len Bias ... And these are the people who hungered for a Celtics championship they could call their own, one accomplished in their building with their heroes. Celtics championship No. 17 belongs to them."
I'm an unabashed member of the "these people" generation in Celtic fandom. I was born in 1986; if you know your history, you know that 1986 was the year the Celtics won their last championship prior to the '08 team, the year that Bias tragically died of a cocaine overdose in Maryland and the year that Rondo was born. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another.
This, oddly, feels similar. Nobody died, nor did they win any championships, but it does feel like we're saying goodbye to an era in franchise history in 2014. At least for my generation, that's not something we've experienced often.