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A ramble on Rajon Rondo, leadership, and rooting for divisive athletes

Never meet your heroes. Or read about them. Or think about them. Or talk to people about them. Better yet, don’t overthink things as much as I do.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Rajon Rondo’s reputation as a teammate and as a public figure are about as asymmetrical as it gets. His teammates have regarded him as a great co-worker, leader, and competitor. Fans often find him abrasive, standoffish, and stubborn. Admittedly, I’ll always root for him because Boston’s late-2000s Big 3 renaissance took place in my formative years when I really latched onto the NBA, but I haven’t always felt comfortable with it.

Blind loyalty to athletes mattered less before social media took off and you didn’t have to confront their controversies - now, you’re reminded of them almost every day. I frequently think back to Rondo’s incident with a referee in 2015 and, even now, it’s overwhelmingly disappointing. And here I am now, both admitting that I’m a Rondo fan while acknowledging his nigh-irredeemable controversy in the same paragraph. What does that make me? A typical sports fan? Gross.

As an All Star-turned-journeyman, Rondo has wandered from the NBA fringes in New Orleans back into the spotlight in Los Angeles. And true to form, he hasn’t held back his thoughts on leadership when his team is in turmoil. Using the Kevin Garnett-led Celtics as his moral compass, he made this Instagram post as a member of the Bulls in 2017:

It’s funny how much that era is romanticized given how close it was to a premature meltdown (Ray Allen dangled in trades, Rondo throwing water bottles at TVs, etc), but it’s still one of the most disciplined teams in recent history. Here’s what stands out to me:

I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along.

And, well, he was successful. Knowledge was indeed passed along to Jimmy Butler (who forced his way out of Chicago soon after) and Dwyane Wade (who was only there to spite Pat Riley). Here’s a more recent quote from a reflective and self-aware interview on playing for LeBron’s Lakers, regarding trading rumors:

”Even some of the old guys were affected,” Rondo says. “I can’t say a name, but I remember me and the guy were on the bench for the Atlanta game right before the [All-Star] break. The guy was cussing and talking bad about the situation during the game. I was like: ‘Snap out of it. That shit is over with. We’ll get through it. As vets, we have to move forward and not focus on what the young guys are focusing on. Set an example.’ It was a little crazy to see a vet distraught over that.”

Throughout the interview, Rondo paints an honest picture of himself. He notes his imperfections as a person, referencing how he didn’t always take his physical conditioning seriously in Boston, and talks about how people tend to warm up to him in person after getting the wrong impression after reading about him.

His final days with the Celtics had some questionable body language. Dallas was a disaster. Sacramento was better statistically, but still not the effort we expected. Chicago was another drama-laden season. New Orleans was quiet enough, but any goodwill there might as well be cancelled out by a Lakers campaign that didn’t leavue anybody’s reputation untarnished. Rondo is absolutely not to be blamed for the Lakers’ season, but plenty of league drama has had his fingerprints on it, most notably the aforementioned homophobic slur directed towards an official or his confrontations with coaches.

It’s hard not to look at him through that lens. Instead, I like to remember him through this video that I’ve watched at least a dozen times:

For the good of all parties involved, I’m hoping Rondo can join a new team this summer with an already established infrastructure where his quirks can be a feature instead of a bug in the system. His unrivaled sense for the game can be put to good use on a team that can capitalize on it, given they have players who can absorb information. Dare I suggest the Pacers as a potential destination? Utah? Downloading Rondo’s thoughts into Donovan Mitchell’s brain could be terrifying. How about a reunion with Doc Rivers on the LA team with actual managerial standards?

Rondo’s ACL injury didn’t treat him well, and playing for the league’s most dysfunctional franchises didn’t do him any favors. Still, I believe he has a place in the NBA, even if he’s a headcase without a functioning word filter. I do not believe that place is Boston (please don’t throw things at me), especially given the poor chemistry of last season.

It’s tough thinking back on all the terrible behind-the-back no-look passes I’ve thrown in pick up games (one of which hit a very close friend square in the nose) that were all made with a green number nine in mind just to see his reputation plummet soon after. Every scandal - in sports or otherwise - has people rushing to social media to take a side, dig their feet in, and denounce any dissenting opinion regardless of nuance.

You either cut your emotional ties with a childhood hero or you’re part of the problem, at least until the next scandal unfolds 30 minutes later and people stop caring. And that’s the root problem with social media activism: it comes off as pretty disingenuous if you only care during a small window of relevance before moving on. And the very fact that I found it necessary to briefly breakdown social media’s role in our culture is why I’m apprehensive about rooting for players like Rondo. It’s a lot of work that ultimately leads me to cheer internally as to not stick my neck under the Twitter mob’s guillotine.

And to those that proudly proclaim “I can separate the artist from his work”, I say this: you can run, but you can’t hide. Sports, social issues, politics, and whatever else riles people up always has been (and always will be) inherently intertwined and you’re free to pay as much attention to those things as you. You can also ignore them, so long as you can live with ignoring everyone impacted by the negative actions of popular personalities while they evade any consequences. If you can block that out, you’re living stress free, baby!

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