Why We Watch: Rajon Rondo, Cubist

In which the NBA's resident cubist takes apart the court, and our understanding of it.
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A good chunk of the last four years of my life has been spent watching the Celtics play basketball at the Garden. In that time I have come to rely on certain things. The T will be late, Kevin Garnett will tap his foot in time during the anthem, the DJ will play classic rock tunes, and the guy in the balcony will do his Jack Black moves for the jumbotron. There’s a rhythm and consistency that is both comforting and a bit boring, but you learn quickly in this game that you won’t survive long unless you develop a routine and cultivate it to the point of mania.

That goes for players, coaches, media, refs, the PA announcer and everyone else who sits through 82 of these things every year. Everyone, that is, except for Rajon Rondo.

Rondo doesn’t have a routine, or at least a consistent one. That’s not to say that he’s unprepared. He watches more video than a football coach, and has an almost savant-like memory for players and their tendencies. But what Rondo offers on a nightly basis is the possibility contained in the unknown. He is the deviant in a league that thrives on ritual and repetition.

His propensity to take over when the lights are brightest and produce outrageous box-score mashups that conjure memories of Oscar, Wilt, and Magic is well documented, as is his habit of acting like—all things considered—he’d rather be somewhere else. That provides instant fodder for the columnists and talk shows, and lies at the heart of the endless debate over where he ranks on the point guard food chain. All well and good, but I’ve grown weary of deconstructing Rondo and his place in the game.

Besides, all of that misses the point. It’s not that Rondo is above judgment, but when his own coach says quite seriously that he never looks at the stat sheet when assessing his point guard’s performance, how are we to make sense of his unusual gifts by conventional measures?

“It’s just rhythm for him. It’s not tempo. It’s not even a pace. I can’t explain what it is.”  —Doc Rivers, last May.

***

Every time I go to the Garden, I think to myself, “What will Rondo do tonight that I haven’t seen before?”

It might be a pass, or a fake, or a fake that leads to a pass. It might be an angle off the glass that is so utterly unreasonable as to completely contradict every principle of Euclidean geometry. This is a player whose go-to move at the basket is a goofy-foot layup with the wrong hand. It’s not that he does things abnormally, it’s that normal has no real frame of reference for Rondo.

I’ve been trying for nearly half a decade to get inside his head and see the game through his eyes, but each attempt has been foiled by that familiar, icy, deadpan stare. He made a pass once through three defenders to a spot on the floor that was completely empty but at the last second landed safely in Paul Pierce’s hands for a layup. “It looked like there was no one there,” I said to him after the game, and he responded, “Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.”

It finally hit me, after all these years, that I’ve been looking at it wrong. It’s not what he does, but how he does it that is so mesmerizing. Rondo, it seems to me, is the NBA’s resident cubist. Using the rectangular dimensions of the court as his canvas, he takes everything we know about patterns, shapes, and space and bastardizes them in a distorted image that is as disorienting as it is inspiring.

How that all works in the rigid context of a basketball game is a credit not only to Rondo, but also to his coach and teammates. They have learned to play off him, not just with him, and Rivers has delegated more and more authority to the point where Rondo is calling his own games. The Celtics call it “Random,” which is as good an adjective as any.

What truly separates Rondo from other improvisational showmen is his almost psychotic need to win, a quality that fits in well with his salt-of-the-earth teammates. They will indulge almost anything if it helps further that cause, and so Rondo has found acceptance in Boston, a city both rich in tradition and orthodox in custom. It is a most peculiar set of circumstances.

***

It has often been noted by people in my line of work that Rondo is a tough interview. That’s both true and untrue. What is accurate is that Rondo won’t take the pedantic line of questioning that passes for locker room interviews and spoon-feed quotes to fit the already-written storyline for the late edition.

It’s odd, really. Doesn’t he know that his life would be easier if he just played the game the way it’s supposed to be played? Probably, but it’s entirely consistent with his approach to basketball. One can almost see him straining with incredulity to the out-of-time beat of awkward statement-questions about what just happened on the court. We are observers, but we can’t possibly see what he sees, and he either can’t explain it in proper sound-bite form, or he simply doesn’t want to. 

We ask for honesty from athletes, but what we really crave is validation for our own beliefs and narratives. When confronted with a true original, we are woefully unequipped to understand him on the usual terms. As he enters his seventh season at age 26, Rondo should be at the point in his career where his game is familiar and understood. Instead, he’s still doing things that are varied and weird. Yet he has raised the stakes, thanks to his otherworldly playoff performance. Some are going so far as to predict an MVP season in 2012-13. That would require a level of consistency that, frankly, Rondo has yet to show, and it would also mean that the league’s definition of valuable would have to expand to accommodate the untranslatable terms of his game.

I prefer to view him as he is: an artist in a land of genetic misfits. His vision is his alone to understand. What we see, we can only admire.

Illustration/embroidery by Emily O'Leary.


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