Love is a mysterious thing. It can’t always be explained. It involves a certain kind of alchemy. Sometimes the people you love are widely adored. Other people hear about your love for them and think, “Gee, that’s only natural.” Other times, the people you love are misunderstood, overlooked, or even hated. Sometimes, you love someone like Rajon Rondo.
Rondo, with his 6-foot-9 wingspan (he is only 6-foot-1), has been a free agent since the end of last season and has apparently been hanging around his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, taking classes, having closed-door discussions with the coaching staff, and generally giving off very retired vibes. Some will remember Rondo as a two-time champion or four-time All-Star. Others will look back on him as a stubborn, eccentric loner, who allegedly has a violent streak. Many of the youngins barely know him at all or have only a vague childhood memory of Boston’s legendary 2011 playoff comeback (known as “The Elbow”) that Celtics fans still tearfully recount to anyone who will listen. But when Rondo officially announces his retirement, which is sure to happen any day now, no one will feel the loss greater than his biggest fan — my 78-year-old mother.
Though he is widely believed to be at best a complicated man, and at worst a straight-up dickhead, my mother loves Rondo not despite those things, but because of them. She sees him as sensitive, dogged, and woefully misunderstood because he always seems to get in his own way. Because he doesn’t know how to communicate his eccentricities well, rather than just act them out. Because he is the first to admit he has trust issues.
If you ask her how, exactly, she knows that Rondo is good, that he is worthy of more than the middling reputation with which he will likely leave the NBA — a few great years, one championship with the Celtics, one with the Lakers, watered down by a decade as a journeyman — she will tell you it is in his eyes. If you look in Rondo’s eyes, she claims, you can tell that he means well, that he is not a baby or a bully, but a wise, tender man who just can’t risk being vulnerable.
Despite growing up outside of Boston in the 80s, we were not, to put it mildly, a sports family. But in the early ‘90s, our basketball-crazed babysitter started buying $8 obstructed view seats at the old Garden, and suddenly we were hooked. I made my mother take me to meet Antoine Walker at the CambridgeSide Galleria Mall (her memory was that he was not a good hang), we weaseled our way into the Celtics’ practice facilities so that I could get an autograph from my unlikely hero, David Wesley. My brother and I were too young to remember the glory days of Bird and McCale. We had Dee Brown, Dino Radja, and very few expectations.
Then, in 2008 — as the Celtics made a bid for their first championship win since the Bird era — the sophomore Rondo, whose starting role was being threatened by veteran signings, started doing crazy things, especially for a player whose entire job on the court was to be in the shadows of the superstar trifecta of Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. He scored multiple triple-doubles in a series, and 19 assists without a turnover in a single game. My mother, who had shown little interest in basketball before, started tracking. And she wasn’t just there for the wins. She was in it for Rondo.
‘I want to be your baby grandma!’
There is some debate about when exactly this moment occurred, but there is no question that it is iconic. I am pretty sure it was the 2008 Finals. My brother Alex remembers it as the game, in the 2009 series against the Lakers, where Rondo played so well that the announcer insisted that if he could pick an All-NBA team, he would build it around Rondo. Whenever it was, somebody (probably me) on our family basketball text chain — me, my two brothers, and now, my radicalized mother, said. “RONDO!!!!! I want to be your baby mama!”
My mother, high off of her newly discovered fanaticism responded with “I want to be your baby GRANDMA!!”
Stunned, we asked for elaboration. “So, just to be clear ma, you don’t want to have sex with Rondo, you want him to have sex with and impregnate one of your daughters so that you can then love and care for their child?”
Naturally, for her birthday that year, she received a bright green shirt with “Grandbaby Daddy” written on the back above Rondo’s No. 9.
You might say Rondo is different from my mother, a 78-year-old, White, Jewish therapist from New Jersey who makes her own granola and has multiple copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Rondo himself has admitted he is “not a great people person.” If you leave my mother alone with a stranger, you will return to find them embracing.
My mother raised five children. As a child herself, she was often responsible for managing the emotional and financial stability of her immigrant family. Though her father didn’t leave, as Rondo’s did, he was often unavailable.
But like Rondo, when my mother walks around Boston, she gets recognized. People choke up when they talk about what she’s meant to them, like I do when I tell the story of where I was when I realized that Rondo, whose left arm I had just seen dangling limply from its socket, was re-entering Game 3 of a playoff series against the Heat. I had left my father’s house to pick up my older brother from the airport, I’d seen the elbow and known Rondo was toast, and I told my brother as much. Then, as we listened to the only radio coverage of the game that we could find, in Spanish, on a windy road with spotty reception, we almost crashed the car hearing the announcers scream “Rondo regresa!!!” “Rondo regresa!!!”
What is an assist? Is it a cop-out? A cowardly act, the only feasible escape for someone afraid of shooting the ball? Or is it a gift? Ceding one’s personal glory for that of the team, and before that, even, paying enough attention to know that someone is ready to rise, and having the humility to accept that it is not you.
The dictionary definition of assist is “an act or action that helps someone.” Like a reality TV contestant, Rondo has asserted that he’s not out there “trying to make friends.” Once, after suffering a rare Connect Four loss to a Boston-area twelve-year-old, he immediately challenged the kid to five rematches, all of which he won. He doesn’t, to most people, seem like a helper. In a world of Paul Pierces, who seem to lay it all out there, Rondo is almost always holding back. But Rondo has committed that final act of generosity, putting himself out there enough to get the ball in the hands of a scorer 7,584 times — he is currently 14th overall in NBA history for regular-season assists. Of course, that stat only tracks the shots that went in.
But Rondo and my mom both spent their lives making other people look good, letting others take the credit for the fruits of their labor, because hey, the fruits were good for everyone. While my mother was socialized to serve, Rondo was socialized to be tough. Steph Curry might have ushered in the era of NBA niceness, but he still idolizes drive. Men, male athletes, Black men, or however you want to categorize the many groups to which Rondo belongs, have to perform. No matter how many other talents they display, when an NBA player is afraid to shoot, they get ragged on by the president. When I once foolishly remarked to my mother that I wanted to make an impact by publishing books and speaking widely, she schooled me. “I’ve made an enormous impact on people’s lives,” she said. Quietly setting others up for success is a far-reaching initiative, though we over-encourage some to serve the collective and criticize others when their solo performances don’t shine.
An undeservedly quiet exit
The Celtics probably won’t retire Rondo’s jersey. Neither will the Lakers, Cavs, Mavs, Pelicans, Clippers, Kings, Hawks, or Bulls. But Rondo isn’t even 40. He’s got a coaching career ahead of him, perhaps, which my mom believes will be promising, as long as he can take some time to figure out how to channel his incredible basketball insight for good. When she heard he was taking classes, my mom hoped Rondo would study psychology and learn to work through what Doc Rivers called his “emotional hijacks.”
This spring, my seven-year-old son played his first season of league basketball. His team was, to put it mildly, not good. He never once attempted a shot. If you want to see hot hands on the basketball court, find a team full of first-graders. Most of the plays involve one kid booking it to the basket, aggressively traveling, and trying, again and again, to make it in. But because we had taught him about Bill Russell, my son worked on his defense. Because we taught him about Rondo, he knew that looking for an open teammate got your team as many points as hogging all of the shots for yourself. Rondo has said that when he takes a shot, he often wonders if he should have passed. Maybe he didn’t tie it all up in a neat package, maybe he sometimes let everything burst out the sides, but the legacy of that unselfishness, that self-awareness will live on, at least for his biggest fans.