Fandom: Rondo in the Age of Loving to Hate and Hating to Lose

A Qualifier: Every town that has hardcore sports fans has many kinds of fans within that fan-base. The loudest noises tend to be full of hostility and animosity because those noises come from unhealthy individuals who form an unhealthy attachment to their favorite teams, something more like co-dependence than genuine attachment or love. In the northeast, where obsessive sports fandom is ingrained in the identity of so many children, and where individual athletes take on mythical importance, the potential for both adoration and hatred is high.

Combine this with a sports media / journalism industry that is in flux and demanding controversy and clicks over substance, reason and empathy, and we are seeing fandom transformed. In this social media-driven, my-loud-opinion-first universe, hostility reigns. Everyone has an opinion and most people are pissed off at something. There are NBA writers who raise the bar in providing insight, information, humor and a sense of the broader cultural significance of the NBA and its universe (Jonathan Abrams, Paul Flannery, Tom Ziller, and Zach Lowe — who I was probably overly critical towards in the past, but who is writing in a broader, more personal style lately —  among others. On the flipside, there are countless non-stories that dominate the headlines, and those non-stories are everywhere because they are controversial, and in an internet-universe where eyeball-grabbing is mandatory, controversy reigns. If you are a mostly well-adjusted, intellectually-curious, somewhat empathetic person who acknowledges the human element of the sports world, you must protect yourself from this chaos.  


Rajon Rondo. Bring up the name to a Celtics fan and you will immediately get a reaction. With a franchise back in flux after five seasons of resurrection and one final season of injury-riddled difficulty, the Celtics began to rebuild when GM Danny Ainge traded Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for three future first round picks (2014, 2016, 2018), with an option of a fourth in 2017, an albatross of a contract, which will likely be alleviated by the stretch-provision this summer (Gerald Wallace), and an assemblage of Kris Humprhies, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and Keith Bogans.

The trade was tough for every Celtics fan to swallow. The window had been slowly closing for two years. With the trade came the acknowledgement that the window had been slammed shut. Without the certainty of a new direction, Celtics fans were rudderless. In came wunderkind Brad Stevens and a dose of much needed optimism. Many assumed that Rondo, rehabbing a torn ACL, would be dealt soon after. Others wondered why? A uniquely skilled point guard with legit playoff credentials whose contract lasts through June 2015,  the knee injury was one reason that some Celtics fans weren’t comfortable imagining investing in Rondo as the leader of this new version of the Celtics. Rondo’s well-documented (some would say too well-documented) stubbornness was tossed around haphazardly. Reactionary responses spilled forth from fans who simply believe that Rondo is an asshole. Rondo made Ray leave. Rondo made Doc leave. The Celtics have a problem? Rondo probably caused it. Avery Bradley’s jumper? Rondo. Sullinger’s back problem? Rondo.

Rondo’s on-court genius is rarely criticized these days. His jump shot, once a weakness, has improved dramatically over the course of his career. His playoff exploits are undeniable. However, Rondo’s off-court temperament is endlessly criticized. He doesn’t care if the media likes him or not. This is his reactionary stance. He is fiercely protective, closed off, seemingly oblivious to how the “media game” impacts his career. Fans can either choose to hate him for that obliviousness or accept it. Either way, it’s clear that Rondo isn’t concerned with the opinions of Jackie MacMullan, Paul Flannery, Chris Forsberg, Gary Washburn or whomever else is writing the stories. And the stories have gradually become more and more critical over the years.

After the dust settled from this year’s deadline rumor vortex (in October, Grantland‘s NBA Preview proclaimed a Rondo trade was “the worst kept secret in the NBA“), we thought we had a couple of months where we could just watch Rondo play, or not watch if the semi-deliberate losing is too much for you. We knew the inevitable avalanche of rumors would start up again in early June, after the draft lottery takes place. But now this…

We get the ESPN Boston headline story from Chris Forsberg “Rondo’s Defiance Compounds Issue.” The issue referred to is the fact that Rondo celebrated his birthday in Los Angeles rather than accompany the team to Sacramento to sit on the bench in a game that he was scheduled not to play. The agreement between Ainge, Stevens and Rondo (which makes sense for all future Celtics plans) is to keep Rondo out of the second games of back-to-back sets for now. Earlier in February, Rondo did not travel with the team to Milwaukee in the second-to-last game before the All-Star break. No headlines. No issues. But now it’s an issue. While Brad Stevens avoided saying anything directly about Rondo’s absence, Forsberg reports that he implied Rondo’s absence wasn’t expected. Stevens also told the media that Ainge and Rondo would talk when both were back in Boston. Now that the Celtics are back in Boston, the Boston writers (Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston and Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe) aren’t letting the story die. And Rondo isn’t apologizing, which means that writers like Chris Forsberg and all the rest of us will have to listen to all the Rondo-haters complain even more. Forsberg wishes Rondo would apologize, even if he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. Rondo is tired of dealing with all the rumors and all the criticism and his inability to play nice with the reporters is adding more fuel to the stupidly controversial fire. After the win over Atlanta on Wednesday, Forsberg writes:

Even if it didn’t ruffle his teammates’ feathers (veteran Gerald Wallace said he had no problem with Rondo’s decision) and even if there was precedent for such a move (Rondo did not travel to Milwaukee for a back-to-back earlier this month), and even if Rondo made countless other road trips while rehabbing at the start of the season, it would have been very easy to put this in the rearview mirror with a simple, “I made a poor decision.”

Instead, Birthdaygate festers.

So Rondo’s very vocal group of critics will continue to wonder out loud if he had ulterior motives for his Los Angeles staycation. They’ll rant about how a player who was irked by trade rumors might have been thumbing his nose at the organization for letting him twist in the trade winds. They’ll say he doesn’t understand or respect his role as captain of this decorated franchise.

They’ll say he’s another year older but no more mature.

Which is too bad because the focus after Wednesday’s game should have been on Rondo’s play. Every couple of games, we see increased glimpses of the Rondo of old.

On this night, Rondo cranked the tempo and fearlessly attacked the basket, half of his shots coming at the rim, while also generating a team-high six free throw attempts. Rondo finished with a season-high 22 points to go along with 11 assists and three steals over 35:36.

He was, of course, defiant after the game. Asked about his scoring input, Rondo said, “I’m just glad I’m getting some calls now,” just a short time after noting how he’s trying to “fix my reputation with these refs.”

The conversation swung to his role as a leader. Rondo was quick to point out that, while that role has grown this season, he felt he’s long been a leader as point guard and an extension of the coach on the floor.

Rondo was asked if he thinks he’ll be accepted as the next great Celtic, the next leader of this team.

“That’s everyone else’s opinion,” Rondo said. “Everyone has their own opinion. But I’m going to go out there every night and play as hard as I can while I’m a Celtic. That’s all I can do. That’s the only thing I can control, is how hard I play every night for my team and for myself.”

My frustration lies with Forsberg bothering to focus on what could be a non-story. The implication in Forsberg’s narrative is that only Rondo is adding fuel to the critics fire, which is true. What Forsberg doesn’t address is that the very piece he’s writing is adding fuel to the fire. The fewer writers that bother to make this a story, the less the Rondo critics have to work with. But controversy must reign, and so we have Forsberg’s frustrated tone and we get to add “defiance,” to the negative characteristic pile of adjectives.

There are a few sub-groups within the mix of Rondo detractors. One of them feels compelled to call Rondo names, believes he’s an “a**hole,” a “d*ck,” or other high-level vocabulary words. Within this group, there are the low-class folks who demand that their Boston athletes who happen to have a darker skin tone behave in a deferential manner, both on the court and off. That always employ the team-first cliches and always act eager to please.

The other sub-group is less hostile, but afraid of placing Rondo as a “face of the franchise,” and thinks he’s not worth the likely $14-$16 million/year payday he will likely receive in July 2015. The second group has legitimate concerns, which are open to debate. However, the constant topic of future contract worth does little to build the already fractured trust between Rondo and the Celtics fan-base. The knee injury and the 2014 draft only exacerbate these issues.

Forsberg is right that a portion of the Rondo-haters are hostile, belligerent and loud. They love to hate and they can’t stand the fact that this team is losing and they are ready to attack Rondo rather than sit back and exercise patience. I would guess some of them aren’t actually Celtics fans at all, just haters who have found a target to hate on. There is no clear path back to contending status for the franchise. Patience was preached in September. It was tested in late December and January, and it continues to be tested with every rumor that floats in and out of the NBA Twitter blogosphere.

My question for Forsberg is: Why add this fuel to this dumbly controversial fire?

We all know it looks bad even though it shouldn’t be a big deal that he wasn’t in Sacramento. And we know the trade rumors are incessant and not helpful or reassuring to Rondo or many Celtics fans. Rondo has a right to feel like he has no control after sweating out the last few weeks of rumors. Ainge was willing to make a deal but it didn’t happen.

Was it smart to choose not to fly to Sacramento? No. But to demand an apology in the media? Gasoline on the fire. I can accept that it would be nice if Rondo were more easygoing and less stubborn, but he’s been put into a pretty awful situation and he’s feeling scorned. Who can blame him for wondering how honest Danny Ainge has been with him?  Who can blame him for being frustrated by losing Pierce and Garnett this summer?  Who can blame him for feeling like he was the scapegoat for Doc Rivers choosing to leave?

How about the intelligent members of the Boston sports media only asks him about his game and his performance for the rest of the year? That would be refreshing.

Unfortunately, we live in a love-to-hate and hate-to-lose sporting landscape, where controversial clicks and a sometimes disgusting level of hostility and stunning lack of empathy dominate the sporting conversation.

Jack Hamilton, writing for ESPN’s TrueHoop blog, offered a complicated and insightful take on Rondo and Celtics fandom. Here’s the opening:

How does it end? At some cruel snail’s pace, reprieve upon reprieve until there are suddenly no reprieves left? Does it end by not ending at all? As the trade deadline fades in the rearview mirror, Rajon Rondo is still a Boston Celtic, a reality that’s starting to feel permanently temporary. Last summer the Celtics jettisoned two Hall of Famers and a likely Hall of Fame coach in a span of days, assuring that they would be among the worst teams in the NBA in the 2013-14 season. All that seemed left was the team’s most valuable and prickliest asset, an obscenely talented 27-year-old point guard nursing a torn ACL who appeared certain to be next out the door.

Fast-forward to now, and the Celtics are indeed a bad team. They’re a bad team that plays hard, they’re a bad team that’s well-coached, they’re a bad team with some good players who are on the verge of being very good players. At the beginning they overachieved, lurching to a 12-14 record in an abysmal Eastern Conference by mid-December, while prompting genuine hope among fans (or, depending where you stood on the “rebuilding” question, genuine fear) that we might be looking at something like Phoenix Suns East.

We are not. The Celtics have since gone 7-22 and now fully resemble the collection of journeymen, works-in-progress and rejected trade-bait we always thought they were. And of course there’s that point guard, still here, and still that point guard. Since returning to action Jan. 17, Rajon Rondo has been playing into form, averaging a Rondo-esque 15.2 points, 9.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds in seven games in February. He’s back to his ball-handling wizardry and eye-popping assists, even though he’s passing to Chris Johnson and Kelly Olynyk instead of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, even though every day until today has brought whispers that it could be his last in green and white.

Now we know that day won’t come for at least a little while longer, a bittersweet relief for Celtics fans who’ve now spent the better part of a year in a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the team’s president, Danny Ainge. The deal that sent Garnett and Pierce to the Nets for draft picks and salary detritus was shocking, and in Pierce’s case, stomach-turning. But it made sense: There was no question that Pierce and KG were on the downside of their careers, and there was little question that Brooklyn dramatically overvalued them. It was a smart move by a front office whose ruthlessness had by now won almost unconditional benefit-of-the-doubt from its fan base (a rare achievement in Boston sports, and one that’s currently enjoyed by all of the city’s major pro teams).

Rondo is different, or at least we’d like to think so, and so would he. He’s in his prime and arguably the crown jewel of Ainge’s tenure, plucked with the 21st pick in the 2006 draft and nurtured into superstardom. His idiosyncratic frostiness has led many to label him a “savant,” lodged on the nether reaches of the basketball spectrum, but he’s more of an iconoclast, an artist who breaks molds with purposeful dismissiveness, as if to prove he’s not simply better than the world, but smarter than it. A philosopher once remarked that “talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target that no one else can see,” a comment that might as well have been inspired by a pass such as this. Or, for a non-basketball example, Rondo’s legendary proficiency at Connect Four, a game that most of us think of as simple until someone starts winning hundreds of times in a row, at which point, maybe we’re the simple ones.

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