“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
It was never easy for me to acknowledge that Rajon Rondo rarely allowed a smile to come across his face. Another recently beloved Celtic, Kevin Garnett, rarely smiled on the court. The game face. Turning on the crazed lunatic in order to intimidate opponents and rise to the level of warrior on the court. Players have to do whatever they have to do to reach the highest level of basketball on earth.
I loved the way Rondo played. I loved the dazzling fakes and the inconceivable angles his bounce passes snaked their way through. A master of deception, Rondo was ever stoic. Eventually labeled electrifying and enigmatic. Then labeled selfish. Then, finally…mercifully, after hundreds of rumors, traded.
I loved watching Rajon Rondo play for the Celtics from 2006-2014. Rondo and Paul Pierce were two of the few Celtics that remained after Danny Ainge traded half of the roster for Kevin Garnett. The Celtics resurrected their franchise under Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen. When the trade rumors swirled, month after month, and everyone assumed Rondo would be sent packing in the wake of the KG/Pierce trade (which bears fruit this June in the form of Brooklyn’s increasingly likely top-5 pick) I remained devoted in my Rondo love and appreciation. An ornery personality, half mad-scientist/half fill-in-the-blank, Rondo’s court vision was always a joy to watch. His ability to spin the basketball in creative ways, fake, and whip the ball around his back, throwing passes at all angles was (and still is) unique. Rondo’s ability to take over playoff games was remarkable. He stunned us with his growth and calm demeanor under intense spotlight. I want to cast 2012 Rondo in amber and keep him there, before his ACL was torn, before the rumors took over, he was traded, and then things kept spiraling.
The well-documented debacle in Dallas needs no rehashing. Now Rondo attempts to reclaim his value in a league that doesn’t know what to do with his lack of shooting range, and his enigmatic personality. One year contract in Sacramento, the only team that offered. Rondo a player nobody desired…to a team that nobody expects can rise up from its mediocrity.
After a rocky stretch without center DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings are playing slightly better lately. It’s not impossible that they can challenge for the 8th spot in the West, hoping to reach 40 wins after a slow start. Rondo’s performance in the season’s first 24 games has been stellar (12.6 ppg, 11.0 apg, 6.9 rpg, while shooting a surprisingly solid 38% from deep). Of course, the Kings rely on him to make pretty much every pass, as Rudy Gay, Marco Belinelli, and Omri Casspi aren’t exactly distributors. Every possession in which DeMarcus Cousins isn’t taking matters into his own hands goes to Rondo. Still, Rondo’s ability to get teammates the ball in a position to score is on display again.
And now this…Rondo using homophobic slurs on the court in Mexico City after being ejected from a December 3rd against his former team, the Boston Celtics. After the NBA issued a one-game suspension, Rondo used Twitter to offer an empty, half-apology for screaming a word multiple times that he should never have used.
What do Kobe, Joakim Noah and Rondo have in common: they all screamed the same homophobic slur “f—-t”on an NBA court. They aren’t the first athletes to demonstrate their homophobia on a playing field, and won’t be the last, but their ignorance should make us angry and disappointed in such influential athletes. All three are known as ferocious competitors, but here’s something else about them: they rarely smile on an NBA court. If you’re attitude is win at all costs, it costs you something. For Noah, the ultimate teammate, narcissism doesn’t seem to be the issue, but Kobe and Rondo have both been viewed as self-serving narcissists. In any event, something positive has come out of the whole story.
The object of Rondo’s homophobic tirade was Bill Kennedy, a veteran NBA official of 18 seasons. Kennedy took the situation, and made a courageous choice. In a statement to Yahoo Sports, Kennedy gave these words:
“I am proud to be an NBA referee and I am proud to be a gay man,” Kennedy told Yahoo Sports on Sunday night. “I am following in the footsteps of others who have self-identified in the hopes that will send a message to young men and women in sports that you must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are.”
Ben Golliver, writing for Sports Illustrated, wrote a great piece on the situation. Here’s an excerpt:
Remember, the game in question took place 11 days ago. The NBA’s investigation dragged on for more than a week—its results weren’t announced until after Rondo and the Kings played on TNT last Thursday, by the way—and the formal suspension didn’t come until Friday afternoon. Three days passed between the suspension and Kennedy’s announcement. Hours passed between the announcement and Rondo’s Twitter posts. The Kings had sufficient time to review Rondo’s non-apology before issuing their statement.
Rondo clearly can’t play the “caught off guard” card. He can’t play the “I was trying to pull together the right words” card. Unfortunately, he can’t even play the “I didn’t know what to say” card, because his statement is strikingly similar in nature to the one offered by Lakers guard Kobe Bryant following his own gay slur controversy in 2011.
Simply put, Rondo had an opportunity to come clean during the league’s investigation, he had all the time he needed to think things through, and yet he still chose to let a brewing public relations storm go unchecked for most of Monday rather than owning up to his alleged behavior. He still chose not to make a clear apology the first thing that came out when he opened his digital mouth. He still chose to run and hide.
That last part isn’t really all that shocking. Rondo ran out on the Mavericks during the 2015 playoffs, quitting on the court and then bailing on his postgame interview during an ugly Game 2 loss to the Rockets. That behavior obviously exists on a totally different moral plane than his exchange with Kennedy, but both times Rondo responded to adversity of his own making in the same way: he bolted.
By running, Rondo left his teammates, his coaching staff, his front office and his organization out to dry. He brought a distraction and controversy to a franchise that offered him a second chance. Worst of all, he let his hateful words hang in the air for all to hear again and again.
There’s no downplaying this mess with the typical excuses—that Rondo is merely “misunderstood” or “stubborn” or “enigmatic.” The truth is the same in Sacramento as it was in Dallas. The “pure point guard” label and impressive assist tallies mask a much harsher reality: Rondo has repeatedly shown that he will put himself first, regardless of who he hurts or offends along the way.
But it would be a mistake to allow the justified frustration over Rondo’s actions and response to overshadow Kennedy’s poise, both on the court and in the incident’s aftermath. While his very identity was being ridiculed, Kennedy first attempted to defuse the situation but, once things escalated past the point of no return, he held his ground. Then, on Monday, he took a very public, very difficult stand.
Hopefully Rondo was able to catch a glimpse of his target’s courage before he fled the scene.