The preparations for the grind of a long season coincide with the start of the month, with training camp now underway for NBA teams. The rekindling of team togetherness in October takes the place of the lonely individual workout in the summer heat; the world’s most talented basketball players rewire their thinking, with collective betterment supplanting individual improvement on the list of priorities. The whole is put before the self.
With the start of basketball just around the corner, it’s just a great time for basketball fans everywhere. The superstars–in all their athletic brilliance–are finally back in the limelight. LeBron. Durant. Derrick Rose. Without their crossovers and fading jumpers and acrobatic pirouettes in the air, the summer can seem depressingly long. Baseball struggles to fill the void. I miss the stinginess of elite NBA defenses, from Memphis to Miami to Indiana, and the scoring prowess of the league’s best offenses, from Denver to New York to Oklahoma City. I miss the adrenaline rush of the fast break, culminated in a Chris Paul flick and Blake Griffin slam. I miss the raw explosiveness of Russell Westbrook and the shooting binges by Stephen Curry—when the game’s best perform beneath the brightest of lights, showcasing the uniqueness of their talents. The shooting, the dunking, the smoothness of the game.
But, one of the best isn’t able to show his mettle just yet. While the Boston Celtics are back in the swing of things at the team’s Waltham, MA practice facility, Rajon Rondo is far from it. Recovering from a knee injury sustained in January, the talented point guard spends a lot of time on the sidelines nowadays, removed from Brad Stevens’ team drills on the court–his focus is (rightly) on strengthening and recovery, not cohesion and group bonding. He isn’t able to run the offense just yet, or do pretty much anything with the team as a whole. At the start of October, Rondo’s primary objective is to regain the jumping, cutting and sprinting that made Rondo one of the best back-court players in the NBA– so that the start of January can feature him in all his mercurial glory.
When he does come back later on in the season, Rondo will encounter a completely different team under the bright lights of TD Garden. Long gone are the veterans of old, who brought gritty toughness and battle-tested knowhow to the court each and every night. Long gone is the head coach who molded the pieces together into an intimidating unit, remembered for its defensive pedigree and the primal screams of “Ubuntu”–the perfect mix of defensive fundamentals and the camaraderie that makes it mean something. Long gone is the air of invincibility, which saturated all of Canal Street when Kevin Garnett’s knees felt spry and Paul Pierce was hitting clutch shot after clutch shot.
Long gone is that Celtic mystique, which fueled the Garden faithful and rattled the opposition. In its place stands Brad Stevens, a baby-faced tactician oozing with statistical genius and play-calling acumen. In its place stands Danny Ainge, a “bigger picture” kind of guy ripe with the experience of winning and the excitement of starting over. In its place stands a bunch of NBA toddlers with a lot to prove, and some of the talent needed to do it. Not all, but surely some. This group of Celtics is an experiment in rebuilding and rebranding, a project for the long haul instead of the here and now.
In the place of past accomplishment stands anticipation, albeit the cautious sort, of things to come.
Kelly Olynyk was a goofy college student just a few months ago, and now stands in the place of Kevin Garnett. Jared Sullinger faced the unforgiving tutelage of that same Kevin Garnett just last season, and now must put those lessons to use all by himself – he must anchor an NBA defense with firm conviction, without the mentor leading the way. Brad Stevens goes from the immature student-athlete to the stern-faced professional, from a nurturing father figure to the face of a professional franchise. In Boston, there are a lot of new faces, and the ones from before find themselves in strikingly different roles.
Such is the state of Rajon Rondo’s team, which he will inherit sometime in December, if not later. He won’t be assisting a well-oiled machine of trusted veterans, but a hodgepodge of young guns and perennial castoffs. This is a different group of guys, which will test the point guard’s patience and spark his temper. The future might bring a whole lot of mistakes, issues, and losses mixed into one long season of struggle and sorrow. It probably will.
But, whatever the future may bring, I just miss watching Rajon Rondo play the game of basketball–much like I missed Derrick Rose’s acrobatic finishes, and will still miss Kobe Bryant’s competitive fire. As always, injuries are tough to deal with–they are an unfortunate piece of the puzzle when it comes to professional sports. The NBA just isn’t the same when the game’s brightest stars don’t shine so bright–or aren’t able to shine at all–Rondo being one of them. His ball fakes and his crafty finishing skills, his moodiness and his errant passes, his obsession with triple-doubles and his tendency to step up when it matters most. The potential of witnessing something extraordinary, something amazing, whenever he takes the court. All of it was missing over the past few months, a dull few months indeed.
If nothing else, you know that Rajon Rondo will be, authentically and unequivocally, Rajon Rondo. He’ll have fun and he’ll entertain. He’ll boast a little bit when he wins and he’ll pout even more when he loses. He’ll reward teammates with pinpoint passes and he’ll infuriate opposing players, coaches, fans, everyone. And he’ll definitely offer up some quirky answers to reporters’ questions. It’s all just a part of Rajon being Rajon.
And the National Basketball Association is much better for it. Basketball wouldn’t be the same without him.
So, let’s be grateful that professional basketball is starting up again–that dunks and dimes, shots and steals, will soon take the place of base hits and boredom. And let’s hope that Rajon Rondo will be nothing short of Rajon Rondo, one day very soon.