We've been told over and over again that Rajon Rondo is an enigma.
He is a brilliant point guard shrouded in mystery and we all want to know more about him. The thing is, it's tough to get answers. At least it is if you go to him. To learn about the man behind the many spectacular triple-doubles, no-look passes and beautiful ball fakes, you have to go to the ones who know him best. You have to look within the Celtics locker room but beyond Rondo himself.
You know the deal with his game by now. Originally thought to be the young point guard who lucked out by being surrounded by three future Hall of Famers, Rondo's game has grown and evolved to a place where he causes discussion wherever people are talking about the NBA. Why can't he shoot free throws? Which point guard would you rather have on your team? The Celtics got lucky locking him up when they did. Should he look to score more? Why is he always off in his own world?
This past Friday night, the visiting locker room at the Air Canada Centre served as the setting for learning more about the Celtics point guard.
Because Rondo is, well, Rondo, there wasn't any speaking with him prior to the game during media availability. That doesn't really ever happen. He chooses not to, following in the footsteps of veteran Kevin Garnett. Because the Celtics lost to the Raptors, there wasn't really much talking from Rondo after the game, either.
With Ray Allen not with the team because of that ankle injury, Paul Pierce nowhere to be found before the game and Avery Bradley hosting a mini-scrum by his locker with reporters all interested in the hot streak he's been on, Keyon Dooling was my target.
Dooling is a 12-year NBA vet who has been in six NBA locker rooms and currently serves as the vice-president of the NBA Players Association. He's been around. He knows what's up.
He knows all about the public perception of Rondo. He also knows how unimportant all of that is to the 15 guys in the Celtics locker room. Dooling praised Rondo's competitiveness and burning desire to be the best, while also using the example of another Hall of Fame point guard known for his toughness and not for his affable personality.
"It's funny because there were a lot of people who didn't necessarily talk before the game. John Stockton was a guy who never talked before the game, never signed autographs or anything like that and he was known as a gentleman and a saint so the spin that Rondo has is definitely a misconception. If you ask the guys in the locker room, I'd tell you that everybody is with him. If I have to go down a dark alley, I want to go down there with him. As a matter of fact, behind him because he's a great leader."
That wasn't the only reference Dooling made to one of Utah's finest, though.
"I haven't seen a point guard run the pick and roll like him and Kevin Garnett since Stockton and Malone."
If he's getting it done for his team on the court, has all of their respect in the locker room and continues to post gaudy numbers that place him in the company of the best floor generals to ever play the game, why does it matter if he wants to smile while facing the media? Dooling was quick to point out that Rondo isn't the only NBA superstar to be painted in a negative light by certain media members, bringing LeBron James into the conversation.
"That's unfortunate, you know what I mean," Dooling said. "It's a misconception. One of the greatest players, one of the top two players in our league is known as a master panicker and a guy who can't finish down in the clutch and he's habitually 30, seven and seven. We may be looking at the best player in our generation. The media can definitely paint the picture that they want. They can vilify you or they can build you up, but that doesn't mean that's who you are."
Who Rondo is, besides a freak of nature, of course, has largely been decided by speculation on our part. By piecing together encounters, post game interviews and moments of frustration boiling over, we've created our vision of Rondo, but just like his game, he's much more complex than that.
One thing that isn't up for debate is Rondo's fiery toughness. When you think he's down, done, and out for the count, he wills himself to keep pushing until the final buzzer sounds. Even if the injury that knocked him down has already gone viral, making people feel ill all over the internets by way of disgusting screen grabs and .gifs.
"When your elbow goes this way, I mean, the guy plays through everything," Dooling said, his face scrunching up just speaking of the injury Rondo sustained during the playoffs last season. "One of the biggest adjustments he made to his game this year, something we talked about, is not hitting the floor so much. He would always be on the floor, on the floor, on the floor. I'm like, 'Young fella, how long are you trying to play? You can't be trying to play long because the ground doesn't move.' He's done a great job of staying off of the ground. He's just tough as nails. He's tough as nails."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers was succinct in his description of Rondo's game.
"Spectacular, amazing, great. I could say a lot of things. The most important one would be important. We need him to be that for us to be who we are. He is the one guy who can orchestrate our team."
Rajon Rondo (Getty Images)It's clear that the Celtics locker room is a place where Rondo is free to be himself. Some of that stems from the support of 17-year veteran Garnett, another player known for his intensity and unwillingness to address reporters (and, well, anyone) before games. As Dooling is talking, Garnett is lying on the floor with headphones in and eyes closed as he is being stretched out by a trainer.
From Rondo to Ray Allen to recent stand out Avery Bradley all the way to Doc Rivers ("He's a very unique coach. He's the best coach in our league."), there's just something that feels different about the Celtics locker room. When asked, Dooling responds without hesitation.
"We have Kevin Garnett in it. That makes us more unique than any other team in the world. He is everything you could want in a locker room."
He elaborated on what sets Garnett apart from the rest of the NBA.
"He's incredible. I guarantee you if you did a poll of everybody who has played with Kevin Garnett, I guarantee you he would probably be 98% of people's favorite teammate. He is that guy. He is that guy. He's the glue. If somebody is not going well, he's the guy to pick him up. If there's a problem, He's the one to address it. If somebody needs to be taken up for, he's the one to do that, if there's a question that needs to be asked and somebody doesn't want to ask it, he does that. He is amazing."
The praise continued, as Dooling gave a glimpse into Garnett's standing within his team.
"He is … he is amazing. I guarantee you if you went around the locker room, everybody who has been around him, ask his former teammates, he is incredible, man. He is an incredible man. He should get awards every year for the man, the mentorship he gives to young guys, the work ethic that he shows them and instills in them. The camaraderie that he gives to the team. You know what I mean? The way he embraces everybody on the staff from the video coordinator to the masseuse. Kevin Garnett should be an ambassador. He is that kind of personality. He is amazing."
With Garnett's blueprint, it's no wonder his 26 year-old phenom point guard is becoming more comfortable in his own skin.
As for what those of us on the outside see? It doesn't sound like the Celtics are very concerned with that.
"I always just tell him, you get to choose how you want the media to perceive you," Dooling said. "He's still a young guy. He's got some great mentors in this locker room. Myself and Kevin really pour a lot into him because we know when we're gone he's still going to be holding this league down."
He's currently holding the Celtics down with 23 straight games of 10 or more assists. On the season, Rondo is number one, with 11.6 dimes per game. He's got the court vision to make you swoon, the broken free throw stroke that makes you seethe and then that gear that few other players can ever reach to make you forget about the clanged shots at the stripe.
"He has a gift," Rivers said. "He has vision and feel, not only for what's going on, but for the team. He's a quarterback or great catcher. He has the ability to sense not only that moment, but the plays or stuff we should be running. He just has an incredible basketball IQ. It's like having another coach on the floor."
Don't let yourself be fooled into mistaking Rondo's laid-back demeanor for a lack of care.
"When you're destined to play this game like he is, eventually you understand what your ticket is," Dooling said of Rondo falling in love with basketball late.
Finding the game later than most of his NBA colleagues hasn't lessened Rondo's hunger for greatness, though.
"I think he has pure passion for the game," Dooling explained. "He loves the game, he's a thinker of the game, he's a student of the game, he's a historian of the game. He wants to be special. He wants to quietly leave his mark on this league and he wants to kind of do it his way."
And so we realize that his way is not the usual way, while also learning that different is okay.
"He's a reserved guy," Dooling stressed. "Don't allow people to tell you that this guy is a jerk or an a**hole because he's quiet and he doesn't want to talk before games or he doesn't have this superman personality, this Dwight Howard personality."
We're all seeing how that Dwight Howard personality is looking today. In Boston there is only a raw realness on display with a team of gritty, grizzled veterans being led by their own most valuable and probably most undervalued player.
"That's the beauty about our game," Dooling continued. "There's different layers, different backgrounds, different personalities. He's one of those quiet, confident guys who just loves the game. Maybe not a lot of things that come with the game, but he loves the game."
Shouldn't that be enough? It's enough for the guys who have Celtics jerseys hanging in their lockers.
"You live, you learn," Dooling said about Rondo's relationship with the media. "Rondo's going to continue to get better. Maybe one day he'll embrace talking before the game and maybe he won't and that doesn't make him a jerk. The only thing I have to say is if John Stockton never talked before the game, never signed autographs and he was considered a saint and he was one of the roughest and toughest players in our league and was still considered a saint, why is Rajon Rondo vilified? That's unfair."
What advice does Dooling have for all of us not privy to what goes down behind the scenes in Boston?
"We've got to glorify and appreciate what he is and stop talking about what he's not."
We might feel that we don't know all that much of who Rondo is, but it's becoming more and more clear that the answers are right in front of us. We know that he has a feel for the game that cannot be taught. We know that his teammates trust in him to make the right call. That his coach considers him an extension of the coaching staff. That he would rather play with a dislocated elbow than have to watch helplessly from the sideline. He will do anything, everything, to win. We know these things. Rondo knows the most important thing: his role. He might not play into the image of what we'd like him to be, but he plays his position as a leader to perfection.
That's really all we have to know.