The one that got away

Dan Wetzel

Day 7: Kentucky | Traveling Violations

LEXINGTON, Ky. – So here is how the hottest freshman guard in the country didn't attend his hometown school (because it was courting another), did wind up at his home-state school (but only after it had courted another), and is making the coach of the hometown school kick himself for blowing the entire deal.

In other words, how Rajon Rondo gave Kentucky a potential megastar in the making and also bragging rights over former coach Rick Pitino and archrival Louisville.

Which in these parts is always a good thing.

"I watched Rajon play the other night, he's really good," Pitino said Monday from the U of L practice facility. He was discussing an exhibition game where the 6-foot-1-inch guard put up 16 points, five assists and wowed everyone with some incredible play.

"That was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made in coaching," Pitino said.

The mistake was not seeing the future. In the summer of 2003, Rondo was a high-scoring but not highly recruited guard from Louisville's Eastern High School. Pitino liked him and, according to Rondo, offered him a scholarship which was turned down.

Whether Pitino offered or not is a moot point. Louisville's No. 1 choice was clearly Sebastian Telfair, the brilliant point from Brooklyn, N.Y. whom everyone wanted. Pitino got him – a cause for celebration on Planet Red.

Rondo was out of sight, out of mind. He chose to enroll at Virginia's Oak Hill Academy for his senior season and try and play his way into additional scholarship options.

"I felt going in I was confident enough to play with anyone," says Rondo, who went on to average 21.0 points a game. "I felt I needed to get out and show myself."

By the middle of the season, everyone had noticed including Kentucky. Tubby Smith claims he was aware of Rondo long before Oak Hill.

"We've known about Rajon for some time," Smith said here at Memorial Gym. "He's been to football games in the past. He's been on our radar."

But Smith had never offered him a scholarship, which meant he wasn't a recruiting priority. Instead, in the fall of 2003, UK heavily pursued (and signed) guard Ramel Bradley out of Florida.

But Rondo was now playing so well at Oak Hill that his coach there, Steve Smith, was calling him one of the best guards he'd ever had. And this is a guy who has coached scores of star players including Carmelo Anthony and Jerry Stackhouse.

So Tubby Smith stepped in and offered a scholarship. Rondo quickly said yes. Louisville could shrug its shoulders because it had Telfair.

Except the Cardinals didn't. This past spring, Telfair entered the NBA draft. He wound up as a first-round pick of Portland and signed a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Adidas.

Pitino was left holding the bag. By then Rondo, whom Pitino probably could have had nine months earlier, was playing so well in postseason all-star games that scouts were calling him the top point guard recruit actually headed to college. And the fact that he was headed to Pitino's former employer didn't help.

Which happens sometimes in the unpredictable game of recruiting.

"Now that it is over I should have realized that the percentages were against me with Sebastian Telfair," says Pitino, who will sign two point guards this fall who promise to be around a while. "But going in I thought the opposite because there had never been a point guard who went pro.

"But knowing New York City, knowing the surroundings of Sebastian Telfair, I should have realized he was going."

Rondo isn't sure what to think of Pitino admitting a mistake when it comes to his recruitment.

"I'm at Kentucky now," he says. "I don't want to say he made a mistake. He did what he had to do. When we play Louisville, it will just be another big game."

This back-and-forth drama, however, has gripped fans of both programs – fans whose love of their own team is matched only by their hatred of the other. Some UK fans in particular view Pitino as a traitor for ever going to Louisville.

Tubby Smith could care less. He has a ridiculously athletic point guard, who is a hard worker and a team player.

"I'm just impressed with his maturity level," Smith says. "He's a very mature kid, really grown up. I think going off to Oak Hill really helped him."

After an intriguing recruiting soap opera, a Kentucky star is set to be born.