I will be quite honest. While he was at Kentucky, I really didnt much like Rajon Rondo. I of course cheered his flashes of brilliance on the basketball court, such as his magical games against Louisville, the buzzer beater vs Central Florida and his dizzying dribbling ability that led to a walk call vs Florida simply because the referee couldnt keep up with Rondo’s quickness. But I wasnt a fan of Rondo off the court. Rondo’s problems werent that of the stereotypical problem child, as he never got into real trouble, had no embarrassing incidents and handled his class work well. Instead, he was simply a difficult person to like with cool relationships with the fans, the UK staff and his teammates.
It was the latter that likely clouded my opinion of Rondo. While he was at Kentucky, Rajon simply did not have a close relationship with those on his team. It wasnt that they disliked him, he just was never really considered to be one of the guys. During his time at Kentucky, Rondo was somewhat of a loner. He came to the games by himself, spent most of his time on campus alone and was never really a part of the team chemistry. That is ok if you are just one member of the team, but not when you are its best player and people look to you for leadership. Much is made about Rondo not fitting in with Tubby Smith’s style of play and there is definite truth to that. But it is also the case that some of Rondo’s problems in college were self-inflicted, caused by an inability to harness his talent and that of his teammates by embracing his leadership role on and off the court. His time at Kentucky wasnt a failure, but it could have been so much more…and there are many who should take blame for that, not least of all Rajon himself.
During interviews with the press, I rarely if ever saw Rajon smile and often wondered if he was a happy person. Big Baby Davis recently said that he spent a month with Rajon in high school on a traveling team and never heard Rondo say a word. His tendency to keep to himself contributed in part to a lack of all-out love from UK fans in general. Whereas Tayshaun Prince, Chuck Hayes and other former UK players always get tons of Big Blue Nation love, Rondo’s always seems a little less muted. No one is against him, but few seem to celebrate his successes in the way that Tayshaun Prince’s NBA title and Olympic gold medal were considered to be part ours as well. Like he did to them while in Lexington, Kentucky fans have somewhat kept Rajon at a distance, appreciate his brilliance but not embracing it as their own.
But that is starting to change. In the last few months, in part no doubt inspired by his brilliant play, I sense that Rajon Rondo is becoming more fully embraced by UK fans. From a personal standpoint, I find myself pulling for Rajon more and more. My change on him began two years ago when he showed up surprisingly for Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford’s Senior Day, presenting each of them with their framed jerseys. It was a turning point moment for me as it was the first time I had seen Rajon truly embrace UK as a program and his fellow teammates in such a way. Ramel Bradley later told me that it was one of his favorite moments of his UK career and Rajon’s surprise appearance totally took him off guard. That day was my favorite Rajon day in Rupp and began to slowly change my outlook on him.
Then this season, it has seemed that Rajon has fully grown into his potential on and off the court. Stories are being written by Boston media about his new connection with teammates after a summer where he was nearly traded. Whereas he was once only described as a recluse who had no leadership abilities, now he has become the player the Celtics revolve around on the court and he is the main communicator on a team full of Future Hall of Famers. The Rondo of UK, where his high school coach complained publically about playing time and Rondo sulked when things werent going well, has transformed into a confident young man with supreme abilities. He is now challenged by Lebron and talked about as a perennial All-Star. The fact that this has happened, while his own personality traits seem to have evolved is surely no coincidence.
I have heard more pro-Rondo sentiment this year from UK fans than at any point in the past. Whether it is his amazing play, new connection with John Calipari or personal growth, Rondo is becoming part of the Big Blue Nation like never before. And on a personal level, I can now say that I have become a fan myself. I used to say that in five years of covering the team, even though he wasnt really a bad kid, Rondo was the only player I didnt really like. Watching his new connection to his University, his growing maturity and his evolution on the court, I am now fully a Rondo fan. I will never be able to cheer for the Celtics or anything Boston-based…but I am pulling for number 9. Its about time.