WALTHAM (CBS) – For the last three years, the saying has gone “as Rajon Rondo goes, the Boston Celtics go.”
As Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen aged, the Celtics turned to their young and flashy point guard to lead the team. There were bumps along the way as Rondo matured into his role. At times he stepped up to the challenge, doing everything he had to in order to will his team to victory. At others, he showed his immaturity by taking risks on defense, trying to get a little too cute with passes, or even losing his cool on the court.
With the “Big Three Era” over, this is now officially Rondo’s team. Now in his seventh year, Rondo is up to the challenge, and has already shown signs of his leadership for a group that is a mix of savvy vets and youth.
But for Rondo, his transition into the Celtics’ leader has been a year in the making.
“Well honestly I think it started last year,” he said from the Celtics Media Day podium on Friday. “The Big Three, Doc, and myself, we had a meeting to start the season and they all told me this is my team now and we go as you go.”
“It’s a work in progress. I think I’ve gained or earned their respect,” he said. “They see how hard I work here in the gym, they see how I play the game, they see how unselfish I am over time, and they accept the role of me stepping up and becoming a leader.”
Training camp may officially start Saturday, with the team leaving for their European trip on Monday, but Rondo had already organized a full-team gathering out in Los Angeles last week; sort of a “getting-to-know you” party for a team that has one goal in mind – a championship.
“I wanted to take everyone out there so we could play together, get a little chemistry before we start and have a little fun,’’ Rondo said.
Aside from basketball, the trip also included a friendly flag football game. Rondo bragged he was the game’s MVP, throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The trip is just one sign that Rondo gets it now, and has matured into the leader the Celtics now need. He still has veterans in Garnett and Pierce to lean on, but the training wheels are off.
While those on the outside have questioned whether Rondo is up for the challenge, this is nothing new to those who have been around him.
“Rajon is really becoming a leader,” Celtics president of basketball ops. Danny Ainge said. “I’m not sure a few years ago we could have said that. He’s obviously a great player, but he right before our eyes has grown as a person and as a leader.”
“I think the hardest thing to do is to convince guys like Doc Rivers, and Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce that you’re a leader. And that’s something that you can’t just give to somebody that’s something that has to be earned,” added Ainge. “And I think that he is earning that respect from them as a leader of the team.”
“I think he was a leader, but he didn’t know how to,” said Garnett, adding he, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen taught him along the way. “He’s going to lead the way he feels and he’s going to do what’s best for the team, but I didn’t think Rondo knew how to lead. I think leaning on the veterans here sort of gave him direction on how to do that.”
“It’s a process,” said head coach Doc Rivers. “Three year ago he was learning how to be a leader, two years ago he got better, last year he got a lot better, and now he’s here.”
Even one of the Celtics newcomers is convinced, although he had been from afar prior to joining Boston.
“He’s the best in the business if you ask me,” said Jason Terry, who compared Rondo to the 2011 Championship Maverick’s leader, Jason Kidd. “He does it on both ends of the floor. Every night he comes to play.”
As a second-year player surrounded by future Hall of Famers back in 2008, Rondo had to earn respect. He did that. Now he has to show he can lead on and off the court. But he had great teachers, and thanks Garnett — who he said is his best friend on the team — for showing him the way.
“Kevin always wants to see me do well,” said Rondo. “From day one, I think my second year, when he first came in he told me he would be disappointed if I wasn’t the MVP of the league one day, if I wasn’t considered the best point guard one day. He’s always pushed me and expected more out of me than a lot of people did. He’s always showed me how to become a better person each day. Whenever I mess up, Kevin’s always the one to tell me, ‘You should do this, you should conduct yourself this way or handle it that way.’ So he’s kind of like a big brother-slash-mentor and he’s always wanted the best for me.”
While the changing of the guards was apparent over the last few years, the question was if Rondo was up to it. As the season is set to get underway, it appears the 26-year-old is ready, willing and able, and the Celtics are ready to follow.