Rajon Rondo was supposed to be washed up after nine NBA seasons. At least that’s what a lot of folks in Dallas would have said.
So it appeared the time had come for Rondo to look for other things to do since his best days on the basketball court were behind him.
So how does Rondo, 29, make the most of his free time these days?
“I’m more so into reading now,” Rondo said. “Different religions, growing plants, I’m doing things of that nature. It’s kind of crazy. I never thought I’d be doing things like this, at this age. I always thought I’d get into gardening or something like that when I was 50.”
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Rondo’s garden (he’s currently growing tomatoes) might be nice, but he isn’t ready to become a full-time gardener.
What Rondo is doing is setting up his Kings teammates at a rate Sacramento hasn’t seen in decades. Entering Wednesday night, he led the NBA in assists per game at 10.8 and reminded anyone who thought a knee injury two years ago had made him an NBA afterthought that they wrote his basketball eulogy prematurely.
No, Rondo is alive and thriving in Sacramento, continuing his 10th season after signing a one-year, $9.5 million contract with the Kings during the summer. He’s been an All-Star and an NBA champion. He’s been labeled a basketball savant and a malcontent.
Rondo came to the Kings after 46 forgettable games in Dallas last season. That stretch marked his worst since the early days of his career in Boston. He was shunned by teammates, labeled a locker-room cancer and clashed with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
But Rondo has found a common ground with Kings coach George Karl, which he says has a lot to do with his strong play.
Fifteen games into the season, Rondo has already tied or broken records for assists in a game and consecutive games with at least 10 assists. With four triple doubles, he’s one from tying the Kings’ Sacramento-era record for most in a season.
He’s one of those guys, he sees everything. You watch him play and you can see that he sees it all out there.
Scott Skiles, Orlando coach
“He just has great vision, great timing,” said Orlando coach Scott Skiles. “He’s one of those guys, he sees everything. You watch him play and you can see that he sees it all out there.”
Karl has clearly connected with Rondo in a way Carlisle did not. Rondo is flourishing on offense, averaging 12.7 points (almost two points higher than his 10.9 career average) with the freedom Karl gives his players to be creative.
“It has to do with the coach,” Rondo said. “It has to do with your team. It has to do with freedom. They all play a role. I worked my (butt) off this summer and I’m continuing to get better.”
Perhaps no one enjoys Rondo’s wizardry on the court more than Karl.
“It’s pretty much fun watching him re-create his career a little bit,” Karl said. “He’s kind of seized the moment and played at a high, high level. I really enjoy coaching him.”
Rondo’s passing and floor generalship conjure memories of his All-Star play in Boston, but that’s not to say he hasn’t grown up and taken a different worldview. When he was younger, he indulged in some of the flashier aspects of NBA life. Today, jewelry does not excite him in the same manner as his thirst for knowledge.
“I have a little more downtime, and when I do want to decompress and get my mind off of basketball, I’m into things of that nature,” Rondo said. “To try to educate myself, doing stuff for the community and trying to help educate young kids.”
That’s part of how he got into gardening. Rondo said his chef helps him a lot with the process. In some ways, Rondo the gardener is a perfect metaphor for what the Kings need from him this season.
“The way the life grows, plants depend on you to be healthy and make sure they grow the right way,” Rondo said. “I wouldn’t say it’s like taking care of a kid, but you do have to keep the maintenance up, make sure you’re giving them a little bit of attention.”
The Kings need him to help cultivate and bring the best out of DeMarcus Cousins, their All-Star center who has never experienced a winning NBA season.
Rondo sees some of himself at a younger age in Cousins. People labeled Rondo difficult for his misunderstood rage that was really a desire to win. Rondo loves playing alongside Cousins, who he says is the best big man in basketball.
And it’s fitting because Cousins, who has the word “misunderstood” tattooed on his leg, has a kindred spirit in Rondo, who has been labeled the same thing.
I feel like people misunderstand Rondo’s competitive nature and his drive and his will to win.
Brandon Bass, Los Angeles Lakers forward
“I feel like people misunderstand Rondo’s competitive nature and his drive and his will to win,” said Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Bass, who played alongside Rondo in Boston. “That’s what I think. As far as me playing with him, he was a great teammate to me, he helped take my game to the next level. I think he’s going to do that with the guys over there.”
Rondo has been called too smart for his own good because some coaches do not want to deal with a player who knows the game just as well, if not better.
Meanwhile, Rondo is puzzled why basketball is so hard for others.
“People say I have a high IQ, but I feel like the game is so easy and people may complicate it,” Rondo said. “Or if you don’t put the time and work in, you may make it seem complicated to you.
“But this is all we have to do, is play basketball. This is our job. In college you to study for tests and do other things off the court. But in the NBA, beside your family, this is what you do 24/7.”
Rondo is consistent in saying he doesn’t watch the news, where he might hear his critics. He’s into movies and watching his favorite television shows such as “Scandal” and “Empire.”
Then there are the books and the gardening when Rondo’s not studying how he can help the Kings turn around what has been a disappointing start.
“I just think he’s a very smart dude, very competitive and I just think that’s Rondo growing as a competitor and a person,” Bass said. “That’s what causes him to get more into books because it’s not really the cool thing. So for him to do that, it just means he’s trying to expand himself on and off the court.”
Rondo is determined – through his charitable foundation and other avenues – to make an impact away from the court. He also wants to pass on more than his basketball knowledge to his children.
He’s made more than $60 million playing basketball but does not want his children to believe money makes them superior and is instilling the importance of community service with them.
“I didn’t finish college,” said Rondo, who attended Kentucky. “I don’t look back on it or regret it. My goal was to do what I’m doing now and I reached that goal. But now I have new interests and new hobbies and new goals in life I’m looking forward to. I want to make a change and make a difference and continue educating myself.”