On Wednesday, shortly after Boston point guard Rajon Rondo responded to the hard foul by Kris Humphries on Kevin Garnett with a flash of anger and fists, a second fight broke out among NBA fans around the country: Whether or not the mercurial Celtics star is worth all the trouble.
This is the third time in 10 months Rondo has been suspended. The triumvirate began with throwing a ball at an official last season, continued when he made contact with an official during the playoffs, and now has been punctuated with a full-fledged fight against another player that went to the stands — spread to the point that Nets forward Gerald Wallace was fined $35,000 and Garnett fined $25,000 for escalating the brawl, and left Boston without its best player for an entire half against a very good Brooklyn team.
That Rondo is a magnificent talent is not in doubt. He is a playmaker extraordinaire, and had been chasing Magic Johnson’s streak of consecutive games with 10 or more assists when his ejection brought an abrupt halt to his stretch at 37 games, nine behind the Magic mark.
But his outbursts, his surliness, the telltale signs that there is as much (or more?) ego that comes with Rondo as talent — and the question of whether it is all worth it — remain difficult to grasp. As Garnett and Paul Pierce near the end of their stellar careers, the Celtics will soon face a decision about whether or not they want this unpredictable force to be their leader and face of their franchise — or someone else’s worry.
The answer’s not easy, and it goes beyond what most of us can know from a distance. It goes well beyond basketball. It is not so simple to say that Rondo is worth the trouble, or to buy into the idea that going after Humphries was a sign of real loyalty, having his guy’s back and being a warrior for the team. It is not so simple to say it’s time to trade him, that nobody is worth this drama, that to build around him is a long-term mistake, that he’s a bad guy who happens to be great at basketball.
The real question here is whether what happened Wednesday night in Boston reflects Rondo’s loyalty to his team or his own ego. Head coach Doc Rivers and general manager Danny Ainge will have to make the decision, and probably they alone are in a position to ferret out whether Rondo is all about Rondo, or whether Rondo is invested in his team to the point that he loses self-control in their defense.
If it’s the former, get him gone as fast as possible. If it’s the latter, invest for the long haul. I have no idea which is the right call.
Talent is not easy to manage, or often to assess, because the value of the talent can blur the truth behind the person brandishing it. That Rondo is a superb player is certain. A superb teammate? A superb guy? A superb person to have in the trenches when the bombs start to drop? Much harder to know. He may be all of those things. He may be none of them.
This is not unique to basketball. All organizations that manage talent will come across situations in which they must weigh the contributions of a star against that star’s pitfalls, ego, self-delusion, narcissism and selfishness. Politics, sports, media, big business, the music and movie industries — in all these areas incredible success leads to decent people succumbing to these things. But that same incredible success can also mask — and often, for a very long time, excuse — the ego, self-delusion and narcissism and selfishness that was there all along.
In “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” a fascinating book by Kevin Dutton, the research psychologist at Oxford argues that the traits of psychosis can be found in successful politicians, saints, spies and business leaders. And while Rondo is missing some of the “seven deadly wins” Dutton writes about (namely, “charm”), the overall point is the same: Incredible success makes for a great cover for some less-than-desirable people.
My point isn’t that Rondo or any other player might be a psychopath. It’s that, unlike individual endeavors, like running for office or being a spy in which one person’s singular drive for themselves can pay off, sports is a team game. That means guys who can’t occasionally subsume their own ego will inevitably get in the way of the team goal.
So to assess whether or not this latest Rondo outburst warrants the Celtics fully embracing him for the long term, or jettisoning him while the price is high, depends less on basketball and more on the particulars of Rajon Rondo as a person.
If he’s a team guy, and he really did go after Humphries because he felt his team had been attacked and his own deep loyalty for someone else kicked in — well, then, he’s a huge commodity. He cares. He’s in the foxhole for the right reasons. Make him a cornerstone.
But if his past outbursts with officials — moments that seem much more about Rondo needing to feel superior than “leading” his team — speak more closely to whom he is; if his difficulties with management stem from Rondo being less about the Celtics and more about weaving that myth so he can excuse his own egomaniacal need for control; if, in the end, he’s one of the finest basketball players on earth but just not a very good guy — well, then, that’s different. That’s a talent best shipped elsewhere.
Success can change people, but those people can usually find their way back to themselves when confronted with their own mistakes. But success also masks who people really are — it allows them to make excuses for their behavior and allows their self-righteous, excuse-making to get them further then it should. Those folks, when their egos and narcissism finally show themselves, usually can’t correct course. They are who they are.
Whether or not Rajon Rondo is worth all the trouble is far from a basketball question. All these outbursts beg the questions: Who is Rajon Rondo? What is he about away from the cameras? What, in the end, does he really care about?
With people like this, only those closest to them, those who see them at their strongest and weakest, those who can assess their character despite their mistakes or hypocrisy — despite their charms — truly know.
Which means this decision rests solely with the Boston Celtics.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org