BOSTON — Time and time again the word was used in the preseason.
To the point where you had to wonder if it was just an overused Celtic talking point.
That simple but powerful term has fit scores of Celtics over the years like a broken in pair of high tops.
But Rajon Rondo?
He’s breathtaking, he’s unique, he’s maddening, he’s the star of stars when the lights are brightest. He’s so many things, but leader, for years, would be the last quality you’d attach to him.
There was almost a dismissive “Rondo being Rondo” description. He was a bit aloof, a bit arrogant, a bit quirky.
But the Celtics say he has grown, that he has deftly dealt with having three larger than life teammates in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett the now-departed Ray Allen, all three of whom may be first-ballot Hall of Famers.
At 26, the seventh-year guard out of Kentucky is at the top of his game and relishing the chance to lead the aging but still formidable Celtics, who open up their season at defending champion Miami Tuesday.
At the recent Celtics media day, new Celtic Jason Terry talked about winning the 2011 NBA title with the Mavericks.
He said, “It was all about sacrifice. In Dallas, Jason Kidd was a big part of that. You have to have a leader. You have to have a guy running the ship. Here in Boston you have Rondo. He’s the best in the business, if you ask me.”
Former teammate Keyon Dooling called him, “The most underappreciated leader in this league” and “an amazing leader.”
Kevin Garnett said of the leadership role, “It’s something he’s earned.”
Let’s take a look at some characteristics of a leader and if Rondo does indeed possess them.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has repeatedly said of Rondo: “He’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached. Maybe that I’ve ever been around.”
Rivers and assistant Armond Hill even let him design a last-second play during a preseason game vs. the Nets. It almost worked and probably should have but the refs put their whistles away despite heavy contact.
Being a coach on the floor isn’t all natural. Rivers has praised Rondo for his dedication to film study.
If teammates don’t think you care for them, they won’t follow you.
When Avery Bradley was demoted to the Developmental League in January 2011, Rondo visited him, encouraged him and even planned on visiting him in Maine before that fell through.
“It showed how much he cared about me,” Bradley told ESPN Boston’s Jackie MacMullan. “How much he cares about everybody.”
Marquis Daniels, whose playing time in Boston was spotty, told MacMullan Rondo implored him to stay ready.
“He’s such an incredible teammate and he gets such a bad rap,” said Daniels.
Plays well with others
As the NBA leader in assists at 11.7 a game last winter, Rondo obviously shares the ball.
But there is the nagging feud with Ray Allen. Like a lot of sharpshooters, Allen is a bit compulsive-obsessive.
But a leader should negotiate his way through that minefield. It doesn’t appear Rondo did a very good job of it as those two had a contentious relationship.
Not afraid to
speak his mind
As a young player playing for one of the most respected coaches in the league — and a former point guard at that — Rondo isn’t going to dictate things the way a Chris Paul or Deron Williams might.
But with Allen banged up and struggling a bit, he pushed for unproven Avery Bradley to get his chance. Once Bradley flourished, Rondo pushed for him to keep his spot. Surprisingly, Rivers agreed.
He’s smart enough to know that he can be an acquired taste.
“It’s not easy accepting a young guy with my type of demeanor or attitude to take charge,” Rondo admitted.
Cool under fire
His play in the biggest games is becoming the stuff of legends. Rondo was simply brilliant last spring, averaging 17.3 points, 11.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds in the postseason.
He put the club on his back late in Game 7 vs. the 76ers, scoring nine straight points late in a thriller after Pierce had fouled out.
He has to guard against just being a big-game player. Too often he doesn’t bring his “A” game when the national audience isn’t tuning in.
While Rondo the player loves the big moments, Rondo the leader has some growing to do in this respect.
He was suspended for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Hawks when he bumped a referee. He also was suspended two games in February for tossing the ball at a ref.
That’s selfish and stupid and a sure way to earn a bad reputation with the whistle blowers.
Think outside of the box
Time spent away from the court often forges the strongest bonds. The champion 2008 Celtics, for example, say their preseason trip to Rome did wonders for team chemistry in the first year of the new Big 3 era.
Contrary to his reputation, Rondo has shown a knack for team-building.
Dooling told CSNNE.com’s Jessica Camerato, “Our guys spend so much time at the Rondo family home. ... We’re downstairs with the fellas playing cards, talking trash, watching sports.”
Because he’s never been media friendly, Rondo is often covered more harshly than his more glib and cooperative teammates.
Before this season, Rondo brought his teammates to Los Angeles for some fun in the sun and a lot of touch football. One guess who the ever confident Rondo said was the best player?
Rondo said the objective was, “Just to get the guys away from the facility and build some chemistry.”
Mental and physical toughness
The daring drives to the basket come with a price. Like beating up the quarterback in football, beating up the quarterback in basketball gives the opponent a leg up.
But this quarterback doesn’t have happy feet.
There is no doubt he’s one of the league’s premier floppers – it will be interesting to see if he gets burned the new no-flopping rule. Yet, he also is bounced around as much as anyone in the league.
That hasn’t stopped him. In the 2011 playoffs, he played with a hyperextended left elbow, winning a ton of respect for his toughness.
He has, on occasion, covered LeBron James, despite giving up seven inches and 70 pounds. James is now up to the challenge, but initially he was taken aback by Rondo’s bravado and aggressiveness.
His SportsCenter-leading diving save and basket vs. Orlando and Jason Williams in the 2010 playoffs revealed a ferocious competitor who’ll put his body at risk to make a play.
Rondo’s post-season play speaks volumes about his mental toughness.
Critics say he does, at times, shy away from taking the ball to the basket because he’s such a poor free throw shooter (.619 for his career).
If that continues to be the case, that will certainly hurt him and his team as it did with Shaquille O’Neal and Antoine Walker and other poor free throw shooters.
Growth as a player
Pro sports is littered with underachievers whose attitude, lack of work ethic, or lack of physical or mental toughness held them back.
Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Carmelo Anthony and Eddy Curry come to mind.
Ex-Celtic P.J. Brown, a teammate in 2008, was impressed early with how Rondo wanted to be great. He said he’d be at the gym to work on his conditioning and often run into Rondo doing extra work.
“That proved to me this kid’s special and he’s going to be a star one day,” Brown told Sports Illustrated in 2008.
In his early years, teams would play off him, daring him to score.
The chink in the armor continues to be his poor shooting. At this point, the odds are slim he’ll ever be a good shooter, but there is a big difference between a mediocre shooter and someone a team doesn’t even feel compelled to guard.
He still has to work on the free throw shooting and jump shooting.
Accept the challenge
Rondo isn’t shirking from the challenge of leading.
And he’s setting the bar high.
“Rondo tells me every day what it’s going to mean to win another championship,” said Terry.
E-mail Michael Muldoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.