The toughest man pound-for-pound in the NBA is working on his third Shirley Temple, extra grenadine, as he recovers from the Connect Four incident. Before he landed in Boston, became the Celtics' starting point guard, won a championship, was voted to the All-Star Game, suffered a torn ACL and watched his team play its best basketball of the season without him, Rajon Rondo grew up in a development near downtown Louisville called College Court. His mother allowed him to roam the neighborhood during the day, but she demanded he be home by the time the streetlights flickered on at dusk. Rondo would set up a Connect Four grid on the front porch and play deep into the night, welcoming friends and family members to his stoop, and then dispatching them all. "He beat everybody," says his mom, Amber Rondo. The boy possessed an unearthly ability to see the entire board and think three moves ahead.
When the Celtics drafted Rondo in 2006, they encouraged their first-round pick to ingratiate himself in his new hometown through public appearances and community events. "But I'm not a great people person," Rondo says. In a sports world filled with phonies, sons of the street who sand their jagged edges for mass consumption, Rondo is as real as a rusted rim. He is the ultimate showman, hurling lobs 50 feet in the air during warmups and fielding tip-offs with his forehead, yet he couldn't give a whit about showmanship. Rondo scoffs at the stars who list themselves as game-time decisions with ankle tweaks—"They just want an excuse if they don't play well"—and fumes at the ones who hug opponents as if they're at a Junior League luncheon. "I'm not trying to make friends," he says. "We can talk in the summer." Opposing point guards, weary of Rondo's jawing and jostling, wonder if he is picking a fight with them or simply doesn't like them. "With Rajon," says Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, "there ain't no f------ around."
The Celtics didn't want to change Rondo when he arrived, but they didn't want to hide him either. So at charity functions he perched behind a folding table where he could avoid the back-slapping, baby-hugging and other standard forms of celebrity fakery. He just played Connect Four, against anybody who dared, usually two grids at a time and sometimes three. "This has been going on for six years," Matt Meyersohn, the Celtics' director of community relations, said on Dec. 22 during an event at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester, Mass. "He's played hundreds of Connect Four games, maybe a thousand. And he's never lost."
Later that day Rondo sat behind a table and three grids. Across from him were more than 100 children he had showered with bikes, Razor scooters and iPod Touches that he bought at Target and distributed from the back of a U-Haul. "I thought he might let us win," said a 12-year-old named Olisa. "But he was so serious." Rondo wore the requisite Santa hat with jolly red shoes, but through 22 consecutive victories he barely uttered a word or cracked a smile. He held each disk aloft for a solid 10 seconds before depositing it in his chosen column. He stared the kids down as if they were Knicks.
Olisa was the last challenger. He stared back at Rondo through wire-rimmed glasses. He clenched teeth covered with braces. He initiated what he called a trap, forcing Rondo to the right side of the grid, putting him on the defensive. When Olisa dropped the winning disk, Celtics officials started to shout. Meyersohn grabbed the microphone. "This has never happened!" he bellowed. Olisa rushed around the table to take a picture with the shell-shocked champion, who tried to curl up a corner of his mouth for the camera but instead bowed his head, resulting in a snapshot of his scalp.
Two hours later, hopped up on grenadine over lunch at a sushi restaurant in Boston's Back Bay, Rondo looked as if he were still digesting a piece of bad shrimp tempura. "I can't believe it," he said. "But did you notice I played the guy five more times and won them all? I had to show him, 'You beat me, but I'll beat the s--- out of you.'"
On Jan. 25 in Atlanta, Rondo played 45 minutes and two overtimes against the Hawks, despite picking up what he believed was a tweaked right hamstring. Two days later, at the shootaround before a game against the Heat, Rondo was still icing the hamstring when Celtics doctor Brian McKeon felt Rondo's right knee and sent him to New England Baptist Hospital for an MRI. Just as Chicago's Derrick Rose was rehabbing his torn ACL, another mesmerizing young ballhandler was felled by the same injury, at a critical juncture in his career.
Rondo, 27, was averaging 13.7 points and 11.1 assists—nobody else in the NBA even cracks double figures in assists—while shooting 48.4%, fourth among guards, stunning considering teams used to leave him open at the free throw line. Rondo has a complicated relationship with the basket ("A lot of times I'll be shooting and think, Maybe I should pass"), but he was up to 48% from 16 to 23 feet, according to hoopdata.com, compared to 39% last season. The Celtics always wondered what Rondo could accomplish if he burned those sagging defenses, and after dozens of fruitless sessions with shot doctors, he was curing his jumper thanks to one simple piece of advice from New York's Jason Kidd: "If you're going to shoot, you need to have your mind made up that you're going to do it." Rondo was due to start in the All-Star Game for the first time, an honor he took so seriously that he declined to pose for a picture in the uniform, for fear of jinxing himself.
Instead of turning the crank on Boston's championship window, Rondo underwent surgery on Feb. 12 and is enduring the implication that his team is somehow better without him. The Celtics won their first seven games in Rondo's absence, with a handful of regulars sharing playmaking duties and leading scorer Paul Pierce averaging more than seven assists. Rondo has declined interviews since he hobbled out of TD Garden on Jan. 27 and has been following the team from home, but there's no way he is missing the irony: Boston lost the best passer in the league and the fastest runner on the roster, yet its ball movement improved and so did its pace. The team was averaging 14.97 transition possessions per 48 minutes before Rondo's injury, according to Synergy Sports, and 15.26 during the streak after it. Of course, the Celtics are not better without Rondo, and come spring they will be reminded why. Over the past three years he has been their most reliable playoff performer and their strongest rebuttal to Miami. How quickly one forgets the 44 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds he hung on the Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Given Rondo's affection for national television (21 of his 28 triple doubles have come on the big broadcasts), Nike should film his rehab like Adidas did with Rose. A torn ACL used to require at least a full year of recovery, but 48 hours after the diagnosis Boston general manager Danny Ainge declared that he expected Rondo "back and as good as ever in training camp." Ainge cited Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who embarked on a 2,000-yard season less than nine months after ACL surgery, and former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, who returned to the court only seven months after the procedure. Ainge's projection was based partly on technology—the operation has grown more sophisticated while the rehab has become more streamlined—and partly on psychology. "The Peterson type, the Rose type, the Rondo type, these are perfectionists with a meticulous approach to everything they do," says Kevin Wilk, clinical director for Champion Sports Medicine, who oversees physical therapy for patients of Dr. James Andrews, the surgeon who performed Rondo's operation. "If guys like that are doing 10 reps, and the eighth isn't right, they'll start over where someone else will stop. They won't ever shut it down."