Rondo was not raised on basketball, nearly quit the sport in high school and entered the NBA as a third-stringer. He is 6'1" and 186 pounds, waifish compared with muscled peers such as Rose, and still reluctant to shoot. He has never played in a transition offense or partnered with a premier roll man, yet he has racked up assist averages over the past two seasons not seen since Magic Johnson and John Stockton while snagging rebounds as if he were six inches taller. Some of his stat lines—like his 16-point, 14-assist, 13-rebound game against the 76ers on Dec. 7—appear to have never before been printed in a box score. "There's no one in the history of our game like him," says former forward Brian Scalabrine, who spent four seasons with Rondo in Boston. "He's the most interesting player I've ever known. How does someone who is 6'1" get 18 rebounds? How does someone who doesn't run fast break get 20 assists? How does someone who never shoots get everybody open? We cannot begin to understand how he does it."
Amber considered calling him Roderick, after an uncle. William, his oldest brother, preferred Johnny. They settled on Rajon, a name that would be butchered by a hundred broadcasters. RAH-zhan was born at University of Louisville Hospital in 1986, and before his mother laid eyes on the baby boy with the narrow cheekbones, a doctor approached in awe. "His hands," the obstetrician gushed, "are humongous."
Twenty years later, when Rondo was coming out of Kentucky after two seasons, the Celtics prepared a scouting report on him that referred to what Ainge called "freak factors." Rondo's hands, 9½ inches long and 10 inches wide, are the size of a 7-footer's. His wingspan is 6'9", common for a power forward. If built proportionally, he says, "I'd be like Magic or Oscar Robertson." In peripheral vision tests Rondo beats everybody except Ainge, and on road trips he can recall exact directions to places he visited once. Ainge has seen him throw a football 80 yards, hit a softball 380 feet and beat 33-year-old assistant general manager Ryan McDonough in a 40-yard dash with a tire strapped to his waist. In college Rondo stole the ball from his man 16% of the time; no one else in the 2006 draft swiped it more than 5%.
For a pure point guard, a term polluted by a generation of gunners, there is little difference between basketball and Connect Four. Disks on a grid are like players on a court, pieces to move, forming angles to exploit. If Rose is a dervish, Rondo is a strategist, turning down open layups for more-open three-pointers, repositioning one teammate to make room for another, taking an extra glide step on a pick-and-roll so an older big man can work free. He cradles the ball in his suction-cup palms, pointing it left and right, wrapping it around his head and waist, shifting the defense with every sleight of hand. Each pump fake and sideways glance is designed to create an extra inch of space. Rondo passes with flamboyance and disdain, spiking the ball off the floor or firing it through a mob, and he finishes with more English than a pool shark. His floaters are high enough to hit the shot clock. "If you're not careful," says former Bucks coach Scott Skiles, "you get paralyzed watching him."
Rondo will call a play early in a game that produces an easy basket and refuse to run it for the next three quarters. "I'm saving that one," he reasons. When he thinks back on a pass—like his alltime favorite, the spin move and behind-the-back bullet he threaded through two hands in midair to Ray Allen for a corner three last year at Golden State—he closes his eyes. "It was a risky play," he says, "but I'm a risky player." Young Celtics joke about times they've been hit in the head with Rondo no-looks. "I don't hit them in the head," Rondo clarifies. "I hit them in the face."
Rondo's style, creative and eccentric, is an expression of his personality. "Everybody wants to score, score, score," he says. "So I want to pass. I like to be different. I could never be a follower." When he was a boy, his friends wore Air Jordan sneakers, which forced him into Air Max. Even now, when the Celtics work out in green shirts, he chooses white. Coaches traditionally instruct players to shoot with their left hand on the left side of the rim, but Rondo uses his right, limiting exposure to the ball. In November he surprised an algebra class at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, and wound up giving an impromptu lesson. The teacher told him he solved equations in a way she had never seen before.
Rondo takes five showers on game days, the last one precisely 45 minutes before tip-off, because he does his best thinking in the water. He jumps out to scribble ideas, which can present problems, since he is a germaphobe who hates being barefoot. He keeps three or four pairs of shower shoes in his locker. "I'm a little OCD," he admits. He guzzles five bottles of water on the drive to the arena so he doesn't have to bother with Gatorade cups on the bench, and he tucks a tube of Carmex in his sock to keep his lips hydrated. The company sends hundreds of refills before each season, helpful considering how many teammates ask for a dollop. Rondo dispenses it on their fingertips. His routine is carefully choreographed, from the sky-scraping lob he launches in pregame layup lines to the opening dribble off his head or chest or knee. Garnett used to corral the tip from Perkins and hike it between his legs to Rondo. Then the Celtics traded Perkins to Oklahoma City, where he hikes to Russell Westbrook. Rondo winces at the thought. "It still seems like we're trying to replace Perk," he says.
He maintains 3.5% body fat, even though he spreads entire cubes of butter on pieces of bread, and he eschews heavy weightlifting because he fears it will compromise his quickness. Rondo spends most of his free time playing cornhole, a game typically reserved for frat boys at Big Ten tailgate parties. He owns two wooden boards, emblazoned with Kentucky and Louisville logos, which he spaces 27 feet apart in his front yard, according to the official rules. He installed a fire pit so he can play through the winter with his neighbor, a thirtysomething Boston businessman who has become equally consumed with tossing beanbags into circular holes. Rondo is thinking of entering national cornhole tournaments. "I'm ranked Number 1," he says. He is kidding, but you have to ask to make sure. He does nothing for amusement.
After a December practice in Chicago, Rondo played one-on-one with Celtics guard Courtney Lee and scored the first eight baskets. "Now we'll get serious," Lee said. Rondo was incredulous. "Isn't it always serious?" he asked. Rondo and Lee also played two-on-two at full speed, less than three hours before games. "It starts fun," Lee says. "Then it gets personal." When Rondo was ejected on Nov. 28 for pushing the Nets' Kris Humphries after a hard foul on Garnett, which snapped Rondo's streak of 37 games with 10 or more assists, his high school coach asked why he'd jeopardize such a historic run. "I don't give a damn about that," Rondo replied. He explained that Brooklyn players were calling Boston soft before the game, loud enough to hear in the locker room across the hall. "I wasn't looking to fight," Rondo told the coach, Doug Bibby. "I had no choice."
Teammates encourage Rondo to take up poker in addition to cornhole because he wears the same flat gaze whether celebrating or seething. He can throw a no-look alley-oop over his head from the three-point line, as he did to a giggling Kenneth Faried at an exhibition game during the 2011 lockout, or miss a midrange jumper when no one is within 10 feet of him, and he responds with neither smile nor scowl, leaving the world to wonder what is brewing inside and when it will come spilling out. "He's a volcano," says Boston coach Doc Rivers. "But I'd rather a volcano that can erupt than one that's extinct."