In the early 1990s the trauma center staff at University of Louisville Hospital knew Rajon Rondo by name. To keep up with his older brothers, William and Anton, he ran into a mailbox and a light post, fell off a street sign and a scooter, and cut his leg to the bone on a four-foot boulder. His father left when he was in elementary school—"That's why I don't trust a lot of people," he says—and his mother grew so weary of his insubordination that she drove him to Home of the Innocents, a refuge for troubled children. As part of an elaborate plot, she asked the director to meet them at the front door with paperwork. "I was scared to death," Rondo says. "She was done with my a--."
Instead of sending him away, Amber bought him the only hoop in College Court, to replace the milk crate he had hung in the backyard. Rondo preferred football and baseball to basketball. He didn't watch the NBA. He didn't study the greats, but somehow their moves—from the Euro-step to the Dream Shake—found their way into his game on the playground. His feel for the sport was innate. He joined the basketball team at Eastern High because Bibby liked his cousin, and as a freshman he was suspended 12 of 24 games for a variety of offenses. He sulked through practices and finished last in wind sprints. He also slept in class, didn't complete his homework and forgot his books. "He was a terrible student," says Bibby, "but he was smart as hell."
Bibby taught math, and after Rondo aced the first few tests, Bibby assumed he was cheating. So Bibby made up special tests for Rondo, but he aced those too. Once, Rondo was dozing while Bibby scrawled a geometry problem on the chalkboard. When Bibby called on him, Rondo woke up, rubbed his eyes and blurted an answer. "Don't be an a------," Bibby muttered. Then Bibby finished the problem and found that Rondo was right. He still gave him a D.
Their dynamic was no different on the court, where Bibby would call for one defense and Rondo would demand another. Bibby once yelled at Rondo, "I broke down film three times last night so I know what I'm talking about!" Rondo replied, "I'm on the damn floor and you're not!" Bibby's cousin Mike was an NBA star. His uncle Henry also played in the league and was a major-college coach. "You're like, 'Why is this little a------ questioning me?'" Bibby says. "His tongue sometimes cuts like a knife. But then you listen to him and you realize he actually does see more than the camera."
Rondo was suspended three more times as a sophomore, and was also supposed to be banned for a playoff game until a school administrator intervened. "I don't want to play you," Bibby told Rondo. "But they're going to fire me if I don't, and I've got two kids at home." Bibby broke down, and finally, Rondo did as well. He called a tearful team meeting and apologized for putting his coach in an untenable position. He was never suspended again.
Amber worked the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift at the Philip Morris factory, placing cigarettes in a tray. She never smoked, but when she came home at night, her clothes reeked of tobacco. Early in Rondo's high school career, Philip Morris moved the plant to North Carolina, and Amber thought about uprooting the family. She stayed for her youngest son and landed a job at Frito-Lay. "If we had gone," Rondo says, "I don't know where I'd be right now—maybe jail." Instead he became Bibby's de facto assistant, watching the tapes and formulating the game plans. When Bibby wanted to use a new defense but was too busy washing uniforms to implement it, he explained the scheme over the phone to Rondo, who taught it to the team in the school lobby.
Bibby worried that other coaches would not appreciate Rondo's genius—"You serve steak, but it's on a garbage can," Bibby told him. "Smooth it out"—and when Rondo enrolled for his senior year at famed Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., his new roommate thought he was standoffish. Then Josh Smith discovered the merits of living with a basketball savant. "My field goal percentage went way up," says Smith, now a star forward for the Hawks. "I remember one night he had 29 assists, and the next night he had 31. It was like playing with Michael Vick, and I was the only guy who could catch his passes."
Rondo's searing intensity is easily attributed to the predictable slights: Louisville coach Rick Pitino recruited Sebastian Telfair over him. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith marginalized him in a slowpoke offense. He fell to No. 21 in the draft. But Rondo doesn't manufacture motivation. His edge is organic. "I know some guys hold on to that stuff and use it as fuel," he says. "I just want to win." He entered training camp in 2006 as the Celtics' third point guard, behind Telfair and Delonte West, and their first workout included a pick-and-roll drill. "Come on, Rondo, pick it up!" Rivers shouted. "Turn the corner! Be aggressive!" Five straight times he split the double team or turned the corner and scored. "Twenty-first pick?" players asked each other.
The relationship between point guard and coach is as complicated as that of husband and wife, and even more so if that coach used to be a point guard. When Boston teamed Ray Allen and Garnett with Pierce in 2007, the veterans rarely hung out with Rondo on the road but couldn't stop talking to him on the court. "Everybody was asking for the ball," Rondo says. "I had to keep track of all their shots. It was like, Paul has 17, and Ray only has seven, so I better get it to Ray. I got cussed out a few times." Rivers, who had to satiate Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone and Reggie Theus as a young point guard in Atlanta, tried to counsel him. "Scorers want to touch the ball," Rivers advised. "Throw it to them and make them throw it back. In the fourth quarter you want everybody feeling good."
Rondo and Rivers engaged in so many sideline debates they should have installed lecterns by the bench. During one Rivers told Rondo that his teammates hated playing with him. During another Rondo told Rivers, "I'm not mad at you! I'm mad at myself!" Rivers responded, "I don't care who you're mad at. Mad is mad. It's taking you out of games." They coined a mantra—Get past mad—to recite when Rondo is suffering from what Rivers calls "an emotional hijack." In the past year Mount Rondo has erupted at officials, opponents and a cameraman, and his rift with Allen is a major reason the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history is now in Miami. He also still makes plenty of suggestions in timeouts. On Dec. 21, Boston trailed Milwaukee by three points with 18 seconds left, and the Bucks had the ball. Rivers considered fouling, but Rondo argued that the Celtics should try for the steal. Rivers gave in, and Rondo intercepted a pass by Brandon Jennings, leading to a tying three by Pierce. "But sometimes we go the other way," Rivers says. "And he is much better at moving on."