It's hard to believe today, but Rajon Rondo had never been considered a super-talent. Not at college, not even after making the transition to the professional game. But then, one day, the Boston Celtics took a gamble on the boy from Kentucky.
They had won NBA championship 17 times, more than any other team in the league, but the last of those league title was in 1986. After the club's second-worst season of all time, Ainge let seven of his squad go and brought in NBA veterans Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Along with remaining all-star Paul Pierce, the ‘Big Three' were charged with bringing back the good times to a club that had been starved of success for too long.
But that still left a space in the key position of point guard vacant. The point guard is the coach's right-hand man on court, dictating attacking play, driving the ball forward, creating scoring opportunities for his team-mates. It was decided that to spearhead a run at the championship, the Celtics would use a 21-year-old who'd hardly made it off the reserve bench in pre-season: Rajon Pierre Rondo, born, coincidentally in 1986.
Rondo was sitting on the couch at his mother's house, in his hometown of Louisville, on the day Garnett was traded to the Celtics when his mobile rang and his coach's number appeared on the display. "I'd seen all sorts of transfer rumours relating to me on the internet the day before," he says. "At first I thought that Danny was going to tell me I'd be leaving the club, but then he said that Kevin Garnett was joining us. And that I was going to play point guard for the Boston Celtics."
Rondo understood what that meant. "With Garnett, Pierce and Allen on board, we had enough talent to be champions. We all knew that, and everyone expected us to win the title. And if we failed, it wouldn't be their fault, it'd be mine." He immediately began to train harder than he ever had. "Of course I was under pressure, but I didn't feel it. I was ready. I couldn't wait for the season to begin."
Rondo has three unique strengths: his ability to read the game, his speed and the way he can combine the two qualities. Even in the NBA, a league full of top athletes, there are few defenders who can keep up. "But," he admits, "if you always go at top speed on the court, you won't achieve much. You've got to know when to switch on the turbo. Plus, I play 37 minutes per game [out of a possible 48], and if you're always running at full speed, you'll be exhausted. There are 82 games in a normal season. You've got to ration your energy."
Even in high school, Rondo could get his head around the game, as well as his ass around court. "Back then, my coach made me analyse footage of our opponents, and I'd present my findings to the team." He learned to listen to his opponents announcing their moves during a game and learn their patterns of play, enabling him to take control of the ball. He looks pretty relaxed in possession, dribbling with often laconic ease, but if his defender goes off-guard for a fraction of a second, Rondo attacks with lightning speed.
At the end of the 2008-09 season, he applied his skills like never before. A knee injury to Garnett, then the team's best player, seemed to have robbed the Celtics of any chance of defending their title. But in the play-offs, where he faced the Chicago Bulls and their superstar point guard Derrick Rose, Rondo set career highs in assists and points scored, equalled NBA records and, perhaps most significantly in the eyes of the fans, tied club records set by Larry Bird. Previously considered chiefly a passer and not much more, he is now thought of as among the league's top five point guards. Gone are the times when he would be marked out as the weakest link in the Celtics' chain.
Performances such as those, and in a losing semi-final play-off series against the Orlando Magic, secured Rondo a berth in the NBA All-Star Game for the first time. It's an accolade he is proud of, but he's already got his eye focused solely on the rest of the 2009-10 season and the play-offs. The Boston fans are hoping that their boy can galvanise an aging collection of stars and win another championship title. To do so, he'll will have to raise his game to the next level.
"The game changes during the play-offs," he says. "You have to concentrate even harder, expend even more energy. I don't know how it happens but it does. Every time you're in possession of the ball is so incredibly important. If you lose possession of the ball in the first minute during the play-offs, that might not just cost you the game. It can cost you the whole season."
Rajon Rondo wants to lead his Celtics back to the top of the NBA. He wants to be responsible for them winning the title. The Big Three are now the Big Four. "Point guard is the best position in the NBA," he says, looking at the photo with the gold cup, "but I still think I'm the best point guard in the league."