Commentary

Chapter 1: Diamond in the rough

Despite tough surroundings, head-butting with coaches, Rondo blossomed in high school

Originally Published: June 8, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Rajon RondoNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesHere's looking at you, Rajon Rondo: We chronicle your rise from humble beginnings to NBA stardom.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rajon Rondo grew up in the College Court condominiums, a low-income complex in a rugged section of this city.

There is not an abundance of opportunity to be found here, at the corner of Seventh and Kentucky. But there are plenty of life-altering choices to make, many of them symbolized by the surrounding cityscape.

Two miles south on Seventh Street is a seedy adult-entertainment district, part of a high-crime area. A mile north on Seventh is the gleaming Muhammad Ali Center, a testament to what's possible for an African-American Louisvillian determined to maximize a gift and realize a dream.

Rajon Rondo turned the right way, made the right choices. Enough right turns and right choices to avoid the plentiful pitfalls of his surroundings, and to write his own remarkable chapter in the sporting history of his hometown. He might not be the Greatest of All Time, but he's the latest greatest -- even if almost nobody saw it coming.


The only basketball goal in College Court resided in Amber Rondo's backyard. She paid for it with the money she earned working at the Phillip Morris tobacco plant. The single mother wanted it because it would keep her four children close to home instead of roaming a risky area.

"Everyone in the neighborhood came over," recalled Will Rondo, Rajon's older brother. "They'd come knocking on our door first thing in the morning. Rain, sleet or snow, we'd be out there."

House rules also dictated that when the streetlights flickered on, the Rondo children must be home. The front porch became a board-game battleground -- Connect Four, Monopoly, Battleship, you name it.

Whenever he lost, Rajon demanded rematch after rematch after rematch until he won.

"Very competitive," Will said. "We all were."

Family, friends and faith helped keep Rajon Rondo on the porch and off the streets. The Rondos attended services at Little Flock Baptist Church and received plenty of oversight and guidance from aunts, uncles, neighbors and coaches at every turn.

"God placed good people around us," Will said.

Will was a football player who ultimately earned a full ride to Murray State. Rajon, five years younger, started down that path, as well -- a quarterback in football, a pitcher in baseball and a point guard in basketball. He liked being in charge.

But the painfully skinny kid wasn't built to take the knocks of the football field. Eventually, he found his true calling in the gym.

His huge hands and long arms, coupled with startling speed and leaping ability, gave him an advantage over his less athletic peers. Then his knowledge of the game and his craving to master it separated him.

The only thing that could hold him back was himself.


Doug Bibby was first.

The first high-level coach to be seduced by Rajon Rondo's talents. And the first to become exasperated by his star point guard.

There would be more to come.

When Rondo wandered into Eastern High School for an open-gym run one day as an eighth-grader, Bibby saw stars. He was only 25 years old and a rookie head coach, but he comes from a basketball family that is heavy on great guards: Uncle Henry was a UCLA All-American, national champion, longtime NBA player and college head coach; cousin Mike was an Arizona All-American and national champion and is currently a guard for the Atlanta Hawks.

After watching Rondo's combination of athleticism, intelligence and killer instinct that day, and knowing he was coming to Eastern in the fall, Doug Bibby excitedly made some phone calls.

"I think I've got a future pro," he told his uncle, cousin and father, a former college coach himself.

He also got a future pain in the neck. Rondo wasn't uncoachable -- but he had to be won over. His way.

Bibby's first year with Rondo was, by all accounts, similar to the first years Tubby Smith and Doc Rivers would later experience with the guard. It was trying.

"Looking back, a lot of the head-butting Rajon and I had was because I couldn't believe the kid was that smart," Bibby said.

"I think it's tough for every coach their first year with Rajon," Will Rondo said. "Rajon is definitely a player you have to sit down and talk with, so he understands what your plan is. You can't just tell him 'The sky is blue and the grass is green' and expect him to go along with it. You have to show him what you mean."

A player who has to be convinced that the sky is blue and the grass is green could be described as stubborn. Or untrusting. Both would seem to apply to a younger Rajon.

"He always had a little bit of a chip on the shoulder," said Jody Demling, who covered Rondo's high school career and recruitment for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. "Nobody ever gave him the credit he deserved."

Bibby suspended his 6-foot-1 guard for part of his freshman year and brought him off the bench for other parts of his first two seasons at Eastern. It worked because he had the full backing of Amber Rondo.

"I would never have been able to coach Rajon if it weren't for his mother," Bibby said. "She said she liked my discipline. I'd tell Amber, 'I want him to do better in his grades; I want him to go to study hall. I won't start him, and you ground him at home.' She was supportive of everything I did."

When Rondo and Bibby achieved détente, their relationship deepened. Bibby would run scouting reports by his star point guard before presenting them to the team. He let Rajon talk in timeout huddles. He respected Rondo's basketball IQ, and Rondo respected Bibby's authority.

Rondo soon began producing stat lines that looked like misprints. He was a 20-points-a-game scorer from his freshman season on, overcoming a messy shooting stroke with an unstoppable ability to get to the rim. He rebounded like a freak. And he racked up prodigious assist totals.

His junior year at Eastern is when Rondo truly blossomed, transforming from precocious to pre-eminent. He led the Eagles to the championship of the prestigious Louisville Invitational Tournament, scoring 47 points in a semifinal game and scoring a tourney-record 148 points in five games. For the season, he averaged 28 points, 10 rebounds and 7.5 assists, barging onto the national recruiting radar.

But by that point, the village that raised the best high school player in Louisville since the early 1990s had about maxed out. To keep growing, Rajon Rondo had to leave the familial comfort of College Court and prove himself on a wider stage.

Next chapter »

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.