- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics' principal owner, is far from publicity shy. After the Celtics won Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals in a remarkable comeback, he threw his credit card on the bar at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and announced to one and all that the drinks were on him.
Then, as fans celebrated the Celtics' 3-1 lead in the series, he happily snapped pictures of them posing in front of a picture of longtime Lakers fan Jack Nicholson at the bar. A few days later, he hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
He loves to show off his 2008 championship ring. He loves to see his name in publicity columns. But there is one area where Grousbeck deflects any and all attention: the decision on the night of the 2006 NBA draft to allow basketball boss Danny Ainge to spend some of Grousbeck's cash to buy a No. 1 pick for the sole purpose of acquiring a young guard from Kentucky named Rajon Rondo.
Ainge was a Rondo fan but, as the draft progressed that night, it certainly looked like he was in a party of one. The Celtics had already used their own pick, No. 7 overall, in a deal with Portland, which brought them point guard Sebastian Telfair and rid them of the final year of Raef LaFrentz's onerous contract. They already had Delonte West and now, with Telfair, they appeared to be covered at the position.
But there had been something about Rondo. Ainge, himself a headstrong player, downplayed Rondo's rebellious stint at Kentucky under Tubby Smith. He worried less about Rondo's lack of outside shooting ability and instead focused on the kid's speed and athleticism. He looked at Rondo and saw big hands, long arms, a confidence that sometimes bordered on arrogance -- and watched in disbelief as team after team passed on him that night.
Finally, Grousbeck told Ainge to do what he needed to do to get Rondo. "You've already saved us a lot of money,'' he told Ainge, referring to the LaFrentz deal. "I know you've always liked him. If you need to spend the money to do it, go do it."
This was not characteristic of the Celtics in those days. They watched their pennies. They stayed away from the mid-level exception and avoided the luxury tax threshold as if it was radioactive. But here was Grousbeck allowing Ainge to buy a first-rounder and take on a guaranteed contract for someone who projected to be a third string point guard.
One by one, teams made picks in the teens and none of them was named Rajon Rondo. Among the players who were picked ahead of Rondo: Cedric Simmons (New Orleans), Rodney Carney (Chicago), Shawne Williams (Indiana), Oleksiy Pecherov (Washington) and Quincy Douby (Sacramento.)
By that point, Ainge wasn't capable of exhaling. He had arranged for his old team, the Phoenix Suns, to draft Rondo if Rondo was still there when the Suns were to pick at No. 21. He and the Celtics were sure that the Knicks' boss, Isiah Thomas, would ruin everything and draft Rondo at No. 20. But Thomas, himself a point guard, elected to go with Renaldo Balkman at No. 20.
The Suns officially picked Rondo, but it was a pre-arranged deal. The Celtics had agreed to take Brian Grant's contract, which had a year left, and who would never set foot in Boston. They also parted with a 2007 No. 1 that Ainge had obtained from Cleveland. The Suns deserve no flak for trading Rondo to Boston. These pre-arranged deals happen all the time on draft night.
The Celtics believed they had landed their point guard of the future that night -- but it wasn't Rondo. It was Telfair. The Celtics kept insisting that Telfair would not have been available at No. 7 had he been in the draft that night. "The things we like most about [Telfair] are his great speed and great decision-making," coach Doc Rivers said that night. He would later say the same things about Rondo, albeit well down the road.
But Ainge believed then and there that Rondo was headed for potential greatness. The Celtics had him ranked higher than anyone else, in the top 10, which is why Ainge was so eager to get him.
"We think [Rondo] has a chance to be a special player," Ainge said. "We wouldn't have done the deal if we didn't think that he has a chance to be the quality of a player of an Al Jefferson, a Gerald Green, those kinds of players. We think he has that kind of upside."
Green and Jefferson were traded to Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett deal. Green flamed out. Rondo has upstaged them both, something that few, if any, could have envisioned on the night of June 28, 2006.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
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