I saw him writhing in pain on the floor and my heart sank. The replay sent waves of dismay and disgust through the bar and we all watched as the most hyped series of the playoffs was broken in graphic slow motion. It played again and again until I couldn’t watch anymore. I finished my beer and stared down at my french fries.
I couldn’t watch because I could feel it in my arm each time his joint inverted on the screen. Old pains sprung to the front of my mind and I remembered being 10 years old and playing on the high school football game after my dad’s team had just finished off their season. I was tackled at the 50-yard line and my arm shot out to brace against the fall. I felt the bizarre almost-pain as it buckled and pushed past 180 degrees. I knew something was wrong, but it didn’t hurt until I tried to pick myself up. Then it hurt. It hurt a lot. My arm was in a snoopy sling and tightly wrapped from wrist to shoulder for the next six weeks as it swelled to twice its normal size and a chipped bone floated around in my elbow. I knew Rondo was done.
That should have been the end of it. I would have watched the rest of the game and gone home, secure in the knowledge that the Celtics era was effectively over. They might have won the game, they were up 10 and pushed it to 11 with Rondo in the locker room, but the run was over in my mind. Then he walked back on the floor.
It was a purely emotional moment. I was 400 miles away and surrounded by mixed D.C. fans, none of whom seemed very committed to the game, but they all reacted with genuine interest. A sporting event that until Rondo’s fall had been nearly meaningless now had them captivated. It was a scene that transcended sports and became a human moment. The injured hero rises and wills his way through pain, through the loss of strength, and through his opponent. It became more than a game, it was a story we could feel on a primitive, innate level. If it had been fictional, I would have called it cliché. I would have also called it art.
After the game, Rondo let slip just how much he was overcoming. “It is still broken.” While not technically true – his arm was dislocated but whole – it was how he viewed his arm at that moment. He felt like it was broken, and what we had just witnessed was Rondo playing like it was broken – driving the lane, controlling the offense, and fighting for loose balls.
Some people will ask if he had to go back on the floor. They must have forgotten what it means to be on a team. For all the professionalism in sports, humans are emotional creatures. Basketball, and most of life, is a battle that can be won and lost inside the mind of the players. The emotional lift and mental strength that Rondo gave his teammates is still with them today. It may well be with them at trace levels for the rest of their lives. They are fired up and they have just been given the greatest example of desire and sacrifice they could hope to see. You can’t tell me that every player on that bench, weathered veterans that they are, doesn’t want to live up to the expectations Rondo just put on them.
Even from an objective, unemotional basketball standpoint I would say he had to play. The Celtics are not the same team without Rondo. Boston shot 15 for 19 on three-point attempts coming off a pass from Rondo in this series, compared to 35.3 percent when they don’t get the ball from Rajon. In game three, the Celtics went 5-for-6 on three point shots packaged (with love) by Rondo. Take a look at this table I stole from TrueHoop.
Points Per 40 Minutes vs Heat – With/Without Rajon Rondo
|Rondo On Court||Rondo Off Floor|
Only Kevin Garnett still gets his as the open jumpers disappear and the Cs have to rely on isolation and post ups. The team on the left beats the Heat; the team on the right goes home.
Rondo is the core of the Celtics, and as a Celtics fan I am terrified that Rondo is currently looking down at a ballooned limb that no longer bends. But even if he is out for the year, he has found one more way to make the Celtics better. If Boston gets out of this series, the assist goes to Rondo.