As Rajon Rondo endured his surprising five-game banishment from the rotation that lasted from New Year’s Eve to Jan. 10, calls and texts from friends and peers around the league piled up on his phone.
Rondo appreciated the support but didn’t respond to many.
“I tried to stay away from milking what was going on,” the former University of Kentucky star said. “I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. It didn’t break me down. I didn’t need sympathy calls. People did call and care and send texts. But if you know me, it’s going to be hard to break me.”
Instead, something internal kept driving the 10-year veteran.
“I’m a competitor. I love the game. I still give a lot to the game,” he said inside the mostly deserted visiting locker room Sunday evening in Milwaukee. “This stage is a little bigger, but I got benched at Kentucky once. It’s not a big deal. You have to fight through it and know the cream always rises to the top.”
Rondo re-entered the rotation on Jan. 10 and the starting lineup on March 13. The Bulls are 4-4 since Rondo returned to the first unit, and he’s averaging 12.4 points, 7.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds in that span.
As he sat glued to the bench around the New Year, did he think he’d be back in this position?
“I had no idea, but that was the plan. I just continued to work,” Rondo said. “I feel like if I’m not the hardest worker on the team, I’m one of them. Hard work pays off. I stayed disciplined, took care of my body and stayed positive for the young guys because they looked up to me. They couldn’t see me not working or not doing what I was doing when I was starting versus when I got taken out of the lineup. I tried to be the same all year.”
I got benched at Kentucky once. It’s not a big deal. You have to fight through it and know the cream always rises to the top.
Does Rondo feel vindication now that Coach Fred Hoiberg has gone back to him?
“It’s what I expect of myself,” he said. “The ball is moving more. We’re able to get stops and get out in transition every other game. Never get too high or too low.”
Despite saying in an interview with the Boston Globe the day before he got re-inserted as a starter that he’s “looking for a straightforward coach,” Rondo feels his relationship with Hoiberg is fine.
“Fred and I talk a lot more than we did earlier in the season,” Rondo said. “He’s telling me a lot of positive things. Fred’s a great guy. We didn’t talk much when I wasn’t playing. But I was still studying him as a coach. I was watching his moves, when he called timeout, his substitution patterns. I wanted to continue to stay positive and learn a different aspect of the game versus sitting there feeling sorry for myself.”
Rondo is less effusive when asked if his New Year’s Eve meeting with management about his role accomplished his goal.
“No,” he said.
Asked to elaborate, Rondo said: “It just didn’t. We’re just on different pages. And it showed. It speaks for itself.”
That’s in reference to management emphasizing player development as much if not more than a playoff push, particularly after the February trade with the Thunder. Rondo’s sole focus is making the playoffs, not his status as a potential free agent again if the Bulls waive his contract for $3 million before it becomes fully guaranteed on July 1.
“I can’t worry about next season,” Rondo said. “I just want to do what I can for this team this season, lead the young guys and make a push.”