Rondo just revving up as Kings turn back Pelicans in exhibition in Rupp

Point guard Rajon Rondo looked for a teammate. Kings Coach George Karl expects to have a good relationship with the ex-Cat.
 game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 17, 2015. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Point guard Rajon Rondo looked for a teammate. Kings Coach George Karl expects to have a good relationship with the ex-Cat. game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 17, 2015. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Former University of Kentucky standout Rajon Rondo's ears might have been burning as he exited the Sacramento Kings' locker room to warm up for Saturday night's exhibition game.

No sooner had he entered the hallway under Rupp Arena's west stands than he came upon Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl talking to reporters about a seemingly fractured player-coach relationship. Eyeing Rondo, Karl called out, "These guys are telling me ... "

Rondo interrupted his coach because he saw a familiar face from his UK days. He volunteered a friendly hand and greeting.

"What's up, man?" he said.

Karl playfully cut off the how-are-you's.

"Is this a good day or a bad day?" he asked Rondo.

"For what?" Rondo said. "For us?"

As the laughter subsided, Rondo answered. He looked at his wrist as if checking a watch, then said to Karl, "It's after 5. We should be good, right now."

Karl and reporters laughed heartily as Rondo moved on down the hall.

Karl couldn't have scripted a better response to the line of questions about Rondo's sometimes bumpy college and pro career.

"I've had a lot of difficult characters," Karl said. "Right now, I wouldn't put Rondo on that level. He's a lot easier than some of the dudes I've been handling most of my life."

That came into question earlier in the week when Rondo told a reporter of clashes with Karl this preseason.

When asked on a podcast about his relationship with Karl, Rondo said, "It's not been going too well. We got into a couple arguments the last couple of days. Hopefully, we continue to talk, and it will get better."

Later, player and coach said Rondo had been kidding. The coach said a young, inexperienced reporter misunderstood Rondo's attempt at deadpan humor.

"He told me about it three minutes after it happened," Karl said at Rupp Arena. "He said he was just joking. Then it became somewhat of a national story."

In the aftermath, Karl said he has countered with a joke of his own.

"My joke with him is, hell, if I get along with you any better than this, this will be ridiculous," the Kings' coach said.

This misunderstanding further confirmed Rondo's lack of faith in the media and his abiding belief in the public's gullibility.

"People believe anything they read," he said after the Kings beat New Orleans 107-98. "That's the way the world is."

Of course, Rondo's basketball career hasn't been all chuckles. He's seemingly tested the patience of coaches on the high school, college and pro level.

After saying Rondo had been considered "a strong-willed child," Karl offered a clarification.

"He's an intelligent, strong-willed type of player that has questions," Karl said. "And I don't think he's difficult."

The Kings' coach said he "never, ever ever" suspected that Rondo's will or his questions were motivated by anything other than forming "a better plan together that can help the team win."

As a point guard, Rondo said he must ask questions to make sure he completely understands the plan.

"I ask a lot of questions," he said. "If it doesn't make sense, I have to ask more questions for it to make sense to me."

For quite some time, Rondo's way of preparing to lead a team has been questioned.

When Rondo was going into his junior year at Louisville's Eastern High school, his coach asked former Kentucky star Derek Anderson to serve as a mentor. Anderson remembers his advice as straightforward and along the lines of try harder to get along with others.

"If he could control his temper, other people will help him," Anderson said. "That's how I survived. I smiled. That's how I got help. I told him, if you watch your temper and do the right things (help will be available). No one wants to help a jerk or someone who is not polite."

A year later, Anderson did Rondo another favor. He directed him to Oak Hill Academy, where Rondo seemed to follow the advice and flourished as a high school senior. He went from a top 100 prospect to a McDonald's All-American.

"He made the team go," longtime Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith said. "He was our MVP."

Pro scouts came to watch Josh Smith, who would go directly from Oak Hill to the NBA. They left thinking Rondo had a more promising future, Smith said.

Oak Hill had an undefeated record in that 2003-04 season. Smith still considers Rondo the best point guard he's coached, a substantial statement for a man who has coached nine future NBA point guards.

"With me, I never had an ounce of a problem with him," Smith said. "He totally respected me as his coach."

That did not seem to be the case in Rondo's two seasons playing for Tubby Smith at Kentucky. He played well at times, but seemed to clash with the coach, a pattern that has continued in the pros.

"He definitely had trouble with Tubby," Steve Smith said. "I think he thought Tubby restricted the way he played. He thought he could make the team better if he was given a little more freedom. That's what he related to me."

Coincidentally, Karl suggested a reason for a peaceful and fruitful coexistence in Sacramento.

"I think he's excited with the freedom I give my point guard," Karl said. "I think he's going to have a good year."

Rondo, who turns 30 on Feb. 22, enjoyed success amid an undercurrent of discontentment with his first NBA team, the Boston Celtics.

Steve Smith recalled a conversation he had with then Boston Coach Doc Rivers a year or so after Rondo played the point on a Celtics' championship team.

"I asked how is it going with Rajon," Smith said. "Doc said he's a little bit stubborn.

"But he didn't say anything too negative."

In the midst of a rebuilding effort last season, Boston traded Rondo to Dallas in mid-December. His time with the Mavericks abruptly ended barely two months later when he reportedly had a profanity-laced shouting match with Coach Rick Carlisle about play-calling responsibilities.

Anderson expressed surprise at the trials and tribulations in Rondo's NBA career.

"Dallas said they don't even want him back," Anderson said. "That's definitely something new. I never saw that in him. I was shocked to hear it."

After pointing out Rondo's high basketball IQ, Smith added, "He's almost too intelligent for his own good."

Former Oak Hill players who teamed with Rondo in the NBA told Smith that the former UK point guard clashed with coaches about play-calling.

"They'll say sometimes whatever the coach called from the bench, he'll just wave it off and run something else," the Oak Hill coach said. "Coaches have problems with that. Some coaches. Coaches have egos, too. So you do it enough times, coaches think you're just doing your own thing out there."

When a reporter suggested Rondo might have been smarter about basketball than some of his coaches, he immediately said, "I agree."

As to whether he should be concerned about his reputation suffering, Rondo disagreed. "Everybody has an opinion ... ," he said, "like everybody has a ... "

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