Ex-Cat Rondo turning into extraordinary pro

It has become almost as much a Kentucky spring ritual as the Barnstable-Brown party. Each year around this time, we come together as a state to marvel at what Rajon Rondo has become.

Two years ago, we noted that the one-time enigmatic Kentucky Wildcats guard had emerged as a solid starter on a Boston Celtics NBA championship team.

Last season, we watched Rondo's epic playoff shootout with Chicago's Derrick Rose and noted that he was becoming an NBA standout.

This spring, the playoff play of the guy who was benched in favor of Brandon Stockton for six games late in the final year of his UK career (2006) has simply been jaw-dropping.

Rondo is playing like a burgeoning NBA superstar.

In Boston's 97-87 victory Sunday that evened its series with Eastern Conference No. 1 seed Cleveland at two games apiece, Rondo's statistical line was staggering: 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.

The only players in the history of the NBA to have playoff triple-doubles of a greater magnitude were Wilt Chamberlain (29 points, 36 rebounds, 13 assists in 1967) and Oscar Robertson (32 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists in 1963).

For Rondo, this statistical tour de force came only two games after he tied the all-time Celtics playoff record for assists in a game (19) by Bob Cousy.

When a basketball player's performance evokes meaningful comparison to Chamberlain, Robertson and Cousy, he is walking with the hoops gods.

So strong has been the play of the 6-foot-1 Louisville product, the consensus view in the basketball chattering class is that Rondo has so far been a better player in the Celts-Cavs series than even LeBron James.

For basketball followers here in the commonwealth, Rondo's NBA brilliance is always a bit bittersweet.

Louisville fans wonder what if? What if Rick Pitino had recruited the native Louisvillian instead of falling in love with New York point guard Sebastian Telfair, who signed with U of L then turned pro without ever playing for the Cards?

Kentucky fans wonder why? Why wasn't the guy currently torching the world's best players more consistently stellar in his UK days?

At the time, some blamed Rondo's sometimes moody personality. Others pointed to Tubby Smith, thinking the coach's penchant for a controlled brand of basketball was a yoke on a sleek point guard who was built for the open court.

In February of 2006, with the Wildcats amidst a three-game losing streak during a tumultuous season, Smith benched his three McDonald's All-Americans: Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Rondo.

For six games, role players Lukasz Obrzut, Ravi Moss and Stockton started in their place.

The make-shift crew — with the erstwhile stars contributing off the bench — sparked UK to a late-season rally that helped the Cats make the NCAA Tournament. Still, Kentucky ended a disappointing 22-13 season with a second-round loss to Connecticut.

If Rondo keeps playing the way he is now, Stockton — the former Glasgow star and Kentucky's 2002 Mr. Basketball — will someday be able to tell his kids he once started ahead of an NBA mega-star.

"That seems like a distant memory now," Stockton said Monday of his days playing ahead of Rondo. "Coach Smith was just shaking things up, trying to get our season turned around."

Why wasn't Rondo the player at Kentucky he's become now?

"The game is different. At the college level, coaches have more control over players. It's a coach's game," Stockton said. "At the NBA level, the players are grown up and they're playing for a paycheck. So the players have more control and are sort of turned loose."

The current NBA season, Rondo's fourth, was filled with milestones. He became the first Celtic ever to lead the NBA in steals. He played in his first All-Star game. He made the league's All-Defensive first team for the initial time.

Yet just as he did last season, the Celtics guard has taken his game up several notches under the glare of the playoffs' klieg lights.

So down in Bowling Green, where he works in a local hospital, Stockton, 25, is now fully engaged in Kentucky's new springtime ritual: Marveling at what Rajon Rondo has become.

"I'm not that hung up on the fact I started a few games ahead of Rajon," Stockton said. "Right now, I see a great NBA player in the making. Some day, I'll tell my kids, when I have kids, that I was teammates with Rajon Rondo."