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Left behind in Celtics' breakup, Rondo looks to a future on his own

BOSTON -- In a quiet room of an upscale hotel, Rajon Rondo has questions coming at him in waves. One after another, he absorbs them. In most cases, he answers them. A few times, of course, he dismisses them in his typical, suffer-no-fools fashion.

Incredibly, the notoriously media-averse Rondo appears to be enjoying himself. Occasionally, he even smiles. There is an amusing exchange with a TV reporter from China who asks Rondo to give a "shout out" to all the other players in the NBA who've partnered with the shoe brand, Anta, as Rondo has just done.

"Luis Scola and Kevin Garnett," Rondo said Tuesday night -- his deadpan expression, as usual, not wavering. "Those are the only guys I can give a shout out to."

Just as on the court, when everyone else zigs, Rondo zags. So it is with his endorsement deals, too.

And so begins one of the understatedly fascinating storylines of the NBA this season: Rondo and the Celtics, the Celtics and Rondo. At least for now, for better or worse, this team is finally his.

It has been nearly nine months since Rondo partially tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He says he's ahead of schedule, though gives no indication of when he'll progress from shooting and ballhandling drills to playing in a game for the Celtics -- a team that will never be the same after the momentous events of this past summer.

Rondo's Hall of Fame coach, Doc Rivers, with whom he was often at odds, found sunnier skies and a brighter future in Los Angeles with the Clippers. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Hall of Famers who brought Rondo along for a championship ride in 2008 and then hitched their ailing bodies to their dynamic pupil, are hoping to chase one more title without him in Brooklyn.

Ray Allen -- no love lost there -- already has gotten another ring in Miami. Only Rondo remains.

"It's a brand new start for us as a team," Rondo said.

While his former teammates and coach have gone ring-chasing, Rondo seems content to stay behind in Boston and build again -- this time, around him. There's no telling whether the business of basketball will allow it -- whether team president Danny Ainge ultimately will build around Rondo or cash in his most precious asset to hasten the process of starting over.

Whatever happens, let the record show that Rondo -- unlike some of his All-Star peers if placed in the same predicament -- isn't looking for an escape route of his own.

"This is my team; why would I want to leave?" Rondo said. "Why would I want out? I've never really backed away from a challenge."

No, backing down or backing away is not Rondo's style.

No longer surrounded by Hall of Famers with egos and eager fingertips to feed, the expression of Rondo's talents may change once he comes back. Last season, he was already beginning to make the transition, becoming more assertive (and successful) with his jump shot. But the essence of who he is on the court -- a one-of-a-kind playmaker, a fierce competitor who never stops attacking -- won't change. Likely, it never will.

"That's my natural instinct -- to make my teammates better," he said. "And regardless of who's out there on the floor, I believe I do make everybody out there better. I'm going to push as hard as I can. I'm going to demand a lot out of them. I wouldn't demand anything that I don't demand of myself."

"Different" is the word Rondo used to characterize his decision to break ties with Nike and sign with Anta, the Chinese sporting goods company for which Garnett has carried the NBA marketing torch until now. It's an eight-year deal, meaning Rondo ultimately will replace his mentor, KG, as "the face of their basketball business moving forward," agent Bill Duffy said.

The company's slogan is "Forge ahead … keep moving," and I'm not getting all schmaltzy by sharing that, because it's important. Rondo will never stop pushing and prodding, never relent in his assault on defenders and winning. He wants to look forward now, but until he creates his own body of work, he'll forever be known as the Big Three's point guard in Boston. The past will be his prologue until he manages to change it.

Speaking of which, the story about how Rondo "didn't feel anything" upon learning about the trade that sent Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn to chase another title without him? Not the whole truth, Rondo said -- at least not how he meant it.

"You know me; I don't really say much," he told me in a conference room of the Four Seasons hotel. "I don't really speak out [on] exactly what happened. I kind of stay to myself. I talk to Kevin all the time. I talk to P. Obviously, it was different when the trade went down. I didn't expect it to happen because I just got off a plane. But it happens, and that's the business. But I'm not going to say, like, ‘Forget about them.'

"I was just talking about them in the locker room today -- telling some stories about how KG was, things Paul did," he said. "At the end of the day, I still talk to every one of those guys. I talk to Jet [Jason Terry]. I talk to P. I talked to Kevin [Monday]. We still check on each other. It's a brotherhood. It's something you can't erase. We won titles together. We've been through the fire together. It's something for life."

And Rivers? The former point guard-turned-coach who seemed to at once appreciate Rondo's genius and cringe at his stubbornness?

"I took a lot away from Doc," Rondo said. "I still catch myself laughing at some of the things he's told certain guys. Now, me being the leader of this team, I mimic some of the things that Doc has said to each individual guy. I learned a lot from Doc. I tried to study his ways as far as a coach because it's something I may want to do in the future. I've got a lot of respect for Doc."

At the very moment Rondo was saying these things, his former teammates were making their debut for the Brooklyn Nets in a preseason game against the Wizards in Washington, D.C. At some point soon, Rondo will make a very different kind of debut. It'll be a new beginning for him with a team starting over -- a team with Rondo as the centerpiece for a change.

A point guard with unique gifts and a stubborn streak as wide as his will to win, Rondo will have to adjust -- again. As a headstrong rookie in 2006-07, Rondo endured a 24-win season. Within months, his career arc changed forever when Ainge pulled off the trades for Garnett and Allen.

For six years, the Celtics were the toughest out in basketball -- a special team of this era, a competitive marvel. Now Rivers has found a point guard more to his liking in LA, and the Big Three have all moved on, too.

Why would he want to leave? Why would he want out? Rondo looks at you with the cold eyes of a basketball assassin when he says these things, and you realize that he might just be stubborn enough to mean it.

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