How Rajon Rondo has been the driving force behind team unity

The Bulls were supposed to be the destination for Rajon Rondo to rehabilitate his image and his game, enable the four-time All-Star to regain his reputation and leadership abilities and help the team move forward productively.

Instead, as these ironies in sports go, it is Rondo who is perhaps as much as anyone on the roster providing rare internal bonding opportunities and helping create the kind of team atmosphere necessary for success.

Yes, Rajon Rondo, healer.

“It’s just that I like to bond with teammates,” said Rondo.

That’s right, the Rajon Rondo of Tubby Smith supposedly hated him, but only slightly less than Doc Rivers, who supposedly almost got into a fist fight with him, and Rick Carlisle who sent him away in the playoffs. Not coachable, or so said even the Celtics owner. The famous loner who media said had no friends because, well, he didn’t want them and they didn’t want him with his giant ego.

Yes, that Rajon Rondo who asked the Bulls to allow him to go to summer league, where veterans usually fear to tread, to work with the rookies and young players. Then the Rondo who, when the Bulls gave the veterans off for the fourth exhibition game in Milwaukee, asked to travel by bus to Milwaukee with the team even though he didn’t play. No offense to the other veterans who stayed home. I would have. Rondo spent the pregame shagging basketballs for the youngsters, some of whom would not make the roster, and then watching film in the locker room with assistant coach Jim Boylan. It was Boylan with whom Rondo regularly worked hours with after going to summer league practices.

And then it was Rondo who said to everyone on the team, plus the coaching staff, the support staff and even management and ownership, some 50 people, hey, how about everyone coming out to dinner. You know, team bonding. On me. One of best steaks in town.

Yes, that Rajon Rondo did the unprecedented, at least for the Bulls in preseason, in an ultimate team bonding event earlier this month. Not only did he invite everyone to dinner, but everyone came.

“That was big,” Rondo said, obviously appreciative of the support from his new team. “I appreciated that everyone came. That’s a great sign of respect and most everybody was on time, even NBA on time. I just wanted to give guys…the camaraderie, get together and understand the people at dinner are the people who do everything. We all have to get on one page; we all want the best for the next guy.”

None of this means the Bulls will win a championship. That depends on talent, and the Bulls aren’t generally considered among the championship elite coming into this season. Of course, things can change.

But, by all accounts, this is as upbeat a group as the Bulls have had together in a long time. No one really could remember this kind of team bonding outing in the preseason. For decades. There were certainly divisions last season, pretty much the responsibility of everyone. After six years of either so close or should have been without any ultimate reward, such divisions are not only natural but inevitable.

The players in the championship years in the 1990s mostly got along, but had their separate cliques. They had more talent, which is the most important element.

But teamwork and unity, enjoying your teammate and the game, having fun, can mean the difference in a few wins, and a few wins can also mean the difference in the NBA these days in making the playoffs or not or finishing in the top four or not. The Bulls won 42 games last season and missed the playoffs. Forty-eight wins was good enough for third. Forty-five wins meant seventh.

The margin of error between success and failure can be a teammate looking to help another on occasion. Or not.

It’s been a brilliant and also mercurial, polarizing career for Rondo, perhaps his own worst enemy in the public relations game. He’s headstrong and confident, which are traits for excellence. He doesn’t communicate them as well as some others. He’s not politically correct, or political at all. He doesn’t play the game, as the saying goes. So when he is questioned, he often doesn’t respond. Media charges unchallenged become accepted.

Still, this isn’t your Magic Johnson award winner for relations with media.

Rondo has questioned coaches. They’re not always right. Many, not often. Some don’t like to know. You are supposed to fall in line, like a private with a maniac drill sergeant. Rondo might disagree about running off the cliff with no soft spot to land. No, yes sir, yes sir for him.

Rondo supposedly had issues with the Boston Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. You don’t win the public relations battle with those guys, veritable media darlings, the Bruce Waynes of their metropolis. Of course, Rondo also provided plenty of ammunition for those who doubted him. There was the homophobic comments to referee Bill Kennedy and then kicked off the Mavericks in the 2015 playoffs after feuding with coach Rick Carlisle.

He’s a multiple All-Star, four times all-defense, has led the NBA in steals and three times in assists. The slippery 6-1, 180-pounder moved up to the top 15 all time in triple doubles. But it’s been an unsteady path since his ACL tear in January 2013. There were trade talks in Boston, issues despite being vital to their one championship, one year deals with the Kings and then the Bulls at a time teams were flush with money and dropping long term contracts on marginal players not in Rondo’s category. There must be something wrong.

After trading Derrick Rose in June, the Bulls were at the point of badly needing a point. Rondo? Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said none other than Carlisle endorsed Rondo.

“It’s been really good,” Hoiberg said about his relationship with Rondo. “I talked to several coaches that had Rondo, who have been around him, including Rick Carlisle, who I played for in Indiana; he was an assistant under Larry Bird. He actually was the first guy who came up and talked to me after the trade happened and he said it’s going to be great. He said, ‘I think you guys have the perfect personalities for each other.’ From the minute we signed him and he came to Chicago, I knew he had a chance to be successful. He was very bought in to what we were trying to do, he wanted to come in and watch film; we worked a lot with his shot early in the process and he was around our guys and from the very first moment you could tell guys were going to gravitate toward him because of his voice, his veteran presence. Like all players, you learn a lot from the different situations you have been through. I’m sure that’s the case with Rajon.

“At halftime (of the Cleveland game) with all the turnovers we had (and six for Rondo), that’s all we talked about,” recalled Hoiberg. “He went out with a completely different mindset and got us going with our offense (and zero second half turnovers). It’s just about continuing to build a relationship and watch film with him, which we did individually and continue to get better. That’s how I’m judging it and how I’m going to base it. It’s the approach I’ve always taken. I took some transfer kids when I was in college who didn’t have the best reputations and the minute you stepped onto the campus you talked about how it was going to be, how important it is to develop a relationship with them. That’s how I’ve always approached it and that’s how I’ve done it with Rajon, with (Dwyane) Wade, with Robin (Lopez), with all the additions we’ve had and I feel it’s gotten off to a good start.”

Rondo got off to an exceptional start in the preseason, averaging 12 points, six assists and 5.7 rebounds on 70 percent shooting the first three games. His last two of the five he played he had a total of five points on two of 14 shooting. But overall he averaged 8.2 points, 6.8 assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes on 48 percent shooting. He might not at 30 going into his 11th season have quite the explosive quickness as before the ACL surgery, but he still can beat defenses to the basket even when they are playing off him. Not just as often.

His integration will continue with now nine new players and Butler and probably Taj Gibson the only returning starters from last season.

Though as much as anything after a rocky last season amidst some apparent personal disputes and a team that seemed to see the games as drudgery, the Bulls needed unity, a mission and a positive atmosphere going forward. That it’s come from the lead supplied by the actions of Rajon Rondo was welcome, if perhaps less surprise to those who know him.

Rondo has quietly funded mentoring programs for Chicago youth even before he came to the Bulls and attempted team unity functions in Sacramento, which was apparently too divided already. The Bulls needed someone to try to pull everyone together. Rondo welcomed the opportunity. The surprise was he was the first to raise his hand.

He said when he came to Chicago he tried out many restaurants and liked RPM Steak, perhaps fitting for a guy who counts in revolutions per minute on the basketball court.

“No better way to bond than food,” said Rondo, who initially was reluctant to discuss the outing.

“Who told you?” he asked.

“It also was to show appreciation to the staff,” Rondo said. “The staff here works extremely hard. When I’m on the table they are always willing to help and it’s not only me; there are five other guys in there getting treatment as well.

“We are one organization, one family and I appreciate how hard guys work in this organization and it’s one token of that appreciation,” Rondo explained.

I asked him if this is something he’s always done.

<P.“My Boston days I couldn’t afford it,” he said with a laugh. “The energy here, the vibe here is different; everyone is just so helpful. Work hard and they are willing to help. I didn’t have any idea coming in about doing something like this. The chemistry kind of developed early in the summer when I came in, seeing so many young guys work it was very refreshing.”

Rondo said last summer he’d never witnessed as much staff/player tension as he did last season in Sacramento. Yes, they shocked Rajon Rondo. He said in free agency he wanted “to see myself in a situation where guys want to grow, guys want to get better. I don't want to be the hardest working guy in the gym."

Rondo said he appreciates what he’s seen in his short time with the Bulls. It figures to help his attitude toward the game as well. Which should help the Bulls, too. So Rondo got it started breaking bread and slicing meat.

“It’s the work,” Rondo said. “It’s not taken for granted here. Guys put in the work. I come here on days off and there are a lot of guys in the gym putting work in. I work with Taj (Gibson), with Denzel (Valentine). I didn’t see it as much in my past couple of years, so many guys working extremely hard.”

It’s a start. That it came from Rajon Rondo further demonstrates you never know what will happen.