Monday, May 9, 2011

Rajon to Derek for a pair

Yesterday, I watched clips of Rajon Rondo's incredibly tough, and thus rarefied performance against the Miami Heat on Saturday night, which featured the dislocated elbow, the matter-of-fact return to the Celtic bench, the left-handed steal off a Jeff Green deflection and ensuing baby dunk, and the post-game, just-as-matter-of-fact deflection of an interviewer's implication that Rondo’s elbow should keep him out of game four. (Friends, are we watching at Turkey’s Nest, The Gibson, or Lulu’s?) After watching the clips, I also read an article that placed Derek Jeter’s decline in context with the production of some of the other great shortstops when they reached the age of 37.

Cycling at the gym this morning—who sells their Swiss-designed road bike at the beginning of May? Yeah Ma, I can’t explain that one either—I caught part of the replay of yesterday’s Rangers-Yankees game, including Derek Jeter’s first home run of the season, an opposite field punch into the Rangers bullpen that the row of sitting relievers leaned away from as if it was a gob of plague. With Rondo’s game and the article on my mind, I recalled Jeter's return to the field in a game against the Red Sox six or seven seasons ago, when he fell like an upended toy soldier into the left-field stands after trying to catch a foul ball. This was the game that Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra famously sat out for what some in the media identified as a minor issue. Jeter has long been known throughout sports for his consistency, clutch playing, and his lack of drama (in the colloquial sense). Off the field, he was known, to the degree that an American Express commercial riffed on it, for his dating life, but a paparazzi video of he and Anna Kournikova in the back of a limo in South Florida did not affect his professional reputation.

I don’t know anything about Rajon Rondo’s romantic life—I saw in a basketball magazine that he has a young child—so I can’t compare him to Jeter as a swashbuckler, to use a stinking old term. But in other, professional respects, I think that the point guard of the Boston Celtics is becoming the Derek Jeter of the NBA. I can't support this comparison with a fanatic's knowledge of statistics, just a casual fan's observations. I did read that Jeter’s best season, by the numbers, came at age 25, and Rondo’s best season to date is probably last year, when he was 23 going on 24, or this one, when he turned 25. It doesn't hurt that Jeter's balletic, fully-extended toss to the plate against the A's in the 2001 playoffs looks a little like Rondo's signature fake-pass, back-handed scoop layup, or that a shortstop is a little bit like the point guard of the diamond.

It’s really something intangible, though, something about Rondo’s reflexive commitment to being on the court, that suggests that when Boston fans were cheering for their one-armed point guard as he dribbled towards the basket after the steal, they were cheering for a southern-raised version of the great hardball captain in the Bronx. Rajon Rondo may not have the public life to match Jeter’s, but the way that No. 9 plays, and the way that he talks about playing, betray his similarity to No. 2, a player whom Boston fans used to taunt with that now farcical chant, "Nomar's better.”

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