Do you remember when Dwight Howard won the Slam Dunk Contest in 2008? When he removed his Orlando Magic jersey to reveal a sleeveless shirt emblazoned with Superman’s crest and donned a red cape? Fresh off leading the Magic back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003, he took the generally joyless genre of the prop dunk and made it fun again, not dunking the ball so much as throwing it down through the hoop from a great height. It was a little goofy, but so was he, and he seemed for all the world like a goodwill ambassador for a kind of basketball that could be physically dominant but also not take itself too seriously.
And do you remember when Rajon Rondo was the playmaking glue that knit together the Boston Celtics team that won the championship that year? Yes, it was a team headlined by the talents of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, but if Garnett was the heart and Pierce and Allen the hands, it was Rondo who was the nervous system. A scrappy second year-player at the time, Rondo led the team in assists and steals that season, then broke out the next as a nightly triple-double threat. His game was wily, if flawed, but supremely human for that. If you truly appreciated basketball, you appreciated Rondo, who couldn’t shoot, but made a difference night in and night out in a million different little ways.
For these two players, 2008 feels like more than nine years ago: it feels like a lifetime.
Howard forced his way out of Orlando clumsily and wouldn’t even own up to the fact that he was doing it, hemming and hawing over his desire to leave and later painting it as an “It’s not you, it’s me” decision about personal growth. Or something. He landed, notoriously, in Los Angeles, where his lone season with the Lakers was a crushing disappointment marked by friction with Kobe Bryant and scads of finger-pointing and blaming all around. From there he moved to the Houston Rockets, where he never seemed to fully integrate into their 3-point heavy offense and was injured enough to often seem like a ghost. His three-year stint there was capped off by a disappointing first round exit from the playoffs just when the team was supposed to be rounding into contention. This year, he signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks, who have quickly fallen from the dizzy pace-and-space heights of their 2014-15 season. Howard’s move was supposed to rehabilitate his image and his career, but instead, his team might need to bottom out to start all over again. Trading Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers was just the first domino on that path to fall for them this season.
In 2013, Rondo was voted as the starting point guard for the East in the All-Star Game, but before the game even happened, he tore his ACL and was out for the season. When he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks two years later, it was looked at as a chance for a legit star to get a fresh start on a loaded team – this was when the Mavs had Tyson Chandler, Chandler Parsons, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki and were only a few years removed from a championship. It didn’t quite work out that way, and Rondo’s desultory, frankly shocking performance in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets that year was the last we’d see of him for the Mavericks.
He led the league in assists last year for the Sacramento Kings, but mostly because he refused to pass the ball to anyone who wouldn’t immediately take and make the shot. Somehow, he had managed to turn the game’s most generous act into a selfish one. That didn’t stop the Chicago Bulls from signing to him to a two-year deal worth $28 million, and while the season began promisingly with an 8-4 record, it’s since fallen apart with Rondo once again benched, even on his bobblehead night. It’s entirely possible that he is eventually waived by Chicago.
There are clear parallels: Early success engendered by a combination of opportunity and talent gave way to change and disillusionment, then movement to a new team, then disappointment, then movement and then disappointment. On the court, they are as blessed with strengths as hampered by weaknesses: Rondo’s court vision, trickery, ballhandling and – early in his career – defense offset by his poor shooting; Howard’s rebounding, defense and finishing offset by his shooting (free throws, specifically, although his percentage at the line was 65.3 percent in December this season and is currently 70 percent in January).
The way they’ve dealt with the vicissitudes of their careers off the court could not be more different, though. Howard is exhaustively – and perhaps exhaustingly – introspective, forever engaged in an effort to figure out how to be better without ever actually seeming to understand what he’s good at. For years he endeavored to be a classic post player when his best skill was catching lobs out of the pick and roll. In Atlanta, he’s tried to improve his midrange shooting, with little to show for it. When Charles Barkley asked him, straight up, “Why don’t people like you?”, he responded that he thought people felt he was acting like a diva by forcing his way out of Orlando (which he was) and that that hurt him, but that his approach to basketball has never changed (which is debatable). “I’ve never been a bad person,” he insisted. “It’s not like I want people to like me.” Even though it seems very much like he wants people to like him. Nothing seems to be his fault and if it is, it’s because people don’t understand him.
Rondo, on the other hand, genuinely doesn’t seem to care much what people think of him. When he was asked about former teammate Ray Allen’s official retirement earlier this season, he responded, “I thought he’d been retired.” When Baxter Holmes asked him why more people don’t know about the charity work he does, he said, “The people in my circle do know the type of person that I am and know the genuine person that I am. If you don’t know me, then you just don’t know me.” He destroys children in Connect 4.
We see and hear all this and it’s easy to come away feeling like Howard is a fake, a striver with immense gifts who has somehow failed to live up to them because he doesn’t understand them; that Rondo is sullen and not necessarily a bad guy, but one with a skillset we associate with generosity who has somehow warped his game into a selfish one.
At the heart of what they both say, though, is a refrain heard often from NBA players: they’re being true to themselves. Kevin Durant evoked it in a revealing Q&A with Chris Haynes recently. “I’m going to be real as hell and show you who I am,” he said, “because I want the kids to see who I really am and the basketball players to see who I really am, and that’s all that matters to me.” This was posed in contradistinction to the often frosty relationship he’d developed with the media while with the Oklahoma City Thunder, yet he still wrapped up the interview by saying he wanted to remain “somewhat of a mystery.”
It’s worth asking why we put so much stock in keeping it real, in being true to ourselves, in telling it like it is. It might be that we believe the truth is what’s simple, that what feels the most plain and obvious should also be true. But is that the case? People’s faith in “telling it like it is” without careful attention to what is actually being said hasn’t worked out so great recently.
It seems that what Rondo and Howard’s careers are emblematic of is that complexity can be unknotted into a simplicity that’s simply composed of more tightly tied knots of complexity. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but at some point you have to look at the way each has ultimately disrupted and weakened each team they’ve joined by the time they leave. At the end of this season, they’ll both be 31. At this point, they’re the sum total of their careers and just because they’re hard to understand, it doesn’t precisely make them misunderstood. But they – and just about every NBA players at some point in his career – will invoke the need to be more real, more true to themselves, as if that would make things easier, make them more successful.
But what if, down at the bottom, at the most real level, we’re all just a jumble of conflicting impulses, of skills that don’t always line up with our natures? Howard and Rondo might be outstanding examples of this, but they’re hardly the only ones. Each in some way has put forward the defense that they’re misunderstood, although each differs in how much he seems to care about that. They insist the confusion isn’t what’s real, but maybe it is. It doesn’t make them good or bad, inherently. It is not only and specifically their faults that each of their team’s are in varying states of disarray and trouble. But they are each going to be forever difficult to some extent, and that’s something that any team they’re on or going to be on has to take into consideration.
Do Howard and Rondo contradict themselves? Very well, then they contradict themselves.