Rajon Rondo's recent skills clinic at the RONAC Center in San Juan was pretty much similar to the way man himself plays: no frills and little fanfare, but spiked with a display of vast basketball knowledge.
The Celtics' All-Star point guard, whose trip here was courtesy of his sponsor Red Bull, conducted a two-hour training session for selected UAAP and NCAA junior and senior players, where he taught the wide-eyed youngsters the basketball drills that have helped hone his skills and have made him one of the best court generals in the NBA today.
Rondo takes his basketball very seriously. To make sure the clinic didn't turn into a media circus, he instructed organizers to limit the media people present to a small number and also disallowed the use of flash photography. The moody NBA star also limited his interaction with the media, eschewing the usual one-on-one interviews and instead entertaining only around four to five questions after the clinic was over.
His message was clear: he was there to teach the kids basketball, and he didn't need any unnecessary distractions.
The participants included some of the top amateur players from the two premier collegiate leagues, including Kiefer Ravena of Ateneo, Baser Amer of San Beda, Jett Vidal of Perpetual Help, Kevin Alas of Letran, Jonathan Banal of Mapua, Aaron Black and Thirdy Ravena of Ateneo High, and Renzo Subido of DLSZ.
There to assist Rondo — and to also pick up valuable pointers — were Smart Gilas head coach Chot Reyes and his son Josh, Ateneo head coach Norman Black, Louie Gonzales of Global Port, Jimmy Alapag of TNT, Matt Makalintal of Rain or Shine and Tony Dela Cruz of Alaska.
Now, over the years I've been to several clinics for youngsters run by visiting NBA coaches and players, and while they did give useful pointers and taught the fundamentals, the one run by Rondo is perhaps the most practical one I have seen. Why? Because the things he taught were very applicable to us height-challenged Filipinos.
Since he's shorter than most players, even some of his fellow point guards, Rondo has had to develop ways to get his shot off or get to the basket in one piece without being bowled over by taller defenders. For many of his drills, his basic philosophy is just go against the grain and do moves that throw the defender off their rhythm. In the vernacular, this is known as kontra-tiempo.
For instance, for one exercise the participants had to lay up wrong-footed, i.e., laying up with your right hand but with your left leg in the air, and vice versa. For another, they practiced a one-handed floater shot a step earlier than usual. Then there's the signature Rondo move, the one that can really send big men flying if done correctly. Rondo had all the participants go through this, and he couldn't say enough about how important this move was for a short player.
Another Rondo specialty, the behind-the-back bounce pass, was also practiced by the youngsters, who had to perfectly bounce the ball between several sets of chairs. Rondo encouraged them to do the drill at home whenever possible. "Get your dad or younger brother to help you," he said.
The pick and roll, which Rajon executes to perfection with Celtics big men Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, was also heavily dissected, and he showed the kids how to give the perfect pick-and-roll pass.
Chances are, you won't find most of these drills being taught in other hoops clinics. Then again, Rondo isn't your typical NBA point guard. Aside from being a little shorter than his peers (in person, he looks to be six feet flat), he's not as athletic as Derrick Rose or as speedy as Russell Westbrook.
What he does have in abundant supply is court vision, along with court smarts. He can't necessarily teach those things, but he can give others a glimpse of how he approaches the game.
Coach Chot, fresh from his Jones Cup win, thought the drills can be of great help to the national team, since, like Rondo in the NBA, our national players often find themselves ranged against taller players from the traditional Asian powerhouses.
"I think most impressive was the off-foot drill," Reyes said. "Our players can really use that. It can really help in international play."
Rondo himself was impressed with what he saw at the clinic. "The talent level is very high," he noted, while adding that he doesn't doubt that if there's a Filipino baller good enough to play in the NBA, he will eventually make it. "If you have talent, the NBA will find you," he said.
San Beda's Amer, a self-confessed Rondo fan through and through, couldn't contain his excitement about literally rubbing elbows with his idol.
"Idol ko siya," the San Beda guard said with a huge smile on his face. "Kapag may game sila, always akong nanonood. Mga moves niya, ginagaya ko. Sa practice ginagawa ko, pati sa game."
When the clinic was over, Rondo entertained a few questions from the media, although we were given strict instructions not to ask anything about the NBA, the Celtics, and, specifically, a certain former Celtics shooter who's now with the Miami Heat. We complied, although the restrictions severely limited our choices.
Afterwards, Rondo posed with the participants, signed some autographs for the players, and retreated to a VIP room where he quietly made his exit. And just like that, our afternoon with Rajon was over. No long goodbyes, no joking with the crowd, no "I love you, Manila!" declarations.
Rondo kept it simple and to the point, yet unconventional. Pretty much like the way he plays his basketball.