Rajon Rondo believed he was unstoppable. For the most part, he had been. The fiery point guard had overcome injuries, including a gruesome dislocated elbow in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, and became accustomed to sacrificing his body, only to bounce back and get up for more.
He had likened himself to He-Man, an indestructible force with superhuman strengths who could outrun his opponents, slay the competition with his court vision and combat enemies with sneaky defensive maneuvers.
But on Jan. 25, 2013, he crossed paths with his own version of the villain Skeletor, a torn right ACL which he unknowingly suffered in a double-overtime game against the Atlanta Hawks. Two days later, an MRI struck the confident floor general with the harsh reality. He had been defeated for the season. Little did he know at the time, he was about to embark on a nearly year-long quest that would challenge him in ways he had never experienced on the court and give him a new perspective on the game that he had been able to dominate with his battle-tested powers.
"I felt like I was He-Man," Rondo said following practice on Saturday, one year to the day of his injury. "I took longer than I wanted to, but I wanted to do the right thing. I'm not trying to rush to get back to do a contract or trying to rush to prove anything. You only get one opportunity for a shot at this so I don't want to rush back to mess up something else that could go wrong."
For the first six seasons of his career, Rondo had distinguished himself as one of the top point guards in the NBA by doing virtually whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. His high basketball IQ overshadowed his offensive limitations, and his mind drove the game -- and the Boston Celtics.
Three months into his seventh season, he was faced with a situation he couldn't dribble or pass his way out of. The MRI came prior to a highly anticipated game against the Heat. Rondo was on pace for another All-Star campaign, averaging 13.7 points, 11.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game while improving his field goal percentage to 48.4 percent. At that point he had recorded five triple-doubles in 38 games, more than anyone else achieved the entire season.
"I wanted to play against the Heat that day. I wanted to play, period," Rondo said. "I thought I was in a good rhythm. I think I had two triple-doubles the two games prior, so I felt like I was in a good groove. I felt like I almost mastered a triple-double at that time. I knew how to get them and still win games. Even though we lost that Atlanta game, I played through an ACL injury and I took a lot of credit for that game, but I didn't know I had a torn ACL."
Rondo underwent season-ending surgery with a patellar tendon graft on Feb. 12 in Florida under the care of the renowned Dr. James Andrews. While Rondo said he has blacked out the details of the day, Jared Sullinger remembers his teammate's anticipation leading up to it. Like Rondo, Sullinger also suffered a season-ending injury (back) and had to undergo a significant operation. Rondo reached out to the then-rookie to help prepare for what was to come.
"He had never been through surgery and I had never been through surgery, so we were all scared," Sullinger said. "But since I had surgery right away, he asked me what it's like, what do you do. I told him you just have to listen to your doctors. We were talking, being scared about being under the knife for somebody who had never done it before."
Following the procedure, Rondo wanted to gain as much strength as he could in the first six weeks. He relocated to a condo in Pensacola, Fla., a short distance from the rehab facility that he frequented twice a day. The weather was more ideal, too. He didn't want to risk slipping or falling in Boston's wintry conditions.
The explosive athlete was unable to walk on his own for the first month or so. He considers the first time he could walk without crutches or a brace as the biggest breakthrough in his recovery. Rondo is used to being depended upon, not dependent. Moving around freely was significant.
"You question yourself sometimes," he said. "But you think about the work you put in, and hard work pays off. I knew how much time I put in to get my leg stronger and stronger, and I just had to focus on that and trust that it would happen."
Although he was not given a definitive timeline, Rondo aimed to return to game action in October in time for the 2013-14 regular season. Following the surgery he wanted to reduce the swelling, increase his quad strength, specifically the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO), and run without a limp. He would be able to accomplish this in a matter of months, not a year, he believed. After all, he had always been able to push himself back on to the court and play through the pain.
But this injury was different. October came and went, and as training camp concluded he was still unavailable for the start of the season.
"I just wasn't ready," Rondo said.
He was not cleared for full contact in practice until mid-December, his return pushed into a new calendar year. The longer his rehab took, the more Rondo realized how much he could help his career by staying out of game action. This was a change of perspective for the invincible-minded athlete.
"A lot of people always talk to me and tell me to stay positive, be patient, it'll come," Rondo said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. I've been out a year of basketball. It won't come back to me as quickly as I want it to be, but I still have the natural instincts and the mental part to do it. It's just that the physical part is a little bit behind."
This shift in mindset didn't happen overnight for the notoriously stubborn Rondo. The time spent in Florida intended for rehabilitation ended up serving a dual purpose. He let his head wander off the court and focus on areas of his life often dominated by the demands of his job. For once, basketball was not his main focus.
"I accepted it [the injury] when it happened," he said. "It was frustrating not playing, but I didn't really watch much basketball. It's not entertaining to me really. If I'm not playing, if I'm not scouting, I don't like to watch it."
Rondo took a deeper look at himself and who he is besides a championship winner, All-Star, and elite point guard in the NBA. For most of his life he has been known for his athletic abilities. Once those were restricted, he explored new facets of his identity.
"Life is more important than just basketball, really," Rondo said. "Basketball's only so much of who I am. There's a lot of things that go on outside of basketball. Basketball is just what I do for a living. People get caught up in just thinking I just play basketball because obviously the spotlight that I'm in. But at the end of the day there's a lot of things that I do besides play basketball."
He began exploring new business options, thinking ahead for the future. Although he was mum on potential ventures, he noted he has opened the door to possible opportunities once his NBA career is finished. The injury forced him to consider that nothing is guaranteed and the necessity of having alternatives to fall back on outside of sports.
Surrounding himself with a solid support system was important, too. His fiancée and mother rooted this group which helped Rondo deflect pressure while fans and pundits frequently speculated on his return date. They steered conversations away from basketball, instead discussing getting healthier and "other things in life."
Rondo also reached out to his best friend, former Celtic and current Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. The big man suffered a torn ACL during the 2010 NBA Finals and was able to calm the nerves of Rondo, who is always searching for answers and more information. Perkins advised him to stay on top of his rehab routine and continue strengthening his left leg during the process, as Perkins had been told there was a 50-50 chance he could tear the opposite ACL if he neglected it for the injured one.
"He seemed a little nervous," Perkins said. "He was a little scared. Every little thing was bothering him and stuff like that. But I told him, 'There's nothing wrong with you.' He kept saying, 'Man, I keep hearing this and this.' You know how he gets. But I had to tell him once he stepped out on the court, everything else goes out the window."
Teammates noticed a difference in Rondo when he began preparing for this season. The eight-year veteran exhibited a diligent work ethic reminiscent of a young player fighting to establish his place in the league. Days off were not part of his schedule. His calendar was filled with all rehab, all basketball, all the time.
"His attitude on the court and off the court [has changed]," Sullinger said. "Instead of being like, 'I'll do it tomorrow,' it's more like, 'I've got to get it done today.' You're always going to have those days when your body isn't going to feel up to it, you're not going to be ready to shoot, or you just want to have a day off when you don't come in and kind of stay away from basketball. But he's been coming in every day, on days off, either lifting or doing some type of conditioning. It kind of made him go back to what made him who he is today, and with the hard work you're realizing he still wants to be a top point guard."
Brandon Bass has seen Rondo make adjustments in the way he takes care of his body. Rondo has altered his diet to be more conscious of the foods he consumes. Bass also noted he is spending extra time stretching and getting massages, as well as hitting the court earlier to run through his pregame warmups. These changes have culminated into an enhanced dedication that has not been overlooked by his counterparts.
"He's a hard worker, but I think for him it was trying to get that confidence back in his knee," Celtics forward Jeff Green said. "He put in countless hours, too, getting back out there on the floor. He's somebody who pushed himself to the limit to get back into game shape and to get back there playing."
Rondo made his season debut on Jan. 17, 2014, close to one year after he was delivered the life-changing news. His minutes are restricted -- he will have to work his way back to the almost 38 he averaged last season -- and the brace he wears each game serves as a physical reminder of the work that still lies ahead. He doesn't always move as daringly as he did before the injury, that will come with time, and he is taking a cautious approach to his game. The flash will follow after the fundamentals. He admits at the time of his injury, he didn't think he would be this reflective when he returned. But as he spoke with his right knee wrapped in ice, he said that each time he has the ball in his hands is meaningful to him.
"You appreciate life more. You appreciate the game more," Rondo said. "You don't take the game for granted every day that you wake up and get to play this game and step on the court. It's a blessing. It's not guaranteed. Any moment, any play, any time in the game, your life could change. So every game that I do get to play, I'm very blessed and fortunate."
Since pushing through nearly 12 months of recovery, Rondo has taken on a new role in addition to being named the captain of the Celtics. He has become a resource for other athletes rehabilitating from injuries of their own. Two of his close friends also suffered ACL injuries while playing basketball.
"I think everything happens for a reason," he said. "They're kind of like little brothers to me. They called me and asked me for advice. One of them had surgery yesterday [Friday] so I feel like it happened for a reason. Not only for other people to see, but guys that I'm close to pick my brain and ask me a bunch of questions, how to approach it mentally. Physically, they'll be fine, everybody's fine. I think mentally is the most important thing that you have to get over and work through that during that process."
The essence of He-Man still lives within Rondo. While he prefers not to use the moniker, the tenacious qualities are still brewing inside him, waiting to be unleashed.
"It's still the same. I can do anything I want to, anything I can put my mind to," he said. "I'm just a little more humble. It was a humbling experience. That's what I got from it the most part, I'm more humble. I'm still cocky but I've been more humble."
Jessica Camerato is a writer based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @JCameratoNBA.