SLAM Online published an excerpt Wednesday from Jackie MacMullan’s upcoming biography of Shaquille O’Neal. The excerpt tells of a March 8 fundraiser at the Museum of Fine Arts, in which President Obama mocked Rajon Rondo, telling Ray Allen to teach Rondo how to shoot.
Rondo was shooting better than 50 percent before March 8, but his accuracy dropped over 7 percent for the remainder of the season following the fundraiser. Obama’s comments may very well have affected Rondo. The excerpt from MacMullan’s book suggests as much, with O’Neal relaying Kevin Garnett‘s observation that Rondo looked hurt.
It was a joke, perhaps, but an unfair one at best, a hurtful one at worst. And one the President of the United States has no business making.
The Cheap-Shot Artist
Rondo played with three Hall of Famers (four when O’Neal was healthy) in the 2010-11 season, each of whom owned a different part of the offensive court. Allen drained threes with a sniper’s calm; Paul Pierce had the pull-up jumper and could hack and slash his way through the lanes or to the foul line; Garnett owned the post and the 20-footer; O’Neal could out-body anyone under the basket. Exactly where on the court, Mr. Obama, would you want Rondo to be shooting?
We’ve known since his campaign that President Obama is a decent basketball player. We learned during the 2011 NCAA Tournament that Obama is a very knowledgeable basketball fan. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if Obama had seen any Celtics games before the fundraiser, he would’ve realized that the Celtics neither needed nor wanted Rondo to be a shooter.
Mocking Rondo’s shooting reeks of the easy joke, of the cheap shot. For a man so understanding of basketball strategy, to fall back on a simple joke like “Rondo can’t shoot” shows a measure of cowardice and herd mentality. Everyone else criticizes Rondo for poor shooting, so why not the President as well?
A far more courageous joke would have been to mock Pierce’s flopping. Here, I’ll give you an example: “Paul, it’s nice to see you standing upright for once. You spend so much time flopping on the ground, I half-expect to see you playing in the next World Cup.” Or: “Man, Shaq, when you sat on that bench in Harvard Square, I think that was the longest you’ve ever gone without talking in your whole life. Bravo, sir!” See, was that so hard? I don’t even have a speech writing staff!
Making an unfair joke at Rondo’s expense was a missed opportunity for the President. He could’ve once again shown off his great basketball knowledge, perhaps ingratiating himself further with the youth vote. Instead, all he showed was that he watches “SportsCenter.”
Mocking Pierce, O’Neal or any of the other veteran members of the Celtics would have been fine. All of them have reached a point in their careers where they can approach themselves with a bit of humor. Rondo is in a different place.
Despite the leadership he shows on the court, Rondo still plays in the shadows of his teammates. Three will enter the Hall of Fame, and one will have his number retired and raised forever to the rafters of the TD Garden. Rondo has no idea what his legacy, either as an NBA player or a Celtic, will be.
Rondo plays with an inferiority complex, and drawing attention to his greatest fault only makes that worse. It’s like mocking a boy with a lisp or the girl who hasn’t hit puberty yet: It’s bullying, plain and simple. And as the most powerful man in the world, President Obama’s mockeries carry the most weight and the most hurt.
I won’t presume who Rondo voted for in the 2008 election (assuming he voted at all), but it would not surprise me if Rondo voted for Obama. Think how humiliated you would feel if the man you supported and helped put in power turned around and, instead of thanking you, mocked you in front of your colleagues.
Obama may have thought his words were an off-the-cuff joke, but there is no such thing as “off the cuff” with the Presidency. Everything must be planned, because every action sends a thousand messages and signals, intentional or otherwise.
Obama likely did not want to destabilize one of the NBA’s best passers, but he did anyway. Perhaps a private apology would be appropriate.