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The NBA Is Still Wrestling With Rajon Rondo's Verbal Assault On Bill Kennedy

Rajon Rondo's decision to direct ugly slurs at gay NBA ref Bill Kennedy was his alone. But the aftermath has forced the NBA to think about what it wants to be.

by Howard Megdal
Dec 17 2015, 9:30pm

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

"That's a pretty heavy question," Knicks coach Derek Fisher said on Wednesday night. "Can go in a lot of different directions." In the days since Rajon Rondo decided to chase down NBA official Bill Kennedy after an ejection and repeatedly call him a "faggot," the NBA has had to ask itself a number of those heavy questions. There is Rondo's peculiarly short one-game suspension, and there is Kennedy's place, as a newly out gay man, in the NBA circa now.

And while there are more questions than answers at the moment, what seems clear already is that if there's anybody in the NBA who either agrees with Rondo's decision to throw out that ugly slur or wishes to defend his right to do so, those players and coaches are staying quiet.

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Instead, the fault line appears to be between imputing Rondo's moment with larger significance—that is to say, using the vicious words spat at Kennedy as emblematic of how Rondo feels, and a broader problem that must be engaged—or the more popular view, which holds what Rondo said as simply the most hateful thing an angered competitor could come up with as revenge in the heat of the moment. This latter view takes Rondo at his word that, hateful words aside, hate was not what was in his heart. Part of the reason there's room for debate in the first place is that it took Rondo until his second attempt at a public apology, through Sacramento Kings PR, to disclaim any anti-gay hatred.

"I think that both men are quality human beings, from what I can tell," Fisher finally said on Wednesday. "I did not play with Rajon, but I played against him many times. It seems he is a quality person. Bill refereed many games that I played in. He's a quality individual. I think it's unfortunate in terms of the timing. How it's happened. Hopefully, we can move forward as a sport, and not be insensitive to the LGBT community, or any community. But I don't think Rajon, in that moment, meant any personal harm."

That idea—that Rondo's verbal assault was little more than a rogue idea, disparate from Rondo's worldview—was one echoed by Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell prior to the game.

"Well, I know Rajon," Mitchell told me. "I don't want to say we're friends, but I know him. And I was shocked. I don't think he's that type of person. Sometimes, this game is very emotional. That's why, after a game, I go in that locker room, before talking to you guys, and just get my thoughts together. And sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you let your tongue get the best of you."

Bill Kennedy, a person. — Photo Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

But for Knicks point guard Jose Calderon, it defied logic that Rondo could make such a statement on the court without harboring ill will toward Kennedy over his sexual orientation off it.

"I think it's not about you on the court," Calderon said, standing in front of his locker prior to Wednesday night's game. "I think it's more about the person you are. If you are an educated person. So whatever you'd say outside of the court, it goes both ways—it isn't what you'd say on the court, either. You can argue with a teammate or an opponent. But we are in the same business together. So always, with respect."

There are other aspects of the Rondo-Kennedy debacle that remain unsolved. For instance: did Rondo even know about Kennedy's sexuality? And if he did, why?

I asked nine-year veteran Aaron Afflalo whether he'd gotten to know any NBA official well enough to speak knowledgeably about his personal life.

"I don't think so," Afflalo said. "In terms of my conversations with officials, we typically just talk about the game. Sometimes guys get upset about calls, but me personally, I've never had a conversation outside the game."

As for the constant trash-talking that is the soundtrack of NBA games, it doesn't sound like attacks on a player's sexual orientation are part of what typically happens. One player pointed out to me the specific timeline involved—that Rondo wasn't ejected for the slurs, but instead responded to the ejection by chasing Kennedy down and saying them—as a kind of premeditation, rather than the freeform jazz riff within the flow of a game.

Or as Afflalo explained it, "Every guy's different, how they respond to different stresses and different situations. But for me personally, I focus on the context of the game."

The amount of consensus about the moment itself was refreshing, and symptomatic of the significant progress that society has made on the stubborn but simple issue of treating LGBT people with the respect they deserve.

Oh, be quiet. — Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

"I'm sure he's sorry, but there's no place for it in our society," Mitchell said. Try and picture an NBA coach saying this in 2005, when LGBT questions were still presented as "respect both sides" in many corners of the country and fear mongering over gay marriage had just swung a Presidential election. "Forget our game. There's no place for it in our society, and I think he understands that. And I know Bill from all the years I played and coached. And Bill's a good man. He didn't deserve it, and Rondo understands that."

Fisher went further, expressing concern for the impact Rondo's slurs had on Kennedy's decision to go public with his sexual orientation. "That shouldn't be the way Bill's decision is kind of swarmed by Rajon's comment," Fisher said, "As opposed to the courage of his decision."

And yet: Rondo hasn't quite been relegated to the trash heap the way Donald Sterling was following the public airing of his racism. No one worked quite so hard to give Sterling the benefit of the doubt on his weaponized ignorance in the way Mitchell did for Rondo. "I just don't think he's that kind of guy," Mitchell said. "We all make mistakes. And if you're going to judge us by the mistakes we make—he's paying the price. But let's see how he conducts himself now, how he rebounds. That's gonna be the true test—how he goes forward from today."

For his part, though, Calderon had heard enough. "For me? You can't say that to anybody," Calderon said. "I think if you say that, you believe in that, you have to go out and say this is what I think. To me? You cannot say that. At all."

Ultimately, that's what Mitchell hoped would be the larger lesson from this incident—certainly, the NBA's decision to suspend Rondo absent precedent or a change in the CBA was done with this in mind.

"Hopefully not just he, but everybody in society learns that it's unacceptable to make those kinds of comments to anyone," Mitchell said. "And I know Rajon—I like him, but he made a serious mistake. So let's see how he does going forward. Because sometimes, you make mistakes like that, publicly, it can have a profound change on your life. For the good. That's what we're hoping for."

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