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2016 NBA Free Agency

An All-Star surprise

Even before his free agent signing, Rajon Rondo was mentoring a group of boys in Chicago

Ten African-American middle school boys from a challenging Chicago neighborhood jumped into the private shuttle. It was paid for by an anonymous NBA player who was meeting them for a fancy dinner.

They had donned dress shirts and ties purchased by the Chicago Westside branch of the NAACP and started guessing about the night’s host. Maybe it was then-Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose? Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler? Perhaps it was the cousin of their school principal, Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. When they finally arrived at Del Frisco’s Steak House downtown, their jaws dropped when they were met by four-time NBA All-Star and 2008 NBA champion Rajon Rondo.

“They need black mentors and black men as role models,” Rondo told The Undefeated. “The biggest thing I can offer is my time. They need someone who knows that they care and if they have a question, they can ask.”

Rondo, 30, is a native of Louisville, Kentucky, who grew up in a single-mother household with his older brother and younger sister. The 10-year NBA veteran has become involved in recent years in mentoring underprivileged African-American boys in his hometown. He believes it’s best to reach them while they are in junior high.

Rondo wanted to connect with kids from Chicago, where gun violence is common. Last year, 2,988 people in the city were victims of gun violence, according to the Chicago Tribune. Shauna Smith, vice president of client relations from BDA Sports Management, which represents Rondo, connected him with the seventh and eighth-grade boys from Jensen Elementary Scholastic Academy in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.

When the Sacramento Kings were traveling to the area to play Milwaukee last November, Rondo took advantage of an off night to meet his new mentees.

“I wanted to reach out to kids in Chicago. I wanted to be a big brother,” Rondo said.

The boys were so stunned that they were having a private dinner with Rondo that after their initial excitement, more than 10 minutes passed with them barely saying a word.

“All the kids said, ‘Rondo, Rondo, Rondo … .’ Then they just got quiet,” recalled Jensen principal Chinyere Okafor-Conley, who accompanied the boys to the dinner. “They didn’t even know what to say. They’re at Del Frisco’s downtown and there was no one with them except him. No cameras. No pictures. Nothing.

“They were so quiet and I told them, ‘You guys just talked my ears off for 30 minutes and you’re quiet now?’ Finally, [Rondo] broke the ice by saying, ‘What’s up with ya’ll? What’s going on?’ I’m laughing because they were at a loss for words. But finally, they started talking.”

Most of the boys had never been to an upscale restaurant, much less eaten in its private room. The group included a mix of boys, from some of the smartest in the school to ones who are struggling. Along with their steaks, Rondo told the kids to order something that they had never tried before. They ordered the fried calamari and grilled octopus.

“He had to explain to them what calamari was. He asked them to try it. Some of them didn’t want to eat it, but he asked them to try it,” Okafor-Conley said.

Rondo also asked each boy to talk about what his life was like on a daily basis. What he heard was heartbreaking.

Only one of the 10 had a father living at home. (Since then, that man has died, Okafor-Conley said.) One boy said he walked the long way home every day to keep from getting beaten up. Their families were struggling and poor.

“There were a lot of real conversations,” Rondo said. “A lot are worried about being shot. Most of them are the only men in their house and they have to figure out how to help their family eat. They have to worry about what gangs to join and someone beating them up on the way home. Having the platform that I have now, I got to do something …

“The kids struck with me with the way they think. The things they have to do every day that people don’t realize. The struggles. A lot of people don’t realize it. I want to show them different things in life. Dream bigger.”

The dinner was supposed to last about two hours. It ended up going twice as long. Afterward, Rondo took group pictures and gave each boy a $50 gift certificate to help their families with Thanksgiving.

The boys now call themselves The Rondo 10.

“I want to stick with these guys. If I can continue to grow the group, I will. I don’t want to just be in and out of their lives,” Rondo said.

The Rondo 10 rooted for him against their hometown Bulls when the Kings were in town last season. Rondo plans to pay for tutoring for one of the boys. He even told one kid to respect Okafor-Conley after he kept talking over her.

Okafor-Conley called Rondo “the real deal.”

“Sometimes people come in and do the photo-op,” she said. “They bring in the toys. They do that one-and-done stuff. That doesn’t impact children. I’ve been working with kids for a while and they get so excited and never hear from them again. But it wasn’t like that with Rondo.

“I asked Rondo if he would truly commit. I didn’t care if it was something like e-mail. He said, ‘That’s what I’m looking to do.’ We started Facetime-ing him once a month. Around midterms and finals, he would call and talk to all the kids on Facetime. He is so awesome because he even remembers all the kids’ names.”

Rondo had planned to host The Rondo 10 at his basketball camp in Louisville at the end of June, paying for transportation, food and housing and waiving their camp fees. Okafor-Conley would drive them to Kentucky.

The plan came to a halt, however, when Okafor-Conley was badly hurt in May while trying to break up a fight at the school between two female students. She was knocked unconscious after she fell and her face hit the concrete. She was granted “assault leave” and plans to be back to work by the beginning of next school year.

“I made the paper. I made the 5 o’clock, 7 o’clock and the 11 o’clock news because it was a really bad accident,” Okafor-Conley said. “I’m OK speaking about it because I’m here. I was breaking up a fight between two seventh-grade girls and I don’t remember any of it. They didn’t hit me. It was like an accident.

“I just fell and hit the concrete and I was in [intensive care] for three days. It could have been a whole different story. It could’ve been the principal died, because they had to revive me three times. When the ambulance got there, they gave me CPR, the defibrillator, everything.”

Okafor-Conley said Rondo reached out to her to offer his support. He felt bad that the kids couldn’t come and has responded to e-mails since then from The Rondo 10 while Okafor-Conley recovers.

“He proved to be a man of integrity,” Okafor-Conley said. “The boys say, ‘I respect him.’ ”

Okafor-Conley was home recovering when she got text messages from her staff with some surprising news. Rondo had agreed to a two-year, $28 million contract with the Bulls.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Okafor-Conley said. “I thought we had a lifelong partnership already. To be that close to us, he is really going to be a part of these boys’ lives.”

Rondo is excited about playing with Butler, whom he says speaks the same competitive language as he does. Rondo said Bulls games will be “a zoo” now that fellow newcomer and Chicago native Dwyane Wade is joining the team, too. Rondo is a familiar name in the city from his days playing with the rival Boston Celtics and said sports fans have stopped him on the streets to welcome him.

“Everyone knows you here,” Rondo said. “Usually, just men know you. Women know sports here, too. Cab drivers are honking their horns. People are saying they are looking forward to great things. They remember from the Celtics days and the rivalry we had with the Bulls and Derrick Rose.

“They are loyal fans here. They used to boo me when I was here. That was fun. Good times. Kind of place you want to play for as a player. They are in it from start to finish.”

Rondo is also in it from start to finish with The Rondo 10, and said he can do much more for his boys while playing in Chicago.

“I wanted to help some young black men. What better way to help kids than from my own hometown and Chicago?”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.