The Man

When the Bobcats wanted to regain respect and get back to the Playoffs, they signed one of the game’s most reliable players: veteran Al Jefferson.
by May 13, 2014

Before he became “Big” Al Jefferson and embarked on an NBA odyssey that took him from the small town of Prentiss, MS, to Boston, Minnesota, Utah and Charlotte, the now-6-10, 289-pound force had plans of becoming the NFL’s next great wide receiver. “I thought I wanted to be the next Jerry Rice,” says Jefferson. The slow-speaking Southerner slips on a pair of size 18 white-on-white Air Force 1s as he speaks after a late-season practice in the Big Apple. “Then I found out how hard you get hit.”

As Jefferson grew taller than his 23 aunts and uncles and countless cousins, he transformed into “Big” Al—a namesake adopted from his deceased father—and took the moves he practiced day in and day out in his grandmother’s backyard to local Prentiss High School. “I come from a big family, the whole town was very close,” Jefferson says of his upbringing. “Everybody knew everybody and it gave the town that family vibe. It was a great experience, everyone in the town came out to support the basketball team. It’s a fun-loving town.”

During his senior year at Prentiss, Jefferson averaged an absurd 42 points, 18 boards and 7 blocks per game and committed to Arkansas to play his college ball. Jefferson had started telling people he would play in the NBA when he was in the seventh grade and began treating basketball as business instead of fun in the ninth grade, which made his college commitment an obvious formality. The 19-year-old became one of the last prep-to-pro players when he was selected 15th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 2004 Draft.

Big Al only spent three seasons in Boston but his time with the Celtics may have been the most impactful of his career. Along with Jefferson, the Celtics also welcomed Doc Rivers to the organization in ’04. While Jefferson was learning the ropes and rigors of NBA life, Rivers handed the big man a DVD full of Moses Malone footage to study. “When I got the tape, I had heard his name but I wasn’t familiar with him as a player,” says Jefferson. “I knew Doc Rivers gave me that DVD and wanted me to watch it for a reason. I watched it, and I understood why he wanted me to watch it; my game is so similar to [Malone’s]. He wasn’t an above the rim-type player, like I’m not. He was a guy that was always in position to rebound, had great footwork which reminded me a lot of myself.”

Jefferson struggled his first two seasons in the League, but became a fixture on the left block during year three in the Celtic offense. Averaging 16 points and 11 boards, Jefferson’s offense consisted of Moses-esque below the rim moves that are still the core of his offensive prowess. Jefferson’s right-handed baby hook, baseline dropstep and nifty up and under move he picked up while studying Malone still terrorize opposing big men 10 seasons later.

While Rivers schooled Jefferson on the nuances of playing in the post in the film room, Jefferson got his on-court education from teammate and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. “Paul Pierce is a true leader, man,” says Jefferson. “He worked his ass off, he’s one of those guys that’s always working. I tell ya, he’s the reason why I got one of the best ball fakes in the game right now, I stole one of his ball fakes.”

As Jefferson was beginning to make his mark on the Celtics, management decided that the team’s best bet to become a championship contender during The Truth’s prime was to make a major move to shake up the roster. Being that he was the team’s best young asset, Jefferson was shipped to Minnesota as part of the package for Kevin Garnett and the rest, as they say, is history.

Trades in the NBA often flip a player’s life upside down; guys have to unsuspectingly pack up their belongings and move their families and start anew. It’s often a rough transition for a young man, but Jefferson looked at the trade from a different perspective. “It was an honor, man. I’ll be able to tell my grandkids one day that I was traded for a Hall of Famer,” says Jefferson in his deep southern drawl. “By that time I was very aware of the business and understood that teams were going to do what it takes to win. For Kevin McHale to say he wasn’t going to trade Kevin Garnett unless he got me was an honor.”

In Minnesota, Jefferson became the best big man no one was talking about. A walking double-double during the 2008-09 season, Jefferson averaged a career-high 23.1 points and 11 rebounds before tearing his ACL in a February game against the New Orleans Hornets. Along with his major injury, Jefferson and the Timberwolves failed to make the Playoffs during his three seasons with Minnesota.

“It was fun, we were getting our butt kicked every night, though,” says Jefferson of his time up North. “We were a young team, we didn’t expect to be very good but  we played hard. When they fired Randy Wittman and Kevin McHale took over, we were playing well and on the rise but I tore my ACL and Kevin McHale didn’t come back. The third year it was all bad because we brought in a new coach and were running a Triangle Offense but didn’t have Triangle-type players. Then I moved on to Utah.”

Jefferson joined Utah during the 2010 offseason in a trade to another small-market team. His time with the Jazz only brought about more instability. Big Al’s stats dipped a bit and he got caught in the middle of a toxic locker room when Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan began to feud. Eventually, the spat got so bad that Sloan resigned and Williams was traded in February of 2011.

The Jazz did make the Playoffs in 2012, but once Al Jeff’s contract was up following the next season, it was clear that Utah was going young and rebuilding. Jefferson saw the writing on the wall and knew it was once again time to move on. For the first time in his career, Big Al entered free agency.

While many NBA players make club appearances, sign non-basketball related brands for endorsements and invest in the lavish lifestyle that their salaries provide, Jefferson is about as low-key a player you can find. He isn’t on Twitter or Instagram, he pushes an ’86 Chevy Donk, he gives back to his community by holding free basketball camps during the summer and hasn’t had a dustup since a 2010 DWI arrest landed him in the tabloids.

In fact, it seems Jefferson’s lone vice is sleep, which he feeds with a massive, 10×12-foot custom-made bed that he bought for a hefty $23,000 while in Utah. When Jefferson made the decision to sign with Charlotte, few could predict that the impact he would have on the franchise would be as big as the bed he sleeps in every night.

With a young roster and a new head coach in longtime NBA assistant Steve Clifford, the Charlotte Bobcats were desperate to make a splash in free agency and speed up the rebuilding process instead of winding up in the Lottery again. Frankly, after compiling a dismal 28-120 record over the previous two seasons under Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap, the Bobcats were tired of losing.

Unfortunately for the Bobcats, a losing franchise in a small market like Charlotte is usually not at the top of the list for guys at the top of the free-agent wire. Players want marketing opportunities that are found in big cities, not in places like North Carolina where the Bobcats played a total of zero national television games this regular season.

So when news leaked last July that the Cats were bringing in Big Al with a three-year, $41-million deal, most scoffed that Jefferson was simply coming into town for a paycheck and was ill-suited to turn Charlotte’s fortunes around. To the media, basketball enthusiasts and the like, the Bobcats were only digging themselves deeper into salary cap hell and the signing of a traditional back-to-the-basket player wouldn’t result in wins or put asses in seats.

Quite the contrary.

Jefferson has been a godsend for the franchise. Over the regular season, Al averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 boards per game, and more than that, he led the team to the Playoffs for just the second time in the franchise’s 10-year history. Jefferson feasted on the East’s big men and was arguably the best player in the NBA not named Kevin Durant after the All-Star break (he averaged 24.7 points and 10.6 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field in March), all while becoming a media darling and one of the feel-good stories of the season. What a difference 10 months makes, huh? “I chose Charlotte because I liked the new coaching staff and the winning attitude Coach Clifford was bringing here,” says Jefferson. “I liked the young pieces that were already here and the veteran guys that were already here, I thought we had a chance to turn things around quick. As of right now, we have.”

Not only is Jefferson dominating on the block, he is also taking on a leadership responsibility and is genuinely loved by his teammates and coaches. Playing on a young team, the 29-year-old Jefferson brings veteran experience and mentorship for guys like Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—just like The Truth did for him a decade ago. “He’s a great person, high-character,” says Clifford. “He’s a terrific teammate. He’s very personable and he cares, he really wants the franchise to turn it around. He’s taken the responsibility of being a leader and doing that very seriously.”

Long a defensive sieve in the paint,  Jefferson has worked with Clifford to change that. And while Big Al will likely never wind up on the All-Defensive team, a noticeable improvement has been made and the Bobcats finished fourth in the NBA in points allowed per game. “[He] tries hard, and then he’s intelligent,” says Clifford. “If you try hard and you’re intelligent, you can be a good team defender. He also has good basketball instincts that help him a lot.”

Along with prodding from Clifford, Jefferson works exclusively with assistant coach Patrick Ewing who has been instructing Jefferson on the intricacies of interior defense. “One thing about Pat is when I got here, he wanted me to get my defense where my offense is,” says Jefferson. “That’s one of the things we’re always talking about improving on.”

Today’s NBA stars were groomed from a young age to play on the perimeter regardless of size due to shift in the style of play and reliance on the three-point shot. Add to that, big-time dunks fill arenas, sell jerseys and lead to endorsement deals while nifty post moves and 15-foot bank shots take teams off national television and onto League Pass no-man’s land. Jefferson is the last of a dying breed, a high-paid big man who rarely strays from the left block and relies on footwork, head fakes and positioning to get his numbers. He may never get the respect he deserves—he didn’t even sniff the All-Star Game—but you cannot deny the results. In just one season, Jefferson has taken a team from worst to the Playoffs. How’s that for chasin’ a check?

Looking toward the future, this year’s post-season appearance may be the start of something big for the Charlotte franchise. Starting next season, the Bobcats will be rebranded as the Charlotte Hornets and Jefferson will be the man in the middle of it all. “Our fanbase has gotten better and better but I also know there’s some true, die-hard Hornets fans that don’t come and see the Bobcats. We had a ceremony [this season] to unveil the new logo and the arena was packed. I think the city of Charlotte is looking forward to the Hornets coming back.”