“My favorite moment with the Nets was before I ever played a game,” Richard Jefferson says, somehow picking one memory out of too many to count.
“I got drafted by Houston. I was so excited. My agent called me and told me I got traded to New Jersey. I immediately became depressed. I had no idea about Jersey, about the tri-state, how close it was to New York. I talked to Byron and he could sense my disappoint. He was like, ‘Don’t worry, I feel like we have some things that are gonna make you happy.’
“The next day, I’m driving on the freeway, in Phoenix. I hear, ‘Hey everybody, we have a trade to announce. Stephon Marbury has just been traded from New Jersey and Jason Kidd is going to New Jersey.’ I almost wrecked my car on the freeway trying to pull over to call my agent. I was so excited. Maybe call it arrogance, maybe call it confidence. But I knew how good Jason Kidd was. I knew how good we were gonna be and what we were gonna accomplish.”
Between 2001 and 2008, the Nets had six straight trips to the Playoffs. Back-to-back Finals appearances. Seven straight years of at least one Net making the All-Star team. Five straight 42+ win seasons. Five straight seasons of having at least a Three straight division titles. Three playoff sweeps. One amazing SLAM cover. Accomplishments.
Richard Jefferson was in the middle of all of that success. The 15-year vet was a constant on those teams, bringing violence to the rim and intense passion to the locker room. RJ says things clicked so well in Jersey because of two things—a mutual desire to win big, and Jason Kidd.
“Our best player was Jason Kidd,” Jefferson says. “We knew that if we ran hard, we were gonna score. That was our motivation. Get stops, get the ball in his hands. J-Kidd was one of the top two or three players in the NBA.
“We had a mentality,” RJ continues. “We had a style. We all came together. The roles were very, very clearly defined. There was a lot of mutual respect for each other. Years later when I played with Tim Duncan, Tim asked me, ‘What did you think of your chances of beating us in the Finals?’ I was like, ‘I thought our chances were really, really good.’ I asked him, ‘What’d you think your chances were?’ He said, ‘I thought it was about 50-50 going into that series.’ Tim knew that they had to play really, really well to beat us.”
That’s prime Tim Duncan saying that. The greatest power forward of all time, saying that Jefferson and the Nets were a huge challenge to beat because they fought tooth and nail, sometimes with each other, to win.
“My rookie year, we had gone on a west coast road trip,” RJ says. “We had gotten off to a really, really good start that year. We had lost four in a row on that west coast road trip.
“Towards the end of the game, me and Bonzi Wells are kinda getting into it. Kenyon’s at the bottom of the free throw line and the referee tells Kenyon, ‘Tell your rookie to be quiet because I don’t wanna have to give him a technical this late into the game.’ Kenyon tells me, ‘Hey Richard, be quiet.’ Bonzi Wells goes, ‘Yeah! Listen to Kenyon and shut up.’ I just lose it. I’m like, ‘F, Bonzi! And F, you too, Kenyon!’
“I go and sit down, I’m mad, pissed off. I’m sitting down and Kenyon comes in the locker room pissed off. I stand up and he pushes me down in my seat. We have a full-on fistfight. The only thing that saved me is Aaron Williams, and you remember how big he was, grabbed him from the back to try and calm him down. My last swing hits Aaron Williams in his lip and busts his lip open. At that point in time, I realize what is going on. I have no problem fighting Kenyon. Aaron? I don’t want any piece of,” RJ says still with a quiver in his voice.
“Even that fistfight right there, we both understood how much we wanted to win and that we were willing to fight anybody, including each other, to get that done.”
But the Nets didn’t get it done. Even with all of RJ’s individual success and the Nets’ team success (more on that below), they never won a ring, which is why number 24 thinks his squad isn’t remembered alongside some of the great teams from the 2000s. But the newly minted champ is okay with that because he remembers what those teams did.
“I remember when I first showed up there, there was no banners at all, not one,” Jefferson says. “Nothing. I remember going there now, there’s six banners. There’s four division championships, two Eastern Conference titles. None of that was there my rookie year when I first showed up. Every time I walk into that building, there’s still a feeling of pride.”
For as great as those teams were and for as special as they were to him (“It was very well documented how depressed I was when I got traded”), RJ hasn’t put on a Nets jersey in eight years. After playing with J-Kidd, he spent time with Duncan, Popovich and the Spurs, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James. The journey that started in Jersey just reached its climax with Cleveland.
Watching the playoffs and Finals this year would have made you think that RJ was just another three-and-D player, scrapping along, never being allowed to dribble. But if you rewind the clock a little, you would see that the Cleveland-version of Jefferson is just the latest step of a career-long evolution. He’s gone from one of the best dunkers in the League, to one of the best small forwards in the League, to one of the best role players in the League. At his very best with the Nets, he averaged 22 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. In his seven seasons there, he went for 17 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. He ran pick-and-rolls, knocked down clutch shots, led both by example and with his voice. In his one season with the Bucks in 2008-09, he averaged 19 points and 40% shooting from distance.
“My only goal was winning games,” RJ says. “Whatever it is that you need me to do, I’m gonna do to the best of my ability.”
He proved that during the playoffs and the Finals, when even at 35-years-old and with 32,000 minutes on his legs, he could still ball. The stats might not show it, but when the Cavs were down, there were only two men in wine and gold who didn’t quit—LeBron James and Richard Jefferson.
“People were like, ‘You played so good,’” RJ says. “I was like, ‘I was playing like my life depended on it.’ Had I known when I was 23-years-old, maybe I would’ve pushed myself a little bit harder. But you don’t understand how hard you have to push yourself until you’re 36-years-old and you feel like this is your last opportunity.”
It’s not his last opportunity. Not yet. He just re-upped with LeBron and them to chase another ring. But the sun is gonna set soon on his career and RJ’s looking towards the east when it’s all said and done.
“My connection to the tri-state area and what we were able to accomplish, if I had the opportunity to go back, even if it was on TV, and just connect with those fans again… they meant so much to me,” he says.
Still, there’s more basketball to be played and more memories to be made. But one in particular sticks out to the former Olympian.
“I’m holding my son and my son is playing with the trophy and he’s 17 months old,” Jefferson says. “He has no idea how awesome the pictures and the videos will be when he’s ten years old. He has no idea. I’ve waited my whole life to see that trophy and he got to see it at 17 months. It’s surreal.”
And in a career that’s spanned two decades, RJ has a lot of memories to continue to look back on. Like that time he detonated on Kevin Willis.
“I just remember our team being so, so hype,” he says with a laugh. Just another great memory.