This week, we say goodbye to an NBA original, Big Al Jefferson, once considered one of the league’s top post players, and a high school entry who became popular in his short time with the Celtics because of his work ethic and improvement. A gentle giant, Jefferson leaves the game with no controversies and no enemies.
Jefferson played 11 games in the Chinese Basketball Association after being waived by the Indiana Pacers last summer. He returned to the States just in time for Thanksgiving and found that life after basketball was more enjoyable than he thought.
Big Al was definitely one of the NBA’s good guys, a traditional post-up center who worked feverishly to get himself into shape, and then spent his best years trying to help rebuild a Minnesota franchise that had been mismanaged and lacked talent.
Jefferson, 34, spent three seasons apiece with the Celtics, Timberwolves, Jazz, and Hornets, and two with the Pacers. He averaged 15.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for his career, using master post moves to score inside despite lacking elite athleticism.
Blended with those skills was a country kid personality, friendly demeanor, and tireless work ethic. Sadly, Jefferson played in only 21 playoff games over his 14-year career, and his teams never advanced past the first round as he was constantly thrust into rebuilding situations. But he has no regrets. He has signed on to play in Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league and leaves the NBA world smiling just as much as the day he became a first-round pick of the Celtics out of Prentiss, Miss.
“I’m done. I’m retired. I’m good, man,” he told the Globe. “The NBA’s been great to me. I got 14 years out of this game and when I left China, I just put in my head that I’m done. I’m going to retire and give it up and let the young boys have it.”
Jefferson said he got NBA offers and would have definitely been a candidate to sign with a playoff contender after he returned from China. Instead, he said he relished spending Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his birthday (Jan. 4) with family in Atlanta for the first time since he was in high school.
He also said he felt pushed out by the NBA because of the league’s lack of true post players and the mandate that centers stretch the floor. Jefferson attempted 66 3-pointers in his career, making eight.
“It was a mix of a lot of things, actually,” Jefferson said. “I went to China because I wasn’t ready to just be the veteran guy. I wanted to play. That’s the reason I went. The game done changed. Ain’t nobody posting up. And so I just felt like I wanted to play and it didn’t work out [in Indiana], so that was my time to give it up. When I first got in the league I wanted to do about 14, 15, 16 years, and I got at 14 and it was a blast to be around here that long. But it was time to walk away.”
Last July, Jefferson opted out of his contract with the Pacers after being relegated to a third center and signed with the Xinjiang Guanghui.
“It was different. It was a good experience, I’m glad I did it, but the NBA got me spoiled,” he said. “It’s a different ballgame over there as far as everything around the game. The time I stayed over there, 11 games, it was a good experience. It was cold. But it was a good experience.”
Jefferson took a definite risk entering the draft out of high school and passing up a chance to play at Mississippi State. But he earned $133 million in his pro career and said he’s made sound enough financial decisions not to be pressed into another career after basketball. He was a guest analyst on a Hornets network pregame show and that was fun, but he’s enjoying the good life of retirement.
“That’s the thing now — I put myself in a position a long time ago to just say if I want to sit and watch TV all day every day, I can,” he said. “I’m relaxing, just enjoying life. Being around my family, doing things. It was great to be at home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and my birthday and New Year’s. I’m just embracing now. I did sign up for the Big3, that will give me a reason to stay in shape and still have love for the game. I’m just going to relax, travel, and watch a lot of NBA games.
“Shaq [O’Neal] and Charles [Barkley], I have that type of personality and I thought about it. Right now I’m just playing it by ear,” said Jefferson of a possible career in broadcasting. “I don’t have any layout about how I’m going to do things. It’s the best thing ever. Just to be able to relax and come to different places, and people remember me, love me, accept me. That’s good enough for me. I’m a small-town country boy. So it don’t take much to keep me happy.
“The Big3 is full of guys like me, we love to compete. We still want to play this game. We still can play this game. That’s the thing the Big3 gives guys like us, to get that out and then get back to reality. Yeah, I like it.”
Jefferson said he’s most proud of his longevity. The average NBA career is fewer than 4½ years, and prep-to-pro players have a higher failure rate. But Jefferson was able to keep himself relevant and productive for years until he realized he finally wasn’t.
“To be able to last as long as I did. The thing is, there’s a difference in retiring when teams don’t want to sign you,” he said. “I turned down teams to go to China. To still be wanted and for people to love me and respect me, man that’s enough. You could have the best career ever but if you’re not a great person and people don’t like or respect you, that don’t really mean nothing, you’re out there by yourself. I had a great career just to be around as long as I have. The things I have accomplished — I know I could have done a lot better —
but just to say I’ve been here. You can’t take that from me and I’m thankful for that.”
Spurs are making noise in West race
Kawhi Leonard asked out of San Antonio after last season and was sent to the Raptors. Dejounte Murray, the Spurs’ heir apparent to Tony Parker, suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the preseason. Rookie Lonnie Walker has played in just 12 games because of injury.
For sure, San Antonio wasn’t expected to be a factor in the Western Conference this season.
The Spurs were eighth in the West entering Friday’s play but still have a chance to jump to fifth, making for a potential difficult first-round matchup for the Trail Blazers or Rockets.
It’s been another remarkable coaching job by Gregg Popovich, who has taken a roster with two All-Stars — LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan — along with a bunch of unproven youngsters and journeymen, and turned them into a quality team.
And that has occurred without Murray, who had taken over for Parker at point guard last season. To replace Murray, Popovich has given the majority of minutes to second-year guard Derrick White, who played just 17 games with the Spurs last season after spending most of his rookie year in the G-League.
“It’s been a big blow since [Murray] hasn’t played a game, but we’ve just done it by committee,” Popovich said. “At the beginning, Derrick White was hurt so Bryn Forbes was the point guard, and then DeMar did it for a little and then Derrick came back and he got hurt.
“We’ve been changing it up between Bryn and DeMar, and now that Derrick has come back healthy, it gives us a lot more stable look. He’s been spectacular. He spent his time in the [G-League] last year and all of a sudden he’s starting at the point and trying to figure out the position.”
White has a fascinating story. He started his college career at Division 2 Colorado-Colorado Springs before transferring to the University of Colorado. He was the 29th overall pick in the 2017 draft by the Spurs. He has become a typical late-first-round gem for a franchise that has scored consistently with late-first and second-round picks.
“He’s been spectacular in trying to understand everything we want, learn new teammates,” Popovich said of White. “The culture started all over again with Manu [Ginobili] and Tony being gone. He’s had a lot on his shoulders and he’s done a great job. We’d be lost without him, frankly.”
Popovich has never been one to credit his own team. But he acknowledges how pleased he is with the progress of this squad despite the injuries and despite a rugged Western Conference schedule.
“I’m really happy with the group. We’ve had some tough losses. We’re just establishing the culture all over again, and some guys have overachieved,” he said. “With eight new guys, they’re getting used to each other. I’m kind of a taskmaster but I’ve got to understand, and I think I have, that patience was the order of the day for this group. Considering that they’ve played well when we’ve had those recent wins against good teams — Portland, Milwaukee, Denver, Golden State — that’s a good sign that they’re figuring it out. But we’re not mature enough as a group to understand that good teams also beat teams they’re supposed to beat. We haven’t figured that one out yet. We’re inconsistent and looking for more habitual play.”
Walker, a swingman, is now healthy and trying to make the NBA adjustment.
“He’s working hard at it. He’s a smart young man. He’s willing and he’s learning,” Popovich said. “Lonnie is the best athlete on our team. But we never expected to get him back and he’s been playing in the [G-League] for the last couple of weeks to just try to learn more than anything.”
Popovich, whose wife, Erin, died last spring, turned 70 in January but said he still enjoys coaching and continuing the Spurs’ tradition of excellence. And he also decided to succeed Mike Krzyzewski as the coach of Team USA. “Just like Coach K told me, I would think about it every day and he was correct,” Popovich said. “It’s a whole other program. It’s a big responsibility, big shoes to fill; they’ve done a great job for so long. You don’t want to skip any steps and screw that up. So it’s a little bit of all that, roster, coaches, travel logistics, everything, put it all together.”
Popovich’s reputation for not only nurturing talent but building strong bonds with his players may have been damaged because of Leonard’s situation and Popovich’s open criticism about his star’s slow recovery from injury. But Popovich was also able to repair his relationship with Aldridge so much so that the center signed a contract extension. Meanwhile, DeRozan, angered by being traded by the Raptors, has blended into the San Antonio system and meshed with Popovich.
“He’s been in the league a long time, and it’s basketball. More for him, it’s learning new teammates,” Popovich said of DeRozan. “That’s probably the biggest thing he’s had to get used to all year long. Sure, every system’s a little bit different, but in the end it’s basketball and a matter of being together and creating a camaraderie and that trust in each other. That takes a little time.
“This is actually one of the more enjoyable seasons because it’s been fun to watch Bryn Forbes’s development, Davis Bertans, and Derrick White. It’s satisfying.”
Irving’s tribute remains on hold
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a tribute video planned for Kyrie Irving for nearly two years, but they haven’t had a chance to play it for their former superstar point guard. Irving’s first game back in Cleveland was the night Gordon Hayward sustained his horrific leg injury last season, and the club decided not to play the video.
Irving hasn’t been back in Cleveland since. The Celtics only played in Cleveland once during the regular season last year and an injured Irving did not travel to Cleveland for the team’s Eastern Conference finals series. Irving also did not travel to Cleveland for either of the teams’ two meetings at Quicken Loans Arena this season. The tribute video remains unplayed.
Former teammate Kevin Love, who remains close to Irving, was asked about the potential Cleveland reaction when Irving does finally return.
“It is odd. This is nothing against anybody not coming back, or Kyrie for that matter, but I know that as his former teammate and as a friend of his, I love him,” said Love. “Signing back on with the city of Cleveland, what, this is my fifth year now, will be heading into my sixth next year, this is a great city. The fans are going to support you.
“And when he does come back, they’re going to embrace it and they’re going to support him. So, I know he’s been hurt, I know he’s been gearing up for the playoffs, as he should, and getting his body right and his mind right for that, but whenever he comes back I know for a fact that we and the whole city and the state of Ohio and everybody who remembers him from 2016, that big shot, it will be all love.”
Congratulations to Bucks great Marques Johnson, who had his No. 8 jersey retired by the club this past week. Johnson was a player ahead of his time, considered one of the league’s first point forwards and a cornerstone on solid Milwaukee teams in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Johnson is also up for Hall of Fame induction this year and would appear to have more than enough credentials . . . The Celtics will have to make a decision this coming week on whether to re-sign center Greg Monroe after his 10-day contract expires. Monroe was signed for frontcourt relief because of injuries to Aron Baynes and Al Horford, but the Celtics could opt for former lottery pick Thomas Robinson, who played the final four games for G-League Maine and posted double-doubles in points and rebounds in each game, including 34 and 17 in the season finale. Because Robinson was not attached to an NBA roster on March 1, he would be eligible to join the Celtics’ playoff roster. The club has been looking to improve defensively before the playoffs begin in two weeks. Robinson has maintained he wants another NBA chance and could be a serious consideration should the Celtics decide not to bring back Monroe . . . Four teams are competing for two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, making for a fascinating final 10 days of the season. The Heat appeared to have an edge but lost two of the past three games and now are in ninth place. The Hornets looked done until that 18-point comeback against the Celtics, and then improbably winning the next night at Toronto on a 48-foot buzzer-beater by Jeremy Lamb. The Hornets now embark on a four-game West Coast trip that includes games at Golden State and Utah that could define their season. They end the season against Orlando. The Magic are in the middle of a four-game trip that ends with an April 1 game at Toronto. They also play the Celtics in Boston on April 7. The Celtics could play a factor with two games remaining with Miami.