Centers are not what they used to be, and there is no rarer breed than the Bobcats' big man, an unstoppable back-to-the-basket monster. And if you're tired of tankers, well, Charlotte is the team for you
This is an article from the March 24, 2014 issue
THE LORD of the left block comes from a trailer on Progress Road, where the only basketball hoop was a footbath with the bottom cut out, nailed to two wooden posts in Grandma Annabelle's backyard. Annabelle Jefferson raised her children in Prentiss, Miss., moved away after they were grown, nd returned home when her son Alvin drowned while swimming in a creek on his lunch break. Coworkers at Alvin's landscaping business tried to pull him from the roiling water, but he was 6'3", called Big Al for a reason. They couldn't save him. Big Al left behind a six-month-old boy, his namesake—and his doppelg√§nger. The first time Annabelle saw her grandson, she said: "I lost one Al but gained another."
Al Jefferson was reared by his mother and 14 relatives who lived between two stop signs on Progress Road. When he was 10, having already inherited the moniker Big Al, his grandmother on his mom's side built him a full court with an iron hoop so he could finally ditch the footbath. On summer days Grandma Gladys awoke at 6 a.m., and Big Al followed her to the yard. While she pinned laundry to the clothesline, he acted out Bulls-Lakers, Michael Jordan drives and Magic Johnson dimes. "But I'd make sure to throw it down to Bill Cartwright on the block," Jefferson says, "and let him shoot that hook." Gladys eventually summoned him inside, for fear of heatstroke, and he stared at the big orange ball in the sky until it started to sink.
When Big Al outgrew his imaginary showdowns, he matched up against older cousins. "My kinfolk," he says, "was my AAU team." His road trips were to Prentiss Park. His big-man coach was a friend who stood 6'7". Big Al didn't play video games. He mowed lawns, earning enough pocket money to buy an old maroon Chevy Caprice that spewed transmission fluid across Prentiss, population 1,100. Basketball is a city sport; in the country a prodigy can subsist for a while without shoe allegiances. He can grow up slowly. The first time Jefferson dunked at Prentiss High, he embarked on an elaborate victory lap around the court, and his coach, Lonnie McLemore, had to inform him that the game would not stop for a ceremony. Scouts labeled him Roy Hobbs because he seemed so pure.
Jefferson was inevitably recruited to join a real AAU team, the Jackson Tigers, and he called everyone on Progress when he caught a real-life lob from Jordan at a summer camp in Santa Barbara. Folks who had never been to Prentiss High crowded the gym to see the Natchez Natural. The day Jerry West showed up, Big Al cooked up 62 points with 21 rebounds and 11 blocks, eyeing The Logo in the stands to gauge his reaction. He learned only after the game that he'd been checking out the wrong middle-aged white guy.
In May 2004, when high schoolers were still draft eligible, Big Al flew from Prentiss to Boston for a workout with the Celtics. He stepped off the plane in jorts and a Paul Pierce jersey. He thought he was dressed for the occasion, but the temperature was 40°, and then--Celtics general manager Chris Wallace could not remember where he had parked his new Toyota Highlander at Logan Airport. They combed the outdoor lot on foot for 45 minutes and finally hitched a ride on an attendant's golf cart, Big Al shivering while Wallace feverishly pushed buttons on his key chain. Wallace insists he did not lose the car on purpose, though Jefferson did catch a cold, sabotaging a subsequent workout in Portland. The Blazers took Sebastian Telfair 13th; the Celtics snagged Big Al two picks later.
Wallace acknowledges that he discovered something during that scavenger hunt more valuable than a hundred Highlanders: a phenom with an instinct to search rather than complain. "Oh, I wasn't angry," Jefferson says. "I just wanted to help the man find his car."
So began a 10-year tour of NBA outposts. Jefferson played for the Celtics when they lost 18 straight; the Timberwolves when they plowed through three coaches in three years; the Jazz during the Jerry Sloan--Deron Williams divorce. Jefferson was the Celtics teenager who asked Gary Payton why Lakers banners hung in the Clippers' arena—"You really don't know they play in the same place!" Payton howled—and the Jazz vet who groomed Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter to take his job. "Oh, I'll be good as long as there's a spot for me somewhere in the league," he reassured them.
You saw his name countless times on the crawl at the bottom of the big screen, registering his standard 20 and 10, but you rarely caught a glimpse of him on the highlight shows and never in the All-Star Game. He made the playoffs as a rookie—one opponent asked, "Who are you? Because we just spent a whole timeout trying to figure out how to stop you"—but he never survived past the first round. Among his low-post peers, Jefferson is often regarded as the toughest cover in the league, yet he doesn't stretch the floor like Kevin Love or destroy the rim like Blake Griffin. So he remains about as fashionable as the maroon Caprice (same model, albeit a newer version) he still drives around Prentiss.
About five years ago Wallace attended a charity auction in Memphis, and one of the items for bid was Jefferson's framed Timberwolves jersey. "No one had bid on it," recalls Wallace, now the Grizzlies' GM. "I said, 'I'm not just leaving Big Al's jersey sitting here.' So I put down a couple of hundred bucks, and now I've got this damn Timberwolves jersey hanging on the wall in my office."
The Big Al Admiration Society has mushroomed this season, specifically in the past two months, when he has been the only player besides Love to average more than 25 points and 10 rebounds. After Jefferson scored 38 against Miami and 34 against Indiana in successive games this month, the Pacers' Frank Vogel railed against fellow coaches who had not made Jefferson an All-Star. Detroit center Andre Drummond, schooled on consecutive nights in February to the tune of 61 points and 20 boards, texted Jefferson: "I learned a lot from getting my ass kicked. I'd like to work with you all summer." Big Al beamed. He has plenty of space for Drummond in the 12,000-square-foot house he built for his mother on the lot where the trailer used to be.
"You know how there are people in your life who just bring sunshine?" says Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who was Jefferson's boss in Boston. "That's what Big Al does for the NBA. He's sunshine. He brings it wherever he goes."
JEFFERSON HAS picked this lunch spot, BlackFinn Saloon, and ordered this dish, chicken Parmesan, for a reason. He appears mildly annoyed when the waiter suggests something different, chicken Alfredo, but he is too polite to protest. He bows his head to say grace—"It can be short," he drawls, "as long as it's powerful"—and digs in. He is using this place and this meal to explain why, after a career spent on the underbelly of the NBA, he signed a three-year contract with a franchise that had won 28 games the past two seasons, reached the playoffs once in its decadelong history and is best known for being owner Michael Jordan's biggest failure.
Last spring, with time on his hands yet again, Jefferson flew to New York City and visited his agent, Jeff Schwartz. One of Schwartz's lieutenants spotted Big Al in the Excel Sports Management offices and called Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker, another client. Walker, who spends his off-seasons in New York, rushed over and asked to see Jefferson, an unrestricted free agent.
"We're going to come after you hard," Walker said. "Give us a look." Big Al's voice, typically filled with gravel, was barely audible. Recalls Walker, "His reaction told me we had no chance."
But the market softened for Jefferson amid concerns about his defense, and on July 1 he met with new Cats coach Steve Clifford over chicken Parm at BlackFinn. Clifford shared observations with Jefferson about why he scores so much and wins so little. Jefferson often dominates through three quarters, but smart opponents double-team him in the fourth. Clifford, a longtime assistant in his first NBA head-coaching job, outlined the duck-ins and quick-hitters he ran for Dwight Howard in Orlando and for Yao Ming in Houston to beat doubles before they arrive.
Clifford also addressed the more troublesome end of the court. "He told me I'm not the worst defender he's ever seen," recalls Jefferson, who took this as high praise and made up his mind before dessert to sign with Charlotte. He called Walker and said, "I'm not coming to lose." At that moment the Bobcats withdrew from the Andrew Wiggins/Jabari Parker/Joel Embiid derby that had been consuming every other also-ran.
Jefferson's decision to accept Charlotte's $40.5 million deal was less surprising than the club's decision to offer it. Of late the Bobcats have designed rosters to help their lottery chances more than their playoff prospects. Whether that constitutes tanking or rebuilding is a matter of semantics. But as roughly a half-dozen teams followed the Charlotte Way and stripped to the studs in anticipation of the most vaunted draft since Derrick Rose was at Memphis, the Cats reversed course and broke ground on reconstruction. They had been burned by the lottery before and weren't as enthralled as others with the incoming class. But more than anything they were just sick of losing. "Our owner is one of the most competitive people who ever walked," says Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins. "At some point you have to figure it out."
As the 76ers and the Bucks will soon discover, if they haven't already, selling a tear-down to the media is far easier than living it in the locker room. "It's NBA surgery," says one GM, "and it hurts like hell."
Last year Charlotte center Bismack Biyombo asked Jordan how he should handle all the failure. Shooting guard Gerald Henderson considered bolting as a free agent. Walker questioned whether he should even be in the league. "We were losing games as soon as they started," Walker says. "I struggled to be consistent. I struggled to make shots I made in college. I felt like I didn't belong." When Walker met with Clifford before this season, he asked his new coach, "Why don't I pass more?" The answer was obvious. There was nobody he could pass to. "I don't think I could have done it for another year," Walker says. "We didn't need any more draft picks. We needed vets."
Jefferson, 29, walked into the Charlotte locker room like a prospective parent entering an orphanage. He felt the hungry eyes of his new teammates gazing up at him, starved for guidance. "I don't talk much," Big Al says, "but they really wanted to listen." Now he advises power forward Josh McRoberts not to worry so much about officiating. He reminds Walker to watch his body language. He asks small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist why in the world he would drive one-on-five, to which Kidd-Gilchrist invariably responds, "My fault, my bad, you're right, you're right." After LeBron James scored 61 points against the Bobcats, Jefferson told Kidd-Gilchrist, James's primary defender, "He didn't score 61 on you. He scored 61 on all of us." Two days later an emboldened Kidd-Gilchrist guarded Indiana's Paul George, who went 0 for 9 with two points. "Al has been as valuable as anybody in the league," says Bobcats forward Anthony Tolliver.
Charlotte has never had a player who can dependably put the ball in the bucket; its alltime leading scorers are Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton and Emeka Okafor. Clifford runs virtually every possession through Jefferson, either on post-ups or pick-and-rolls, and when he can't beat the double team he kicks out for open threes. The Bobcats don't always knock them down—they rank 26th in the league in scoring—but they are a safe bet for the playoffs. And even if the Eastern Conference is worse than the ACC, there's no mocking the turnaround. The Cats take better care of the ball than any other club in the league and have gone from 29th in scoring defense to fifth. Winning isn't so bad, and besides, other organizations are now as skeptical of the upcoming draft class as Charlotte was. "We've all seen the pimples," says one GM. "There's no instant savior."
Charlotte has sold the most new season-ticket packages in the NBA for 2014--15, thanks to Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning as much as to Jefferson and Walker. In July the league approved the name change from Bobcats to Hornets for next season, and 8,000 people rejoiced at the Epicentre in Uptown. During a game five months later, Jordan unveiled a logo with the familiar purple and teal colors, and fans cried in their seats.
Such was the bond between Charlotte and the Hornets, the city's first major pro team, which led the NBA in attendance from 1988 to '95. But owner George Shinn alienated fans, first with questionable personnel moves, then a highly publicized rape trial. He demanded a publicly financed new arena, and when support for it crumbled, he moved the franchise to New Orleans in 2002. The Bobcats came to town two years later, but they were unable to re-create the Hornets' connection with the city. "Some people were upset with the NBA brand in general," says team president Fred Whitfield, "and wouldn't engage with us at all."
The team conducted two polls last winter, which revealed that more than 80% of Charlotte fans favored a return to Hornets. Nostalgia, they learned, is a potent marketing tool. The Bobcats' biggest crowd at Time Warner Cable Arena was on Jan. 18 for the first game that Hornets merchandise went on sale. The five most profitable days in the history of the team store have all come in the past two months. Mercedes-Benz and McDonald's, which passed on offers to partner with the Bobcats, signed on as Hornets sponsors. They may be disappointed to find that Muggsy Bogues is not running the point anymore.
"We need to get this place jumping like it was in the LJ days, the Mourning days," says Jefferson. "It's on me to let other free agents know, 'Why not Charlotte?'" He stands on the corner of South College and East Trade streets, hooded Bobcats sweatshirt shielding him from the rain, passersby glancing curiously at the 6'10" ray of sunshine brightening their afternoon commute. Big Al drops into a stance, extends his hulking right hand and demonstrates how to turn back the clock.
THE BOBCATS never appear on national TV, so anyone pining for '80s post moves has to purchase a LeaguePass subscription. On channel 700-something, Jefferson appears at his beloved left block, a slab of hardwood so crucial to his identity that he wonders if he can someday be buried beneath it. The Celtics used to call it the Al Productive Spot, and when Jefferson set up there, Rivers would think, I have no idea what he's going to do. I only know that he's going to score.
Jefferson faces up and immediately sticks the ball behind his back, like a pitcher debating what to throw. Probably he'll go with his fastball (the right hook), but maybe he'll choose something off-speed (the spin move, the drop step, the up-and-under), and if he's really feeling it, a blend of the above. He'll definitely toss in at least one of his pump fakes, like the slow-motion variation he swiped from Pierce, and when he finally gets around to shooting, he'll vary his release. "I can announce to the world he's going right," says Larry Stamps, who coached Jefferson's AAU team. "Now who is going to stop it?"
Certainly none of the modern centers, jumping beans generously termed "rim protectors" who leap from their skin at the first hint of misdirection. "You can't leave your feet to contest his shots," Vogel says, "because as soon as you do that, he's stepping under your armpit. Against Al, you have to stay down. That's a difficult instinct to grasp in the 24 hours you have to prepare for him." No one in today's NBA simulates Jefferson's throwback style. The best comp in the league, Vogel says, is "the Rockets coach."
Jefferson played for Kevin McHale in Minnesota and is tutored by Patrick Ewing in Charlotte. In Boston, Rivers gave him video of Moses Malone, and in Prentiss, Grandma Gladys urged him to study Karl Malone. Jefferson describes himself as an old soul, a bachelor accompanied by the presence of his father, whose grade-school picture is framed in his house. He enjoys it when friends ask if the snapshot is of him. "You could beam Al back to the '70s or the '80s right now," says low-post guru Dave Wohl. "The new wave is corner threes and layups. Big guys want to handle the ball and shoot outside. What Al does—slow you down, draw a double team, score with his back to the basket in a variety of ways—is a lost art."
Wohl was an assistant coach for the Lakers when they had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and for the Celtics when they drafted Jefferson. While other high school big men were going bust in the pros—e.g., Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry and Robert Swift—Wohl was pitting Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins against each other in practice. They spent hours discussing leverage, footwork and fakes. Without those skull sessions, Big Al does not become the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade, and the Celtics do not win the 2008 championship. "You know what gets me going?" Jefferson says. "When I spin to the baseline real quick, get you off your feet, go under you, and throw it up fast. That's better than any windmill or 360 dunk I could ever do."
IT IS the first Wednesday in March, and the playoff chase has come to Charlotte. Ian Mahinmi, the Pacers' backup center, sits in the visiting locker room and examines video of Big Al. The 24-hour crash course is about to end. The game is about to begin. "You can usually dial in on [a big man's] moves," Mahinmi says. "Al is different. He makes it hard because he has so much stuff, plus a counter for everything, and the fakes."
Late in the first quarter, Jefferson holds the ball on the left block against Mahinmi. He fakes a jumper, brings the ball down and tucks it behind his shorts. He dribbles right to the key, spins back left to the baseline and fakes again. Mahinmi goes flying. Big Al ducks under him and sinks a runner.
On the next trip Jefferson makes almost exactly the same play. "It's the most demoralizing way to score," says Charlotte guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. The Bobcats, the happiest sub-.500 team in pro sports, win by 22.
Two days later Cleveland is in town, and a conspicuous silhouette strolls into the home locker room before tip-off. If the Bobcats are enraptured with Al Jefferson, just imagine how they respond to Michael Jordan, employer and idol. They barely breathe. Jordan tells the players to stick together, the way he and Scottie did, when spring dawned. "It's Michael Jordan," Douglas-Roberts marvels. "You feel pressure in front of him."
No matter, the Cats win again as Douglas-Roberts drains four threes and Big Al purees double teams by Spencer Hawes and Tristan Thompson. At the end of the game, Jefferson hears a muffled but unmistakable noise, three universal letters foreign in these parts. It sounds like an MVP chant. It looks like Progress.