By Jesse Marx
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Al Jefferson is barely through the door to the NBA City restaurant and he's already apologizing. "Sorry, man," he says a bit sheepishly to Mike Cristaldi, the Timberwolves' public relations director. "I thought we were meeting in the locker room."
Jefferson gives Cristaldi a quick handshake, but looks past the reporter he's come to speak with.
"How long's this gonna take?" Jefferson asks in a low drawl.
VISIT OUR SLIDESHOW GALLERY with photos by Nick Vlcek.
"About 45 minutes," Cristaldi answers.
"Forty-five minutes?!" Jefferson looks like he's just been whistled for a bogus foul. "I didn't know it was gonna be that long."
But the complaining stops there. He's been getting used to not having his way lately. On the hardwood, where he's made his name through unrelenting and highly skilled close-to-the-basket play, he's led his team to a miserable 11-43 record, in the thick of the race for league doormat.
Cristaldi guides the party into a small, unadorned side room, away from prying eyes. Jefferson, after all, doesn't exactly blend into the crowd. Massive though he looks on TV, he's even more imposing in the flesh. His oversized black T-shirt and baggy jeans do little to play down his sinewy six-foot, ten-inch frame, punctuated by shoulders as wide as a big rig.
Taking a seat on a leather couch, Jefferson eases his long, lean legs onto a coffee table. Then, using the universal professional athlete's code to signify he's ready to start the interview, Jefferson looks the reporter in the eye and waits for the first question.
It's about his hometown, and the corners of Jefferson's mouth edge upward.
"Prentiss is about as big as this room," he says, his voice softening. "Everybody knows everybody. It's a country town, a relaxing town."
Before he gets much further, he's interrupted by his buzzing iPhone. Pulling it out of his pocket, he leans in low to answer.
"Look, man, I'm still not done with the interview," he says, a hint of impatience creeping into his voice. "Tell that man to wait."
He pockets the phone, and explains the interruption.
"Antoine's got this guy getting me some suits made and he's been waiting on me," Jefferson says.
"Antoine" is Antoine Walker, Jefferson's veteran teammate and sometimes role model. With more than 1,000 suits in his closet, he's also the team's foremost authority on tailors. And Jefferson, it happens, is in the market for some new threads.
"When I signed my contract," he says, "I figured, it's time for me to step up and start dressing like I'm a professional, you know what I mean?"
BY "CONTRACT," JEFFERSON is referring the $65 million deal he inked last fall, cementing the 23-year-old as the cornerstone of the Timberwolves franchise. But no one said living up to his new mantle was going to be a cakewalk. He's following a pretty tough act.
Kevin Garnett is the only superstar the Timberwolves and their fans have ever known. His arrival in 1995, and his subsequent blossoming into one of the elite players in the league, ushered in an era of hope for a franchise that had, since its inception in 1989, oscillated between depressing and dreadful.
"Before Garnett, the franchise was a laughingstock," says Steve Aschburner, who covered the Wolves for the Star Tribune all through the Garnett years. "He gave it credibility."
Although he didn't have the naturally infectious personality of Kirby Puckett—the only local athlete of recent generations who rivals Garnett's cachet—his boundless talent, unrelenting work ethic, and studiously crafted playfulness made him the unquestioned local sports icon of his era.
But the promise Garnett brought with him to Minnesota as an untested 19-year-old straight out of high school was undermined by a series of calamities. In the late 1990s, the trio of Garnett, Stephon Marbury, and rangy big man Tom Gugliotta seemed poised for greatness. But Marbury was unable to reconcile being the Scottie Pippen to Garnett's Michael Jordan; he chased off Gugliotta and forced a trade for himself.
At the dawn of the aughts, the team tried to get around league salary cap rules by signing role player Joe Smith to an under-the-table contract. When NBA commissioner David Stern found out, he took away four of the franchise's next five first-round draft picks, practically dooming the team to mediocrity.
The team's response of adding aging talents Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell in 2003 yielded one conference finals appearance before devolving into a sad and ugly mess.
As the team stagnated, questions lingered about the wisdom, and even the fairness, of depriving Garnett of a title. He'd given his all to the star-crossed franchise for a dozen years; perhaps it was time to send the 31-year-old someplace more deserving of his greatness.
This past July, the Wolves traded Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics. In exchange, the team landed Jefferson, two future draft picks, and four other players: the quietly promising Ryan Gomes, the onetime phenom Sebastian Telfair, dunk contest showboat Gerald Green, and Theo Ratliff, an aging seven-footer whose $11 million salary comes off the books at season's end.
But for vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale, the deal hinged on Jefferson, whose combination of height, soft hands, and nimble feet, together with a relentless work ethic, made him the prototypical big man McHale was determined to build his new team around.