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On a blazing hot day in August, Jefferson arrived at Target Center for his introductory press conference. As Jefferson posed for a few pictures on the court, McHale took his new star aside.
In order for the team to win, McHale told Jefferson, he'd have to be a leader. Jefferson's reply was firm: I'm thrilled at the opportunity.
A few minutes later, as Jefferson sat with his new teammates in the locker room and waited to meet Sid Hartman and the rest of the Twin Cities sports media for the first time, team owner Glen Taylor walked in to announce a change in plans.
VISIT OUR SLIDESHOW GALLERY with photos by Nick Vlcek.
"There's been a bridge collapse," he told the players.
With the press conference canceled, Jefferson couldn't help but wonder if it was a dark omen. "It was real weird," he says. "The first thing I'm thinking is, I brought bad luck here, you know?"
EVEN AT AGE 16, Jefferson wasn't shy about taking charge on the basketball court.
Take, for instance, a game in his first national tournament with the Jackson Tigers, his Nike-sponsored youth team. Jefferson was keeping the Tigers in the game with an array of dunks, hook shots, and in-close jumpers. But when his coach subbed in an untested player, the newcomer quickly showed his nerves, bobbling a pass and losing the ball out of bounds. Jefferson is not one to suffer fools. As he jogged past his bench the next time down the floor, he stared pointedly at his coach until their eyes met. "Take that joker out of here!" Jefferson hollered. "He ain't ready."
Recalling the outburst, Coach Larry Stamps can't help but chuckle. "I've never had a kid in my program with his mental toughness," Stamps says.
Jefferson did more than shout. He was an unstoppable scoring machine. Before he took charge of the Tigers' offense, the team converted 30 percent of its possessions. With Jefferson running the court, the number shot up to 70 percent.
Not all of Jefferson's teammates embraced the new pecking order. But when they spoke up, Jefferson didn't back down. "Al put those guys in line," Stamps recalls. "And they stayed in line."
Jefferson actually grew up in Progress, a black neighborhood on the outskirts of Prentiss, a one-stoplight town in rural southern Mississippi. Although his father died while Jefferson was still a toddler, young Al didn't lack for family. Along with his mother, he lived in a tidy trailer in the backyard of his grandmother's unassuming white frame house. Out front was a wobbly hoop where Jefferson whiled away summers playing basketball with his cousins.
He was always a scary athlete, a bruiser with grit and deadeye aim, whether shooting hoops or playing pickup football in the yard. But when it came to his vocation, the decision was all but made for him. Jefferson was in seventh grade and went out for the football team. Full of excitement, the hopeful quarterback brought his uniform and pads home and showed them off to his grandmother. But old Gladys Jefferson, the matriarch of the clan, made a decision that would one day benefit the Timberwolves: No baby of hers was going to take any unnecessary beatings in the name of sport. "You might as well take that straight back to school and wait until basketball season starts," she declared.
After growing a foot while in junior high, Al Jefferson was a 6'8" man-child by the time he got to Prentiss High—a ready-made basketball star. On January 5, 2001, the day after his 16th birthday, Jefferson led the Prentiss Bulldogs against Lawrence County, a perennial basketball power. His team lost 62-51, but the freshman was a fury, hitting all ten of his shots, including six dunks. The next morning, when Stamps saw Jefferson's statline buried deep in a newspaper article, the longtime basketball coach nearly choked on his coffee. He'd been reeling from the Jackson Tigers' loss the previous summer to an opponent led by a 6'8" eighth grader, and a single thought kept nagging at him: "I wish I had me a big man like that."
Within a week, Stamps made the 60-mile trek from Jackson to Prentiss, where he dropped by unannounced and had Jefferson pulled out of class. As soon as he saw the teenager, he knew he'd discovered a rare specimen. "When you read articles on kids, sometimes they're 6'8", and they become 6'3". The first thing I noticed about Al was his tremendous size and tremendous shoulders."
"You're very impressive," he told Jefferson. "I want you on my team."
Jefferson recalls that first meeting with a smile. "He thought I was another big body," he says. "But he didn't know I had game."
The young basketball player had never heard of Stamps or his team, but by the end of their meeting, he knew he wanted in. As part of the Amateur Athletic Union, commonly known as the AAU, the Tigers spent the summers traveling everywhere from Augusta to Orlando, competing against the top prep players in the country. It was a breeding ground for future NBA stars: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and just about every other American-born star now in the NBA got his start in AAU ball. And now it was Al Jefferson's turn.