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The young big man quickly proved he belonged. At an early practice, Stamps matched the new recruit against a merciless shot-blocker two years his senior. The first time down the court, Jefferson put up a quick shot that was swatted away. The next time down, Jefferson jumped, knocked the guy to the ground in midair, then dunked on him.
"That's when I knew we really had something," Stamps recalls.
In his first AAU tournament, Jefferson squared off in the semifinals against a Seattle team led by Brandon Roy, who would go on to become arguably the best second-year player in the NBA. Roy posted 37 points. But Jefferson tallied 38, leading his team to victory. "Big Al," as his teammates had taken to calling him, had arrived. By summer's end, he was widely viewed as one of the top two or three sophomores in the country.
VISIT OUR SLIDESHOW GALLERY with photos by Nick Vlcek.
Back in Prentiss, where he was a head taller than his teammates, Jefferson was completely dominant. Opposing teams, hoping to keep the ball out of his hands, tried to press his teammates into coughing up the ball. To counter this, they lobbed the ball past half-court, high enough so Jefferson alone could reach it. Once he had the ball on the offensive end, there wasn't much anyone could to do stop him from dunking.
But as Big Al shone in the spotlight, many in his town were struggling to make ends meet. While he was still in school, a factory making Cadillac parts that employed 800 people, along with a smaller meatpacking plant, closed shop. With little worth celebrating in the devastated town, Jefferson's Friday-night dunk exhibitions were among the few reasons to keep going.
Jefferson became accustomed to playing for packed houses of 200 fans crammed inside the tiny gym, all marveling at his shot blocking, his Tim Duncanesque 15-foot bank shots, and, of course, his rim-rocking slam dunks. In his junior year, he brought home the state championship—the school's first. "It was amazing how he brought the town together," recalls Ceroy Jefferson, Al's uncle. "It gave people something positive to talk about around the water cooler."
As Jefferson prepared for his senior year in the summer of 2003, he was invited to play for the U.S. national junior team in Greece. But Jefferson turned the offer down, opting instead to finish out his career with the Tigers. His decision attracted attention, not all of it positive. The New York Times weighed in, lamenting "basketball's changing culture, and its focus on self-interest," and making Jefferson its poster child for greedy young superstars who care more about sneaker contracts than the game.
But Jefferson didn't apologize. "I'd already made a commitment to my team," he says. And the same week the junior national team finished a disappointing fifth in Greece, Jefferson led his AAU Tigers into battle at the Peach Jam, a Nike-sponsored tournament in Augusta, Georgia. In an event brimming with standouts that included Daniel Gibson—currently starring as LeBron James's sidekick in Cleveland—Jefferson reigned supreme. Although his team lost 52-50 in the final on a last-second heartbreaker, Jefferson was brute force incarnate, scoring more than half his team's points through the tournament and owning the paint with equal parts physicality and sheer will.
Before his senior year, Jefferson delighted Razorbacks fans by committing to attend Arkansas. But as his high school days wound down and the pull of the NBA grew stronger, Jefferson's life boiled down to a single question: Would he go to college or jump right into the big league? Jefferson found himself escaping to the wooded backcountry for long afternoons fishing alone. "It was peace and quiet," he recalls. "I could go out there for hours and not catch nothing and still get something out of it."
In his final high school season, Jefferson scored more than two-thirds of his team's points, got the Bulldogs back to the state tournament, and was named Mississippi's Mr. Basketball as well as a McDonald's, Parade, and USA Today All-American.
It was time to remove the training wheels. He was going pro.
DRAFT DAY PROMISED to be the seminal event of Al Jefferson's young life, and he made sure to celebrate in style. The three-room suite in the old-money downtown hotel, with its plush chairs, turn-of-the-century cherry coffee tables, and fluffy carpeting, overflowed with 75 of his family and friends.
As he strode between rooms in the hour leading up to the draft, Jefferson had reason to be confident. He had a commitment from the Miami Heat that they'd take him if he fell as far as 19th, and he had a hunch he'd go as high as 8th. Wearing an untucked white T-shirt and plaid pants, he absorbed congratulations from well-wishers.
At 7 p.m., David Stern approached the podium at Madison Square Garden in New York and announced the first selection of the draft. Jefferson, flanked by his mother, Laura, and his Uncle Ceroy, watched as Dwight Howard, his AAU rival and fellow big man, was taken by Orlando.
Jefferson was happy for Howard, but as more picks were announced without his name being called, Jefferson could sense the stray whispers of concern and felt a creeping sense of doubt. What if Miami changed their mind? What if he didn't get chosen?