By Jesse Marx
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Finally, after an hour and a half of nervous waiting, Larry Stamps's cell phone rang. It was Chris Wallace, the Celtics' general manager, and he had good news: "We're taking Al with the next pick," he said.
Stamps rose from his chair to tell Jefferson. As he was still getting the words out of his mouth, the TV made it official: "With the 15th pick of the 2004 NBA draft, the Boston Celtics select Al Jefferson."
Seventy-five people simultaneously jumped up and screamed. Al hugged his mom, his grandmother, his uncle, and his AAU coach, all with a million-dollar smile on his face. By league rules, the top 29 draft picks—those selected in the first round—get guaranteed contracts on a sliding scale. As the 15th pick, Jefferson's bounty was $3.8 million over three years.
VISIT OUR SLIDESHOW GALLERY with photos by Nick Vlcek.
It was, Jefferson freely admits, the greatest moment in his life. But he was already steeling himself for his new reality. "So they called my name," he thought to himself. "Now it's time to prove myself—that I'm a man in this league."
ARRIVING AT TRAINING camp in the fall of 2004, Jefferson was suddenly surrounded by his boyhood idols: Paul Pierce. Gary Payton. Ricky Davis. During practice, he studied their every body movement like a medical student cramming before finals. And he put in extra hours to incorporate it all into his game: The stare-down. The head fake. The explosion to the hoop. His teammates saw the dedication yield results. "When I got there," recalls Antoine Walker, who joined the team midseason, "his exceptional talents were pretty much polished."
With his quick learning curve, the rookie steadily worked his way into the rotation. And when the season hung in the balance, he was exactly where he wanted to be: on the court.
It was game six of the first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers. Pierce, the team's best player, had been ejected. The score was tied at the end of regulation. Competing for the opening tip in overtime, Jefferson leapt and tapped it to a teammate. Seconds later, handling a quick pass under the basket, he laid it in for a score that would put the team up for good.
"You've got to really respect the youngster, because this is a very intense and emotional situation and he's stepping up big," TNT's color commentator John Thompson observed.
The Celtics didn't advance in the 2005 playoffs, but Jefferson had served notice that the NBA had a new star. Longtime Boston fans salivated over his Kevin McHale-esque low-post moves and his boundless potential. The team was of the same mind, putting him on the cover of the upcoming season's media guide.
But if expectations were high, it would only make the next season that much more disappointing. Playing the L.A. Clippers in February 2006, Jefferson went up for a rebound in the second quarter and his right foot landed on Chris Wilcox's shoe. His ankle twisted, and he crumpled to the floor, squirming in excruciating pain.
The diagnosis was grim: a bone bruise. Jefferson would be on the shelf for at least a month and have to deal with rehabilitation.
After endless hours of tedious foot-strengthening exercises, he attempted a comeback. In retrospect, it was probably too early. The next 12 games, he was listless and flat, unable to jump for rebounds. It showed in the anemic numbers: six points and four boards a game. Making things worse, the local media turned on him. "A terminal lack of toughness," sniffed Red's Army, an influential fan website. Finally, after managing just two points and three rebounds in ten sad minutes against the Lakers, he limped off the court and sat out the rest of the season.
For a man who prided himself on hard work, having his guts questioned served as painful motivation. "People didn't really understand how much it hurt," Jefferson says of his ankle.
In the offseason, Jefferson rededicated himself. He started by canceling his summer vacation plans in Prentiss. While most players were still relaxing on the beach, Jefferson was in Boston, submitting to a grueling, four-hour-daily training regimen complete with weights, wind sprints, and endless shooting drills. He also started to think about food differently. With the aid of a private chef and nutritionist, he swore off the fried chicken and sweet potato pie of his childhood and learned to appreciate baked fish, grilled chicken, and steamed vegetables. The weight melted off. His rookie season, Jefferson's body fat hovered around 25 percent. Now, it was below 8 percent. He was a 6'10", 255-pound Adonis.
After two surgeries—one to remove bone spurs in his ankle, the other an emergency appendectomy—Jefferson was both injury-free and in the best shape of his life. He took his third season by the throat. His breakout game came in December against New Jersey. The Celtics fell behind by 20 points early, but with his teammates regularly dishing the ball to him down low, Jefferson scored 29 points and snared 14 boards in the come-from-behind victory, which sparked a five-game winning streak.
By the end of the season, Jefferson had more than doubled his output of the previous year, averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds a game. With his performance, Jefferson was confident he'd be a Celtic for a long time to come. "I proved myself to Boston," he says. "That I belonged."