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A couple of months later, as Jefferson cruised up from Prentiss to catch a plane back to Boston at the Jackson airport, his phone rang.
"I'm on my way to the airport," Jefferson answered.
VISIT OUR SLIDESHOW GALLERY with photos by Nick Vlcek.
Ainge told him to turn around. A trade was in the works, and he wouldn't be needed in Boston. He was going to Minnesota, Ainge told him. For Kevin Garnett.
As Jefferson drove back to Prentiss, competing thoughts raced through his head. "I was sad, because people in Boston were like family to me," he says. "I'm the type of guy, if I'm committed somewhere, I put everything into it. My heart. My soul." But he also realized it meant a chance to lead his own team, just like he'd done in the AAU. "For Kevin McHale to say, 'Okay, I'll trade Kevin Garnett for Al Jefferson,' that was big-time for me."
KEVIN MCHALE DOESN'T make a lot of time for interviews, but Al Jefferson is one subject he's more than willing to expound upon. On a frigid early February morning, he's on the practice court, wearing his trademark long-sleeve Timberwolves T-shirt, and he's on a roll.
"The first conscious thoughts I had on Al were his high school statistics. It was like, 'C'mon. I know it's just high school, but he can't actually be doing this. Is anybody counting these things?'"
Then, McHale recalls with a content smile, he saw the tape: "He was one of the best high school basketball players I've ever seen."
Of course, when Jefferson was available in 2004, McHale was in no position to act on his assessment, since the Wolves were still forfeiting draft picks in penance for the secret Joe Smith contract. When it came time to trade Garnett, however, McHale honed in on Jefferson, and he made no secret of his intentions. Recalls Jefferson: "I was looking at all the talk they had: Kevin Garnett going to L.A. Shawn Marion going to Boston. But no matter where Kevin Garnett went, I was going to Minnesota."
In Jefferson, McHale saw a throwback: a back-to-the-basket big man in an era when so many teams rely on high screens, outside shooting, and smaller players driving the lane. It didn't hurt that Jefferson's silky inside moves also reminded McHale of his own, for which he'd created ever-more elaborate nicknames, such as "Worm & Squirm," "the White Salamander," and "the Slippery Eel."
Jefferson's willingness to sign a contract extension before season's end, likely leaving a few million dollars on the table, also impressed McHale. After Stephon Marbury torpedoed the franchise in 1999 by turning down a $61 million extension and demanding a trade, McHale had little tolerance for wrangling over money.
When asked if he's happy to have Jefferson's style of play dictating the team's offense, McHale gives a wry smile. "Yeah, I never thought the game should be played any way other than that," he says, taking an implicit jab at Kevin Garnett, who, for all his unmistakable greatness, is not a close-to-the-basket scorer. "That's my opinion."
McHale, of course, has a lot riding on Jefferson. As the team's decision-maker on personnel issues, it's his reputation that has taken the biggest hit. His past two draft-night choices—taking Randy Foye over Brandon Roy in 2006, and Corey Brewer over rookie of the year candidate Al Thornton in 2007—have done little to make his case. Al Jefferson, it's safe to say, is his last, best hope.
BEFORE TIP-OFF AT the Wolves' season opener against Denver, George Karl, the Nuggets' ever-candid coach, squeezed in some pre-game trash talk. "I'd have never traded Kevin Garnett," he proclaimed to reporters.
Karl wasn't the only Doubting Thomas. Most observers picked the Wolves to finish dead last in their conference. USA Today went so far as to rate their odds of winning the NBA title "a billion to one."
The Wolves did little to defy expectations. Against the Nuggets, the Wolves were crushed by Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. With the Orlando Magic in town a couple nights later, the Wolves kept fans in suspense until the third quarter, when Dwight Howard overpowered Jefferson and slam-dunked his team to an eight-point victory. Facing the Washington Wizards a couple of games after that, the Wolves led going into the fourth quarter but still managed to lose by a dispiriting 16 points.
If Minnesota fans were wondering what a superstar looked like, LeBron James was there to show them in late November. Jefferson battled admirably in the low block, scoring on quick layups and putting back his teammates' misses to cobble together a 30-point night. But James scored 10 straight points in the fourth quarter en route to a game-high 45, burying the Wolves, who lost for the eighth time in their first nine games.
After the game, Jefferson sat sullenly in front of his locker, which is cluttered with shoes, undershirts, and the NBA-standard-issue canister of spray-on deodorant. Standing before him were a dozen reporters. A skinny guy in the middle of the scrum spoke up. "Does this team have a leader?" he asked.