Al Jefferson: Minnesota's Franchise 2.0

The Wolves believe in life after Kevin Garnett

Jefferson met the reporter's eyes with malice in his own.

"What do you mean, does this team have a leader?" he shot back. "Of course this team's got leaders. It's got lots of leaders."

A few weeks later, the headline on the front page of the Star Tribune said it all: "Wolves: Worst team ever?" The article pointed out the Wolves' record-low TV ratings, the half-empty arena, and the team's pattern of falling apart in the second half. At 3-21, the article went on to note, the Wolves were in contention for the worst record in the history of the league. That mark, 9-73, was posted by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, a team described at the time by The Sporting News as "spare parts from other clubs, not necessarily in the best working order."

That evening, Jefferson led the Wolves to their fourth win of the season, a thrillingly improbable 131-118 manhandling of the Indiana Pacers, in which Jefferson scored 29 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. In the post-game press conference, Wolves coach Randy Wittman got after the Star Tribune reporter who wrote the story. "These kids, they've got feelings, too," he said. "We're all human beings, and that hurt."

But the Wolves did little to bolster their case, losing their next eight games. Worse, they weren't even keeping it close. For a nearly three game-stretch, they never led. And at an early January practice, teammates had to get between Sebastian Telfair and Marko Jaric before they came to blows. Jefferson's team was coming apart at the seams. His post-game comments after a thrashing by Dallas sounded like a spiritual with the hope wrung out of it. "We can't give up. It can't get no worse. We can't give up. We've got to keep fighting."

 

BUT A FUNNY thing happened on the way to rock bottom.

Playing in Denver in late January, the Wolves, who'd posted a 1-19 record on the road, gave the star-studded Nuggets and their silver-tongued coach a jolt. Coming out strong in the first half wasn't a huge surprise. But with a balanced attack that included both a solid game from Jefferson, who notched 20 points and 16 rebounds, as well as from mercurial marksman Rashad McCants, the Wolves carried a four-point lead with 76 seconds left.

As it quickly and brutally fell apart, Jefferson scrambled to keep his team in the game. But a hard foul that wasn't called on an attempted dunk, followed by a mad scramble to save a rebound only to be whistled out of bounds, stymied his efforts. Yes, Jefferson and the Wolves had lost again, and yes, their record stood at 5-34, but there was reason for hope: This was a heartbreaking loss, which is another way of saying it was a game they should have, or at least might have, won.

As the Wolves traveled to Oakland to play the bearded Baron Davis and his frenetic Golden State Warriors, they came with righteous passion. It served them well, as the Wolves took it to the Warriors, with Jefferson leading the team in the fourth quarter with six straight points. After Davis missed a last-second layup, the Wolves charged the court as if they'd just won the championship. It was a 109-108 victory, and no one could take it away from them.

The Wolves next returned home to take on the Phoenix Suns, the team with the best record in the league. Jefferson matched up against the explosive 6'10" Amare Stoudemire and dominated, scoring at will with a dizzying array of jumpers, close-in bank shots, and so many misdirections that he nearly broke Stoudemire's ankles. Jefferson scored 39 points—a career high—sparking the Wolves' improbable 117-107 victory. For the first time this season, the Wolves had a winning streak.

A few nights later, Jefferson bested himself. Scoring 40 points and hauling in 19 rebounds, he led the Wolves to victory over the New Jersey Nets after being down by 11 in the final frame.

After the game, Jefferson was dressing slowly in front of his locker. He'd only gotten to putting his socks on when his new attire got noticed.

"Nice shoes," a radio reporter remarked.

"They'd better be," Jefferson replied with a good-natured smile. "I paid enough for them."

Jefferson proceeded to put on a pair of black slacks and a matching sports coat over a fitted gingham dress shirt. At the far end of the locker room, wearing a towel and blinding passersby with his outlandishly glittery watch, Antoine Walker, the man who had coordinated with the tailor who made Jefferson's suit, looked on approvingly. "The All Stars in this league, they all carry themselves a certain way," he said. "Al's starting to learn that now."

The next morning, Jefferson was named Western Conference Player of the Week.

 

AS THE TALL, nimble man in a pea coat and silver power tie walked into the middle of a packed Target Center on a cold night earlier this month, the Timberwolves' public address announcer, sounding as though he was putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes for the first time in a long while, gave the visitor a hero's welcome: "Ladies and gentlemen, at six-foot-eleven, out of Farragut Academy High School.... Please welcome, Kevin Gar-NEEEEETT!"

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