Al Jefferson: Minnesota's Franchise 2.0

The Wolves believe in life after Kevin Garnett

Al Jefferson is barely through the door to the NBA City restaurant and he's already apologizing. "Sorry, man," he says a bit sheepishly to Mike Cristaldi, the Timberwolves' public relations director. "I thought we were meeting in the locker room."

Jefferson gives Cristaldi a quick handshake, but looks past the reporter he's come to speak with.

"How long's this gonna take?" Jefferson asks in a low drawl.

"About 45 minutes," Cristaldi answers.

"Forty-five minutes?!" Jefferson looks like he's just been whistled for a bogus foul. "I didn't know it was gonna be that long."

But the complaining stops there. He's been getting used to not having his way lately. On the hardwood, where he's made his name through unrelenting and highly skilled close-to-the-basket play, he's led his team to a miserable 11-43 record, in the thick of the race for league doormat.

Cristaldi guides the party into a small, unadorned side room, away from prying eyes. Jefferson, after all, doesn't exactly blend into the crowd. Massive though he looks on TV, he's even more imposing in the flesh. His oversized black T-shirt and baggy jeans do little to play down his sinewy six-foot, ten-inch frame, punctuated by shoulders as wide as a big rig.

Taking a seat on a leather couch, Jefferson eases his long, lean legs onto a coffee table. Then, using the universal professional athlete's code to signify he's ready to start the interview, Jefferson looks the reporter in the eye and waits for the first question.

It's about his hometown, and the corners of Jefferson's mouth edge upward.

"Prentiss is about as big as this room," he says, his voice softening. "Everybody knows everybody. It's a country town, a relaxing town."

Before he gets much further, he's interrupted by his buzzing iPhone. Pulling it out of his pocket, he leans in low to answer.

"Look, man, I'm still not done with the interview," he says, a hint of impatience creeping into his voice. "Tell that man to wait."

He pockets the phone, and explains the interruption.

"Antoine's got this guy getting me some suits made and he's been waiting on me," Jefferson says.

"Antoine" is Antoine Walker, Jefferson's veteran teammate and sometimes role model. With more than 1,000 suits in his closet, he's also the team's foremost authority on tailors. And Jefferson, it happens, is in the market for some new threads.

"When I signed my contract," he says, "I figured, it's time for me to step up and start dressing like I'm a professional, you know what I mean?"

 

BY "CONTRACT," JEFFERSON is referring the $65 million deal he inked last fall, cementing the 23-year-old as the cornerstone of the Timberwolves franchise. But no one said living up to his new mantle was going to be a cakewalk. He's following a pretty tough act.

Kevin Garnett is the only superstar the Timberwolves and their fans have ever known. His arrival in 1995, and his subsequent blossoming into one of the elite players in the league, ushered in an era of hope for a franchise that had, since its inception in 1989, oscillated between depressing and dreadful.

"Before Garnett, the franchise was a laughingstock," says Steve Aschburner, who covered the Wolves for the Star Tribune all through the Garnett years. "He gave it credibility."

Although he didn't have the naturally infectious personality of Kirby Puckett—the only local athlete of recent generations who rivals Garnett's cachet—his boundless talent, unrelenting work ethic, and studiously crafted playfulness made him the unquestioned local sports icon of his era.

But the promise Garnett brought with him to Minnesota as an untested 19-year-old straight out of high school was undermined by a series of calamities. In the late 1990s, the trio of Garnett, Stephon Marbury, and rangy big man Tom Gugliotta seemed poised for greatness. But Marbury was unable to reconcile being the Scottie Pippen to Garnett's Michael Jordan; he chased off Gugliotta and forced a trade for himself.

At the dawn of the aughts, the team tried to get around league salary cap rules by signing role player Joe Smith to an under-the-table contract. When NBA commissioner David Stern found out, he took away four of the franchise's next five first-round draft picks, practically dooming the team to mediocrity.

The team's response of adding aging talents Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell in 2003 yielded one conference finals appearance before devolving into a sad and ugly mess.

As the team stagnated, questions lingered about the wisdom, and even the fairness, of depriving Garnett of a title. He'd given his all to the star-crossed franchise for a dozen years; perhaps it was time to send the 31-year-old someplace more deserving of his greatness.

This past July, the Wolves traded Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics. In exchange, the team landed Jefferson, two future draft picks, and four other players: the quietly promising Ryan Gomes, the onetime phenom Sebastian Telfair, dunk contest showboat Gerald Green, and Theo Ratliff, an aging seven-footer whose $11 million salary comes off the books at season's end.

But for vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale, the deal hinged on Jefferson, whose combination of height, soft hands, and nimble feet, together with a relentless work ethic, made him the prototypical big man McHale was determined to build his new team around.

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.

"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.

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.

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?

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.

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."

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.

"What're you up to?" asked Danny Ainge, the Celtics' GM.

"I'm on my way to the airport," Jefferson answered.

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.

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!"

The nearly 20,000 fans, many of them wearing green jerseys bearing their idol's new number, rose to their feet in a loud ovation. With measured poise, Garnett smiled a tight smile, pounded his heart a couple of times, and, after little more than a minute, walked off the court to nurse his bruised abdomen from the locker room. It was by far the loudest and largest crowd Target Center has seen this year.

On the home-team bench with his gaze fixed on the floor, Al Jefferson sat quietly through the reunion. Jefferson had been insisting leading up to the game that it was just like any other. But when you're playing your old team fresh off a trade, in front of the first full house of your brief Minnesota career, when at least half of that crowd bought tickets to see a player on the other team, and when it's your only game this season broadcast on ESPN—or anywhere else on widely available national television, for that matter—it's hard to argue it's just another game.

After three frustrating quarters stymied by the defense of Kendrick Perkins, his old practice partner, Jefferson made his case in the fourth quarter. With his team trailing by 2, Jefferson stood 15 feet from the basket, daring his defender to come closer. He took the shot and nailed it—his fourth straight basket for the Wolves.

Doc Rivers, the coach of the Celtics, called a time out. Jefferson high-fived his teammates hard enough to remove arms from sockets. As he walked to the huddle, his eyes were narrowed, his gaze ferocious. The cheering was almost as loud as it had been during Garnett's introduction—almost. But with the game tied and only seconds left, Jefferson passed up the winning shot. Marko Jaric missed an open look, and the Celtics got the ball back, ran the length of the floor, and scored the game-winning basket on a put-back as time expired. Final score: Celtics 88, Timberwolves 86.

But if Al Jefferson had been paying attention to anything but his fury and disappointment, he'd have noticed the collective groan of the fans. They'd been pulling for him. Even the ones wearing #5 Celtics jerseys.

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