A few weeks ago, Lee Jenkins wrote a great profile of Al Jefferson, old friend of the Boston Celtics. If you don’t already love the low-post master they call “Big Al,” I guarantee you will by the end of the profile. Suddenly, you may find yourself a fan of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets. Here’s the opening:
Al Jefferson, a Low-Post Whiz, Brings Sunshine to Charlotte
The lord of the left block comes from a trailer on Progress Road, where the only basketball hoop was a footbath with the bottom cut out, nailed to two wooden posts in Grandma Annabelle’s backyard. Annabelle Jefferson raised her children in Prentiss, Miss., moved away after they were grown, and returned home when her son Alvin drowned while swimming in a creek on his lunch break. Coworkers at Alvin’s landscaping business tried to pull him from the roiling water, but he was 6′ 3″, called Big Al for a reason. They couldn’t save him. Big Al left behind a six-month-old boy, his namesake — and his doppelgänger. The first time Annabelle saw her grandson, she said: “I lost one Al but gained another.”
Al Jefferson was reared by his mother and 14 relatives who lived between two stop signs on Progress Road. When he was 10, having already inherited the moniker Big Al, his grandmother on his mom’s side built him a full court with an iron hoop so he could finally ditch the footbath. On summer days Grandma Gladys awoke at 6 a.m., and Big Al followed her to the yard. While she pinned laundry to the clothesline, he acted out Bulls-Lakers, Michael Jordan drives and Magic Johnson dimes. “But I’d make sure to throw it down to Bill Cartwright on the block,” Jefferson says, “and let him shoot that hook.” Gladys eventually summoned him inside, for fear of heatstroke, and he stared at the big orange ball in the sky until it started to sink.
When Big Al outgrew his imaginary showdowns, he matched up against older cousins. “My kinfolk,” he says, “was my AAU team.” His road trips were to Prentiss Park. His big-man coach was a friend who stood 6′ 7″. Big Al didn’t play video games. He mowed lawns, earning enough pocket money to buy an old maroon Chevy Caprice that spewed transmission fluid across Prentiss, population 1,100. Basketball is a city sport; in the country a prodigy can subsist for a while without shoe allegiances. He can grow up slowly. The first time Jefferson dunked at Prentiss High, he embarked on an elaborate victory lap around the court, and his coach, Lonnie McLemore, had to inform him that the game would not stop for a ceremony. Scouts labeled him Roy Hobbs because he seemed so pure.
Jefferson was inevitably recruited to join a real AAU team, the Jackson Tigers, and he called everyone on Progress when he caught a real-life lob from Jordan at a summer camp in Santa Barbara. Folks who had never been to Prentiss High crowded the gym to see the Natchez Natural. The day Jerry West showed up, Big Al cooked up 62 points with 21 rebounds and 11 blocks, eyeing The Logo in the stands to gauge his reaction. He learned only after the game that he’d been checking out the wrong middle-aged white guy.
In May 2004, when high schoolers were still draft eligible, Big Al flew from Prentiss to Boston for a workout with the Celtics. He stepped off the plane in jorts and a Paul Pierce jersey. He thought he was dressed for the occasion, but the temperature was 40°, and then-Celtics general manager Chris Wallace could not remember where he had parked his new Toyota Highlander at Logan Airport. They combed the outdoor lot on foot for 45 minutes and finally hitched a ride on an attendant’s golf cart, Big Al shivering while Wallace feverishly pushed buttons on his key chain. Wallace insists he did not lose the car on purpose, though Jefferson did catch a cold, sabotaging a subsequent workout in Portland. The Blazers took Sebastian Telfair 13th; the Celtics snagged Big Al two picks later.