By Ric Bucher
Gary Payton strolls into the locker room on a January evening, sees Al Jefferson lounging in front of his stall and stops dead, a look on his face as if he's smelled something awful. What is this? The rookie the Celtics didn't even plan to put in uniform this season has a photographer snapping his picture from every angle and a writer at his elbow. "Just because you're getting your picture taken, don't think you're anything," Payton snaps. "Just because he's talking to you don't mean you're s--. Don't think you are. You hear?"
The half-dozen other Celtics in the room lean forward, enjoying the show. Jefferson sighs, mumbles under his breath and heads for the training room. "That's my youngster," Payton explains, with a devious grin. "Got to keep 'em right."
In the old days--say, before the 2001 NBA draft--when it took little more than size and a glimmer of competitiveness for a high school player to be considered for a lottery slot (see: Brown, Kwame; Chandler, Tyson; Curry, Eddy), that might have been all Jefferson heard. You ain't s--. Don't think you are. Spouted continuously from a nine-time All-Star over the course of a season? Who knows? He might have been beaten down by it.
But don't blame GP for the tough love. Sam Mitchell gave it to KG and Stephon; MJ gave Brown hell and Charles Oakley was always on Chandler and Curry. A fan's resentment for a teenager on a million-dollar contract who can't cut it pales before a vet's resentment over having to cover that kid's mistakes while the youngster preens in the spotlight. Guys like Payton think riding the rook is for his own good. After all, it's what someone once did for them. Then again, what works for a 22-year-old who lived through a similar rite in college won't necessarily do for a prep star who has only known what it's like to be The Man.
Al Jefferson is not that prep star. Don't be fooled by the 6'10", 265-pound body and the suction-cup hands that already have made him a force in the NBA's trenches. Jefferson is a gentle soul from Prentiss, Miss., with the manners of a Southerner who was protected by a web of friends and relatives, including two grandmothers and two older sisters. (His father died in a drowning accident when Al was 6 months old.) "Miraculous mature," says Jimmy Cuyler, a Prentiss High alum who has been Al's basketball mentor since he was 14. "Most mentally tough young man I've ever been around," says Larry Stamps, Al's AAU coach.
These are important qualities for someone entering the NBA wholly unfamiliar with setting a proper pick, let alone living in a foreign environment. Jefferson was so shy when he got to Boston, he couldn't bring himself to ask teammates where he might buy some clothes. When GM Chris Wallace offered to take him to a local Big&Tall store, he was too polite to turn him down. Teammates still clown him about those pointy dress shoes. "He's pretty naive," says eight-year vet Michael Stewart.
When Jefferson walked into the Staples Center, he asked, "Why are there Lakers banners in the Clippers' gym?" When Red Auerbach tapped him on the shoulder at a high school all-star game, Jefferson wanted to know who the old white guy was. When someone asked what number Celtics legend John Havlicek wore, he guessed Jiri Welsch's 44. "Al lives in his own world," says his coach, Doc Rivers, "and he's comfortable with it."
Al Jefferson, fresh off being The Man, may someday be The Man again. To get there, though, he's happy to be The Project.
SO FAR, Jefferson has handled everything the Celtics have thrown at him. He wasn't in good shape even by high school standards when they drafted him, so getting NBA-ready required some special attention. The rest of the Celtics start practice at 11; Jefferson's work day tips off at 8:30 with seven miles on a stationary bike. Thirty minutes later, he heads downstairs for an hour-long session with the iron. (He's already improved his bench press from less than 100 pounds to nearly 200.) Prepractice preparation ends with a 45-minute session on footwork and pick-and-pops. Then he stretches as the rest of the team files in. During breaks in the team session, while everyone else fetches some water or rests their legs, Jefferson gets more mini-tutorials. Assistant Paul Pressey, who played 11 years in the league, shows him how to get lower in his defensive stance. Rivers uses sketches on a clipboard to illustrate where and when he should rotate out to the arc. Another assistant keeps track of areas Jefferson struggles with in scrimmages (setting screens, defending the pick-and-roll, a particular post move) so he can be drilled further afterward. Finally, assistant Dave Wohl dangles the prospect of the end to the rookie's four-hour ordeal ... if he makes a couple of free throws. Al steps to the line. Wohl bounces the ball to him. "Twenty-second timeout," the coach says and takes back the ball. Mind games. A miss means a full-court wind sprint. Jefferson flutters his lips. Now assistant Jim Brewer is at his elbow, smiling as he whispers in the kid's ear. Al's shot finds the back rim. "I don't know what he whispered, but he got you," Wohl says as Jefferson trudges to the baseline. "It's a suicide, not a jog. Let's go, push it." Back at the free throw line, Wohl hands him the ball again and calls another 20-second timeout. Brewer, reading Jefferson's weariness, says, "Fourth quarter, Al, fourth quarter." The rookie sinks the shot. "Foot was on the line," Brewer says, but Jefferson is already headed for the locker room. "They're always on me but I'm used to it," he says. "They know what I can do and I know what I can do. They're just teaching me how to do it."
A high ankle sprain Jefferson suffers a few days later doesn't slow the extracurricular workload, but it does alter the routine. The upper-body workouts intensify, as do the film sessions. The staff critiques each game with him, asking what he saw, how he could've helped, what might've been done differently. The sprain may keep him out for a month, but after a few days he's back on the stationary bike and in the pool. The injury actually helps the Celtics push Al without overloading him. It's a good time to be injured. The team doesn't need to rush Jefferson back because the Atlantic Division is so weak, anything close to .500 keeps you in contention. When Jefferson goes down, the Celtics are actually leading their division, though they've lost more games than they've won. It's a good place to be learning, too. Rivers knows how to play vets enough to keep them happy and the team respectable while finding minutes for his four rookies and two NBA sophomores. Danny Ainge isn't afraid of running a daycare center the way most other execs are, because in his mind the organization is as responsible for a player's success as the player himself is. As an analyst for TNT, he had a from-the-wings look at how the Wizards hammered Brown for his lack of hoops savvy, and watched him wither on the bench. Ainge saw the Bulls take the opposite approach, force-feeding minutes to Chandler and Curry, with equally ineffective results. "They were given too much, too soon," Ainge says. "They're playing harder and more consistently now, but is that because they're about to be free agents or starting to mature?" Ainge is trying to avoid facing that question with his own roster. That's why he hired Rivers and surrounded him with six assistants and two full-time strength and conditioning coaches. More to the point, he requested that a consultant from the league's player development program be made available to his young players. DeNita Turner flies up to Boston often for face-to-face meetings when the Celtics are home and talks to Jefferson on the phone every few days when they're on the road. The counseling goes beyond opening a bank account, buying a car or furnishing a house. Turner gives advice on etiquette as well as how to deal with the social adjustment to life in the NBA.
"That 2001 class was the impetus to ratcheting up what we do," says Mike Bantom, who heads up the NBA's player development program. "Where Al is coming from, he might benefit a lot from what we do."
Where Al comes from is far from the big city. The first time Jefferson landed in Boston, he stepped off the plane every bit the small-town kid. Dressed in jeans shorts and a Paul Pierce jersey, he seemed headed for a run in the park. It never dawned on him that Boston's summer might be different than the humid, 90_ blanket he'd just left back home. By the time he and Wallace found the GM's car in the airport parking lot, Jefferson was shivering. By the time he stepped onto the court, he had a full-blown cold. The tryout was a disaster. He couldn't find the basket or his wind.
Rivers, who'd cut out from his TV duties at the NBA Finals to see the session, wondered why the Celtics invited this overmatched kid to work out. "It was the worst I've ever seen," he says. "I felt he shouldn't even be thinking about the pros."
But the brain trust had already been sold. Auerbach liked the way Jefferson didn't back down from the more hyped Dwight Howard at the Jordan Capitol Classic. That demeanor is what won Ainge over in a practice session at the McDonald's All-American Game. Ainge says Jefferson acted as if he had something to prove, and was the player setting the level of play.
Having seen last year's project, Kendrick Perkins, chisel himself a bona fide NBA body in the weight room and only 35 minutes of action as a rookie, Ainge was convinced that he could take Jefferson and bring him along slowly. But Al wouldn't be held back. In two summer leagues, he averaged more than 13 points and eight rebounds, then proved that was no fluke in training camp. Everyone recognized him for the prodigy he was, blessed with natural back-to-the-basket instincts and a demeanor impervious to elbows and trash-talk.
Jefferson has a knack for seeing where the ball is going to come off the rim and the quick feet to reach that spot first. It's impossible to move him because of his bulk, and his hands just suck the ball in. He roams the paint like a veteran, moving defenders with his back to set up a jump hook or spin move. Before he got hurt, the kid was the Celtics' most efficient post player (7.0 points, 4.8 rebounds in 16 minutes). A rebound every three minutes is the gold standard for NBA big men; Jefferson snatches one every 3.3. "I can't name 10 guys who can score on the block like he can," says Stewart, who goes head-to-head with Jefferson every day in practice. "And he doesn't even know how to play yet. Wait until he learns a few tricks."
JEFFERSON LIVES in a complex of townhouses 25 minutes outside of Boston, but only five from the team's practice facility in Waltham. Perkins, Stewart and Pressey are neighbors. They keep an eye on the kid from afar, but the 28-year-old Cuyler, the familiar face from home, is his roommate and personal assistant. "My job," he says, "is to make sure all Al worries about is hoops." Whether it's picking out a new Cal King bed, getting the Hummer H2 detailed or buying groceries, Cuyler covers it.
On most days, Jefferson has energy for little more than lounging. He'll make a few phone calls or watch whatever movie he can dial up on the flat screen. (No, he doesn't play video games.) Then he'll ask Cuyler to cook up a plate of fried chicken with corn and green beans. "If you weren't here I'd be sleeping right now," Al says to a visitor.
Not that his place is outfitted for more. The full rundown of furniture goes like this: couch, lounge chair, ottoman, coffee table. The light-blue walls are blank slates. A few scented candles on the mantel pass for decoration. A pile of hoops gear and a row of shoes take the place of a table under the dining room chandelier. Bottled water and Diet Coke are the drink options; Jefferson has come a long way since the days of downing Twinkies and 20-ounce Cokes. Breaking out barbecued potato chips while Jimmy gets busy in the kitchen, Al says, "Hope coach don't see me with this." He puts the bag away after only a couple of bites.
That self-control tells the Celtics their man is blossoming under the nurturing. "What sets Al apart is he has a prove-it mentality, not a sense of entitlement," Rivers says. "He's looking through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror." Give him a lesson and he doesn't forget it -- Payton's included. Less than an hour after the verbal slap, Jefferson comes off the bench against the Hawks to face ex-Celtic Antoine Walker. The savvy FleetCenter crowd murmurs its approval as Jefferson, the upstart, plays the role of the throwback. He pounds the boards -- grabbing four rebounds in his first four minutes -- and scores on putbacks and post moves that draw six free throws. Walker takes 30 shots to score 21. No one among the Celtics' faithful pines for the old days. When Jefferson walks off the floor with 11 points and eight boards in 15 minutes in a 106-94 win, the crowd roars and waves their "We Love Al" signs.
He stops to ask Rivers, "How was that?" Doc pats his back and says, "That was better." One more lesson for the rook. Earlier in the game, Walker had lined up next to Jefferson on the free throw line, tugged at the kid's jersey and said, "You got on my number."
Jefferson smiled. "You're still No. 8," he replied, then squared to box out. "On the Hawks."