Growing Up ... Richard Jefferson

Over the course of his 35 years, veteran forward Richard Jefferson has seen a little bit of everything – both on and off the court.

On the court, his bona fides cannot be questioned. In 14 NBA seasons – after being taken with the 13th overall pick in 2001, after leading his Arizona Wildcats to the NCAA title game – Jefferson has played in over 1,000 career games, competed in the Slam Dunk Contest, the Summer Olympics and the NBA Finals. In his 14th season, last year in Dallas, he led the Mavericks in three-point shooting.

This offseason, Jefferson inked a free agent deal with the Wine and Gold and he’ll serve as LeBron James’ backup as the Cavaliers try to complete the mission they started last season.

And while the squad gears up for their final few preseason contests before beginning that journey, today’s installment of Growing Up focuses on Jefferson’s unique upbringing in Southern California and Arizona, his parents’ pilgrimage to East Africa and, of course, what his first dunk was like …

I was born … in L.A. and grew up in Phoenix.

The area that we were living in … was pretty bad. We were living in South Central during the crack epidemic. I was born in 1980, so when we moved in 1987, it was right at the height of it.

We moved to Phoenix with … eight or nine different families, with my mom – by herself, raising three boys. We moved out there and started a new life. I was seven years old.

When we moved from L.A. … with the families from the church, they were all trying to get out of the neighborhood. My mom married my step-dad and they’ve been together now 28 years. They started their own church, a small church and they started doing missionary work in East Africa – Kenya, Tanzania. And my mom went over there a half a dozen times.

I went there … one time with them, just doing the work and seeing what they were doing, Going over there was really, really awesome.

I was maybe nine or ten … when I went to Africa. We didn’t have much growing up as a kid, but my parents worked very, very hard to save up money so they can help out people that had even less than us. When your shoes are banged up and you’re getting made fun of in school, but your parents are saving up for people who have no shoes, those are things that stick with you.

So, for my entire life … I’ve tried to help people – mostly because of my parents’ example. We always had people in our house, we always had people staying with us until they got on their feet – just trying to do the right thing in our community. Those are things that stuck with me, and I believe a lot of the blessings you get in life are a reflection of how you treat other people.

The last time my mom went … it was 1998, ’99 maybe – she had gotten home about a week before the American Embassy in Kenya had gotten bombed. And she never went back after that. I know that was tough, because they enjoyed it, they were passionate about it, but as much as you’re trying to help people, you have to remember that you’re putting yourself at risk.

I have two … older brothers, I’m the youngest. And I’m a lot bigger than them; I have one brother who’s 5-9.

I was the only one … who played organized sports. They dabbled, recreationally – played in the parks, hung out with their boys – but I was the first one to actually play organized sports.

I get my height from … my parents. My mom was tall, she was 5-11 and my dad was 6-2.

I tried to play … every sport. Unfortunately, my parents were working two jobs, both were working extremely hard. There wasn’t money for Little League or Pop Warner or CYO. So it was pretty much whatever the school could offer. So I did track and field, played basketball, played every sport in school.

I was really big into … track and field. I did a lot of high-jumping. I ran the 100, the 200, the 400.

Growing up in Glendale, Arizona … most of those situations are pay-to-play. So those are things that, if I could have, I would’ve played every sport non-stop year-round.

I have a son now … and I want him to play every single sport. Maybe he won’t like sports at all. But just to be able to put him in that position makes me real proud as a dad.

I was actually … a late bloomer. I didn’t start getting recruited until my junior year because I didn’t really play organized basketball. I just played in the park and hung out with my boys.

In terms of basketball … when I was young, I had nothing else going on – especially during the summer. My parents would go to work at 8 a.m., I’d wake up, nobody’d be in the house. I’d call my boys up: ‘Wanna go play some basketball?’ And we’d go play, all day every day – and just hoop, joke around, talk trash.

We were lucky … because it was the days before the internet, before the days of all that other stuff. You weren’t inside playing video games. I just wanted to play sports, play outside. And with basketball, you could always go to the court and get a pickup game.

There was never a thought … of taking basketball to the next level when I was younger. Never. Honestly, I just played and I loved to play, but I never had a clue. It was the people in front of me that showed me the path.

My big growth spurt came …in high school. My freshman year, I was probably 6-1. At the end of my freshman year, I was 6-4. When I came back my sophomore year, I was 6-6. My high school coach was like: ‘Hey listen … In case you don’t know, there’s a lot that can be had here.’

That was kind of the beginning … of me taking basketball more seriously. There weren’t a lot of people going to the NBA from Arizona, let alone Glendale, Arizona.

The high school I went to … had the state’s player of the year and were the No. 1 team in the state in my sophomore year. Then I showed up.

I was already in the school … but they weren’t expecting anything – I was just a 6-2 loudmouth kid.

The next year … I showed up at 6-6 – and can jump. They were like, ‘Hey we need to have you eligible and we need you focused as if you’re going to be part of this team.’ They had like five or six seniors on the team and they had done so much to build the program up. And that was the first of me focusing and getting good grades and staying on that path.

I remember my first dunk … but I kind of had one on the playground and then one in high school.

My first real dunk … was at the park.

I’d been going to the park … non-stop; I’d been playing like crazy with my guys and I’d kind of gone through growth spurts.

I remember we were … playing 2-on-2 – and a loose ball came out. And I could kinda dunk at that point – I was probably like 13, 14 – and the ball came out and I just went and did it! It was a nasty Statue of Liberty dunk and it was on a guy – the guy probably couldn’t even hit the rim – but he still jumped.

My boys had never seen me … do that before, and they ran over and tackled me like we’d just won the Championship.

In high school … I was athletic, I could already dunk. But I hadn’t gotten a dunk yet in a game.

It was probably the third game … of the season and we were tops in state. And I threw it ahead to our guy and apparently he went up to dunk – I didn’t know, I was just running, trailing the play – and it bounced out and I ran and caught a tip-dunk and followed it up and the whole crowd just went NUTS!! That was my first high school dunk ever.

I remember … the sound of it. The crowd was about to go nuts when my guy almost dunked it – ‘AHHHHHHHH!’ – and then he missed it – ‘OHHHHHHH!’ – and then I dunked the follow – ‘YEAHHHHHHHHHH!!!’

That was the first one … and luckily, the first of many.