Posted by admin on July 21, 2017
Minnesota's Franchise 2 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 nike x liberty 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. 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 nike y adidas 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 nike 9 inch running shorts 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. 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." 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