Not everyone is privileged enough to reach stardom in the NBA. For every Lebron James and Kobe Bryant that are able to easily mesmerize crowds with an array of nightly acrobatics, there are millions of young men who play out their final game in a high school gym and hundreds more that sit at the end of an NBA bench for the duration of their careers. Only a select few players actually endure draft day with a smile, end up on a roster after training camp, secure a role as a starter, and through good fortune, enjoy a few all-star appearances. Any professional athlete will tell you it takes more than natural talent and pure luck to make an impression in the NBA, but even for those who actually achieve the status of “superstar”, the moment can pass in an instant.
After a strong collegiate career, NBA All-Rookie second team honors, two straight NBA Finals appearances, passing Kerry Kittles to become the second all-time leading scorer in Nets history and finally enduring an end-of-career crisis, Richard Jefferson arrived in Salt Lake City to finish out what was once deemed an impressive career. No one cares much about Jefferson’s arrival today, but if this acquisition would have been made years ago, the Mayor might have shut down the city and thrown a parade. In his best years, Jefferson averaged over 22 points per game and around 7 rebounds. In 2012-2013, no one on the Jazz achieved numbers superior to those of Richard Jefferson’s prime. In fact, the only player to come close was everyone’s favorite—Big Al Jefferson (no relation to Richard), who averaged 17.8 points per game on 15 field goal attempts per night. What’s more impressive: Richard Jefferson scored more with fewer shot attempts.
If you’ve followed NBA basketball for some time, you probably remember the old days when Richard Jefferson could get to the hoop at will and use his exceptional athletic ability to finish at the rim even with multiple defenders blocking his path. He wasn’t the best shooter and didn’t have the most refined skills, but he still managed to put up all-star numbers, even though he was never recognized for it. He contributed heavily to the success of the New Jersey Nets in the early 2000’s, propelling them to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003 with the help of Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, and an often injury-plagued Kenyon Martin.
Yet people still throw flak his way, saying he was never a superstar because he didn’t make an all-star game. This might be a fair argument if it weren’t for the group of talented players that epitomized the mid 2000’s and surely stood in his way. There is Tracy Mcgrady, who averaged nearly 30 points per game for the better part of the decade; Vince Carter, who averaged about the same amount of points as Jefferson, but was a clear fan favorite; then there’s Paul Pierce, Dwayne Wade, Gilbert Arenas and Lebron James—four remarkable players who singlehandedly achieved great things with mediocre teams. When you put it that way, Richard Jefferson never had much of a chance. Once the late 2000’s hit, a combination of injuries and loss of self-esteem transformed Jefferson into nothing more than a shell of his former self—a self we wish he could reconnect with this year, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit will never occur.
As I think about what this upcoming season can bring, I recall a Richard Jefferson moment I had last year. Though the Warriors were winning by a large margin at the end of a playoff game, Jefferson still remained on the bench. The cameraperson seemed to be just as entranced as I was, because he repeatedly shifted the focus to Jefferson sitting apathetically on the bench. I had already lost interest in the game, so I began to reflect on the great moments of his career. I remembered his potential when he came out of the University of Arizona. I reflected on his strong play during the early years, and then I remember seeing him decline after jumping from New Jersey, to Milwaukee, to San Antonio, and then to Golden State. Suddenly I found myself caught up in what he could have been in the latter portion of his career, and I wondered what went wrong.
From where I’m sitting, it’s difficult to tell if the Richard Jefferson sitting on the bench today is even aware of his own situation. He doesn’t look a day over 24, except when I look into his eyes. The eyes, like no other human feature, never fail to show what a man truly feels inside. In this moment, they tell me everything I need to know about how far he has fallen. As I look into his eyes I see the promise of youth, the agony of coming so close to glory, the regret that accompanies unmet expectations, and finally the humiliation that comes with rejection. I feel his lack of confidence, and seeing his regret causes me to reflect on my own. So right now, I want Richard Jefferson to succeed. Even if it’s just for one season, I want him to prove all the critics wrong, to silence the doubters, and be the Richard Jefferson of old so he can walk away from the game with dignity.