Bobcats’ Al Jefferson guided by Grandma Annabelle, Grandma Gladys

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comOctober 29, 2013 

There’s the Grandma Annabelle side of Al Jefferson and the Grandma Gladys side. To understand the Charlotte Bobcats’ new center, you need to let Jefferson introduce both:

Grandma Annabelle taught Jefferson about God, to practice faith and kindness. She was a woman who detested violence of any sort and “would do anything for anybody.” You sense her presence in Jefferson’s quickness to laugh, smile and charm strangers.

Grandma Gladys – Jefferson’s mom’s mom – was the one who kept her gifted grandson grounded back in tiny Prentiss, Miss.

“I’d score 40-some points in a game and all I’d hear from her was what I did wrong – how I didn’t block out for a rebound or didn’t block a certain shot,” Jefferson said. “And my only answer to her was, ‘Yes, ma’am.’

“Both did a heck of a job keeping me humble.”

These strong women, both of whom have passed, helped Jefferson evolve along an uncommon life. He was one of the last preps-to-pros guys, turning professional out of high school in 2004. Three franchises and tens of millions of dollars later, Jefferson, 28, has a career average of 16.4 points and 9 rebounds per game.

He was one of the top free agents available in the offseason, yet he trusted at least the next two years of his career to a Bobcats franchise that made the playoffs once since Jefferson entered the league in ’04.

Why?

“They really wanted me,” said Jefferson, hobbled by an sprained anled heading into Wednesday’s season opener against the Houston Rockets. “It’s clear they respected my game and thought I was a guy who could really help turn this around.

“And I believe in these young guys. Somebody like MKG (small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) is too young to be scared of LeBron (James). I like that. I think we can be pretty good.”

If that sounds like a dreamer, well, that’s what small-town kids do. Jefferson describes Prentiss, population 1,080, as a place where “it’s easy to make excuses if you don’t succeed.”

Jefferson never had that luxury. Grandma Gladys made sure of that.

Grandma Gladys’ wrath

Jefferson never knew his father, Alvin, who drowned six months after Al was born. His grandmothers – they lived about a mile apart in Prentiss – played major roles in raising him, and the contrast in their personalities could be unsettling.

“I just thought she was mean!” Jefferson recalled of Grandma Gladys. “Then I got older and realized she was teaching me the proper way to live.”

Flash ahead to 2009. By then Jefferson had moved from the Boston Celtics to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated. The two-game suspension the NBA levied didn’t upset him, nor did the negative publicity the arrest drew. It was the fear of Grandma Gladys’s wrath.

He wouldn’t tell her and neither would any of his relatives. She finally heard via television. Jefferson so fretted over her reaction that he refused to visit the first month following the NBA season. Sheepishly he called to test her mood.

“You can come on home,” Gladys told Al, “but don’t you ever do anything like that again.”

Grandma Gladys was good training for Doc Rivers, Jefferson’s first coach after the Celtics drafted him 15th overall in 2004. Rivers practices creative tension, a shock to a teenager trying to assimilate to the working world.

“You think I don’t like you,” Rivers told Jefferson one day.

“I think you hate me,” Jefferson replied, to which Rivers said he should only worry if Rivers stopped caring enough to stop criticizing.

Years later Rivers, now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers, has nothing but praise.

“Al is the most instinctive scorer on the post in the NBA,” Rivers told the Observer in July.

“The second practice I had him – he was 19 years old – he made a couple of moves where I turned around to someone and said, ‘No one taught him that!’ He shoots from all different launch points. You’ll be amazed how good he is as a scorer.”

When Rivers’ lavish praise and affection was relayed to Jefferson last week, he laughed and said, “He’d never say that directly to me.”

Playing with an ‘old soul’

Jefferson is a dinosaur: a true low-post scorer who doesn’t feel the need to launch 3-pointers or pretend he’s a guard. The league used to be full of these guys from Kevin McHale to Adrian Dantley to Shaquille O’Neal. Now it’s basically Memphis power forward Zach Randolph and Jefferson.

It’s like he’s a blacksmith: There might not be a great demand for horseshoes, but if you need a set, he’s your guy.

“I always felt I had an old soul, so why not have an old-school game to match?” Jefferson said. “Besides, if you play like me, you don’t have to be athletic. You stick around for a long time.”

Longevity isn’t his problem – he has played nearly 20,000 NBA minutes and missed just nine games over his past two seasons with the Utah Jazz.

It’s team success that has eluded him, except for two trips to the playoffs.

Minnesota was a mess. He was the primary compensation in the Kevin Garnett trade, and the Timberwolves went through three coaches in as many seasons during his time there. The trade to Utah was a fresh start with a Hall of Fame coach (Jerry Sloan) and a spectacular point guard (Deron Williams).

Six months into his stay with the Jazz, Sloan retired amid rumors he was sick of Williams’ high-maintenance attitude. Eventually the Jazz dealt Williams to the Nets.

“The D-Will/Coach Sloan thing was rough,” Jefferson said, sounding like he was the collateral damage.

By all accounts Jefferson – a self-admitted “black hole” with the Timberwolves – became a more adept passer with the Jazz. His other reputed weakness – shaky defense, particularly against the pick-and-roll – needs more addressing.

“I don’t think I’m such a bad defender,” Jefferson said, “as much as I’ve put more energy into offense.”

Lasting messages

No doubt Grandma Gladys would “tsk-tsk” Jefferson’s last comment about his defense as excuse-making. One lady taught him accountability, the other charity. Both messages were heard.

Jefferson went home to Mississippi last February during the All-Star break. While he was there, a tornado did widespread damage to the Hattiesburg area. He heard about a family that lost its home to a falling tree. A 17-year old girl in that family – a great student with a strong Christian faith – lost her hand-me-down car in the same storm.

Jefferson knew he couldn’t fix everyone’s homes and everyone’s problems. But he pondered this girl’s plight and was reminded of the kindness Annabelle preached to him growing up.

So he replaced the girl’s car. When the girl asked Jefferson what she could do to repay his kindness, Jefferson said just remember the gesture and find someone else to bless far in the future.

That’s how he was raised in Prentiss. Both grandmas did their jobs.

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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