At the start of the NBA season, Richard Jefferson was heading into his 15th NBA season. He was on the verge of suiting up for his seventh NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. He played in the Olympics in 2004. In college at Arizona, his team went all the way to the NCAA championship game. On the surface, it would be easy to assume that Jefferson, more commonly known as RJ, had a quite fulfilling basketball career up to that point. However, the veteran came to C-town far from satisfied.
“Teams wanted me back but it was more like I was searching for something,” RJ told me. “I was searching for a championship.”
See, in college his team lost in the championship game. In the NBA he made it to the finals twice with the Nets, but fell short of a title both times. In the Olympics in 2004, he received a bronze medal. Despite his many years in the game, he never ended a season on top. The so-called Cleveland championship curse was somewhat comparable to RJ’s personal journey.
He took a pay cut to come to Cleveland, as he wanted to play for a team that he thought could go the distance. But as far as a title goes there were no guarantees. He couldn’t just go along for the ride. He had to add fuel to the team’s engine.
Interestingly enough, I knew RJ in the earlier parts of his career when he was playing for the New Jersey Nets. I was barely old enough to vote and yet I regularly entered the Nets locker room, first as an intern for local affiliates and then as a writer for NBA.com. I was so young and the environment was very different than anything I had ever experienced. When I’d enter the locker room, I’d stare at the ground as I stood rigidly among journalists more than twice my age and athletes double my size. All the players were professional and polite to me, but RJ would crack jokes. His humor would allow me, for a brief moment, to flash a smile and forget that I was one of two females in a small crowded room, scattered with half naked men. More importantly, if I needed a quote or an interview, he’d happily oblige.
Fast forward years later and we coincidentally ended up in the same city.
In one season RJ became a hit both on the Cavs team and in Northeast Ohio. He doesn’t fill a box score like Kyrie or LeBron. He is solid three-point shooter, but he does not get it done quite like J.R. Smith. However, I think RJ was exactly what this roster needed to make them a championship caliber team.
“I saw the deficiencies that the Cavs had. The injuries, they struggled with versatility against Golden State,” RJ said about what he noticed when he watched the finals last year. “I looked at it from the perspective of I can contribute.”
RJ definitely contributed to the team this year, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The 15-year vet provided the Cavs the same thing he offered me at the start of my career. RJ brought a sense of humor and friendly personality to the locker room, loosening up the team and seemingly breaking down cliques or social circles by making people laugh. He became a Snapchat sensation of sorts when he showcased his personality on social media, by posting videos of an advertisement of a Kevin Love look-alike-model that he treated as a real person. He called the cutout, which he got laminated, Lil' Kev.
“Lil' Kev was something that just got us together,” RJ explained. “My teammates thought it was funny and once the fans got a hold of it, it was really something special.”
However, RJ knew when to put the jokes aside. In my case, at the start of my career, when I asked for an interview he gave me one and provided me with thorough responses. In Cleveland, when his number was called, he rose to the occasion and proved to be a backup that LeBron James himself said he could trust. When Kevin Love went down with a concussion in game 2 of the NBA finals, RJ was called upon in game 3 to start, helping the team to an important win.
“He was upset he couldn’t play and I was upset for him and he was the first person to hug me when I walked through those doors. It was a great moment,” RJ recalled. “I’m glad I was able to start and help hold down the fort.“
The team forced a game 7 , where they ultimately won. RJ finally got his title.
RJ explained, “I have been playing basketball since I was 8 years old, probably even younger than that. So for me to wait 30 years to get an opportunity to do this, this is all I have ever dreamed about.”
After achieving his goal, he immediately said he would retire, but now he is not so sure.
“I think honestly, I don’t think I’d play just one more I think it would be two or three or calling it a day,” RJ told me.
With the fans begging RJ to return and the team recognizing his importance to their success, the veteran may not have been the only one who found exactly what they were searching for….
“There is a bond… and a connection I'll forever have with the city of Cleveland,” RJ acknowledged. “It’s special.”