My introduction to Richard Jefferson came one day after my 20th birthday. A sophomore at Ashland, a couple guys within my circle of friend became pretty big fans of Michigan State basketball. Tom Izzo was the ultimate red ass of a head coach with rumors of him holding practices where there were lids on the rims and no out of bounds. Jason Richardson was explosive and fun. Charlie Bell was a deep threat. This mountain of a kid named Zach Randolph was coming off of the bench. This team was not just the cream of the crop when it came to the Big Ten, but college basketball in general.
Back in 2001, there wasn’t much of an ability to watch as many west coast games as there is today. Sure, every so often you could try and catch a Pac 10 game on CBS, but the odds of it being Oregon-Oregon State were just as high as any other combination. But in that year’s semifinals matchup between the Spartans and Arizona Wildcats, not only did Izzo’s squad run into a buzzsaw — they couldn’t buy a bucket, shooting 41 percent from the floor – but the guy plugging it in and firing it up was one Richard Jefferson.
Jefferson got off the floor with ease, seemingly jumping higher than everyone else out there. Whether he was throwing down a dunk on the offensive end or challenging a Richardson layup at the other, it was one of those games where it looked as if everyone else was playing at a different, much slower speed.
When the Cavaliers acquired Jefferson prior to the 2015-16 season, it was met with very little fan fare. He was in his mid-30s and the team had just finished a similar experiment with Shawn Marion, a player who was to be the athletic wing to help spell LeBron James a few minutes when needed while giving the team a little additional depth as it negotiated with then free agent J.R. Smith. Jefferson had intended to stay with the Dallas Mavericks that season, but once the drama surrounding their attempted signing of DeAndre Jordan fell through, Jefferson asked to be set free and found his way to Cleveland.
Cavs fans thought they knew what they were getting: A 35-year-old with a few gallons left in the tank who could be counted on to not screw things up when called upon. Bonus points were given for the additional veteran leadership. What they did not know is how Jefferson would become one of city’s most beloved veterans in some time, rivaling Alvaro Espinoza’s run with the mid-90s Tribe.
Chalk it up to happenstance, but Jefferson’s signing with Cleveland came during a time where athletes were provided as many platforms as they desired. When he came out of Arizona, Jefferson had to rely strictly on what he did on the court with the then New Jersey Nets with the 2003 Slam Dunk contest really being the only time he could receive a singular spotlight.1
As a member of the Cavaliers, Jefferson was given a variety of outlets which allowed fans to learn more about the person as much as they did the player. Sure, putting Klay Thompson on Christmas Day poster was nice and all, but how many players throughout the NBA would sign up for a nightly spot following home games where they would join the team’s play-by-play guy to riff for five or six minutes about a cornucopia of topics. Few things were off limits as Jefferson would bust the balls of teammates — especially Channing Frye — or give Fred McLeod grief when he took too long to ask a question.
He would be the first member of the Cavs to utilize Snapchat, a medium predominantly used by teens, taking us all behind the scenes. Whether it was jokes on the team plane or nonsense in the locker room, it was Jefferson who opened the door, allowing fans to peer in.
This would only be the tip of the fan-facing iceberg, however, as the man they call “RJ” would team up with Frye to put together one of the best sports podcasts in the history of the medium. Podcasts can be a dime a dozen at times, but it was “Road Trippin'” that would be the outlet that would lead to countless headlines over the last 12 months. Whether it was LeBron James offering behind-the-scenes thoughts, RJ talking about text message shit-talking with Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving talking about the world being flat and putting the word “planets” in air quotes, or simply Frye discussing what it was like to be an athlete at a school like Arizona where time by the pool was just as mandatory as time in the classroom, it was an instant success. Listening to RJ and Channing discuss whatever topic made fans believe they were getting to know players on their favorite team. The chemistry was palpable. The stories emitted laughter. Fans, dealing with the marathon that is the NBA regular season, need laughter.
Given the whirlwind of events to have taken place since his arrival, it’s easy to forget that Jefferson said he was going to retire following Game 7 against the Warriors, only to be coerced into anther stint with the team as fans chanted his name from the championship rally. The looks on the faces of his Cavalier teammates was priceless — did this guy just up and negotiate a new contract on a stage in front of several-hundred-thousand people? He sure did, doing so with Lil’ Kev right by his side.
In the most recently published episode of “Road Trippin'”, Jefferson poked fun at his standing with the Cavaliers. This past summer, they had added the likes of Jeff Green and Jae Crowder and then offered a fully guaranteed deal to Dwyane Wade which meant one of contracts currently under team control was going to have to be moved in some capacity — a trade was ideal from a team standpoint, but an outright waving was not out of the question.
As the topic of “sacrifice” (one of the big themes this season) came up, Jefferson joked that he was “about to sacrifice his way out of here.” Less than one day after that podcast went live, Jefferson — along with point guard Kay Felder — was sent to Atlanta along with two second-round picks. The trade helps in getting the Cavaliers closer to the required 15-man roster while simultaneously saving them $12.8 million in luxury tax penalties. Jefferson, just like he used levity to discuss his unknown status with the team, used that same sense of humor to respond to the news that he had been dealt.
When the Cavaliers won their title in June of 2016, Jefferson oftentimes spoke of the absurdity that was getting to the NBA Finals during his first season in the league, and not getting back there again for what was a 15-year stretch. He was the walking example of what can happen to an athlete who takes care of himself physically, but more so how much teams and teammates covet guys who know what it takes to endure the monotony of a an 82-game regular season, but flip the switch once the postseason rolls around. But the entire time he delivered those thoughts, it was with a smile that looked as if he was saying the true absurdity is getting to play basketball for a living and not making the absolute most out of it would be peak foolishness. Sure, he was almost dealt a year ago for snapping a picture of the team’s championship rings before they were publicly unveiled, but RJ has always been a bit of a risk taker.
“RJ embodies all of the things you could want in a veteran player and teammate,” Cavs GM Koby Altman said in an official statement. “His consistent success at a very high level over many years is a reflection of the kind of high quality player and person he is. His steady leadership, great attitude, dependability and performance helped us win an NBA Championship and we are grateful for all of his contributions on the court and within our locker room.”
What the future holds for Jefferson remains uncertain. The Hawks are reportedly waving him once the trade is approved, making him a free agent. He has no plans to retire. As of this moment, he will be alongside Channing and FOX Sports Ohio’s Allie Clifton for the 51st episode of “Road Trippin'”, recorded live in front of local fans.2 What is certain, however, is that Jefferson, though being from California and going to college in Arizona, will always have a home in Cleveland, be it as a player, coach, or member of the media. Veterans who use one- or two-year stints with teams late in their career rarely take full advantage of those opportunities. The Mike Napolis of the world are extremely rare, and Jefferson was right there for the ride.
While college fans may have been introduced to Jefferson in 2001, it wouldn’t be until 2015 where those in Cleveland would get their true shot. For a player who had little to do with the city to immediately ingratiate himself was the ultimate “gets us” sequence of events. Jefferson was not only front and center as the Cavaliers won a title, but he was there with the team when they were cheering on the Indians during their playoff run. He was alongside James when they were in Ohio State last fall. On the team bus in Orlando, Frye played Boyz II Men’s “End of the road” while Jefferson sat next to him, the center emitting fake cries. On the plane on the way back from Orlando, Jefferson put on Boyz II Men’s “It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday,” before flicking off Frye as he wasn’t looking.
It would be tough to script a more-fitting goodbye.