Al Jefferson is a 10-year NBA veteran. He likes small towns in the Deep South, like the one he’s from in Mississippi. He’s a big man who is not very expressive on the court. He has a game straight from the 1980s – a back-to-the-basket post player with an old-school array of ball fakes.
Kemba Walker is a three-year NBA veteran. From The Bronx, he feels at home in New York and other big cities. He’s a small man who is very expressive on the court. He has a game straight from today – a score-first point guard with a dazzling first step.
They are an odd couple. But Jefferson and Walker are the Bobcats’ yin and yang. Without either of them, these Bobcats would never have finished above .500 nor made the 2014 playoffs.
With both Jefferson and Walker playing at a peak level, however, the Bobcats believe they can beat anyone – including Miami, against whom they open on the road at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the best-of-7 series opener.
“The world is about to get a chance to change their minds about us,” Walker said. “The last couple of years we’ve been bad. Now we’ve got a whole new team and a chance to shock the world.”
As the season has progressed, Kemba and “Big Al” have learned to trust each other. Their high pick-and-rolls have become “pick your poison” for defenses. Walker has learned where Jefferson wants the ball, and he slows down his usual frenetic pace sometimes so he can get it to Jefferson on his favored left block. Jefferson sometimes pulls Walker aside during the fourth quarter to tell him, “Take over.”
One of Jefferson’s favorite moments of the season came recently, just after he had made a difficult shot in a close game. He and Walker were running back on defense and found themselves near each other.
“I tell you one thing I love about Kemba – he doesn’t mind showing his feelings on the court,” Jefferson said, laughing. “He looks over at me this time and says, ‘I love you, man.’ In the middle of the game! I didn’t know what to say. So I just thought, ‘Okaaaay.’ But I said, ‘I love you, too.’ ”
Walker’s biggest assist
This is a fine time for Charlotte’s two most prominent pro sports teams. Three months ago, the Carolina Panthers finished a 12-4 regular season behind quarterback Cam Newton and hosted a playoff game. The Bobcats went 8-1 over their final nine games to grab their second-ever playoff berth. This is only the second time ever that both the local NBA and NFL franchises have played in the playoffs in the same calendar year – the other came in 1997.
Two seasons ago, the Bobcats won seven games. One season ago, they won 21. This season, they won 43. They are the only NBA team ever to at least double their number of wins for two consecutive years (that’s a lot easier to do, obviously, when you start at seven).
Walker has been there for all of that. He was the starting point guard most of the time for the two awful teams prior to this one. Those squads went a combined 28-120, worst in the NBA in that stretch.
Walker had always considered himself a winner; he led Connecticut on a glorious run to the national championship in 2011, but he was starting to doubt himself a little. He knew the Bobcats needed help.
So Walker set out on a mission to get the biggest assist of his NBA career helping the Bobcats’ front office lure Jefferson to Charlotte. Jefferson was a free agent in the summer of 2013, looking for a new team after Utah had gone with a youth movement and said it did not plan to re-sign him.
Walker’s full-court press began when Jefferson took a rare visit to New York. The two share an agent, and when Walker got word Jefferson was paying a visit, he rushed over to the agent’s office.
Walker gave Jefferson the “We need you” pitch. Jefferson seemed unmoved.
But Walker kept working on Jefferson, and so did the Bobcats. They flew Jefferson down for a meeting with front-office personnel and coach Steve Clifford. And it didn’t hurt that they offered him a $40.5-million, three-year contract. They wanted to make Jefferson the centerpiece of the offense and the first major free agent the Bobcats had ever signed.
“It was a great pitch,” Jefferson said. “I remember leaving Charlotte. My flight had gotten canceled, so I drove from Charlotte to Atlanta to catch another one. It was raining, and I was just thinking. Nothing feels better than knowing somebody wants you.”
Jefferson said all that seriously but then broke the spell. He elbowed Walker and said, “And so then I became the answer to this guy’s prayer.”
‘We don’t stay mad’
Shortly after signing his contract, Jefferson texted Walker, saying, “Look, I’m not coming here to lose.”
But Jefferson wasn’t able to help immediately. His training camp got short-circuited by a troublesome ankle. He missed nine of the Bobcats’ first 11 games, and he wasn’t himself even when he came back through the first third of the season.
“I went to coach Clifford’s office once and I was feeling down,” Jefferson said. “I told him, ‘Coach, I apologize. I know why you brought me here. You paid me all this money to come here and now I’m not helping.’ I just felt empty inside.”
Clifford told Jefferson to keep his chin up and that once the ankle got right that everything would be OK. And it has been. More than OK. Jefferson has averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in one of the best seasons of his career.
Walker (17.7 points per game, a career-high 6.1 assists) has become a better leader as his own star continues to rise. Each of them has improved on defense.
And the two have begun to find out they had more in common than they realized. They both enjoy locker-room banter and like to tease each other.
“Al Jefferson is the ultimate comedian,” Walker said.
“Kemba is one of those guys who in class kept the teacher from teaching,” Jefferson said. “On the court, though, he’s a giant even though he’s actually 5-foot-2.”
Jefferson said this is the first team in his 10 NBA seasons in which everyone gets along with each other. “We do Bible studies on the road together,” Jefferson said. “We sit down and talk. We grow together. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. Kemba and I have to set the tone. It starts with us. I get on him sometimes. He gets on me. We take it and we learn. We don’t stay mad at each other.”
‘Keep the big guy happy’
Walker, who is listed at 6-foot-1, has occasionally consulted Bobcats assistant coach Mark Price about how to best get along with a big-time big man. At Cleveland, Price, the point guard, and Brad Daugherty, the big man, were a devastating combination a generation ago.
“Having Al and Kemba around reminds me a lot of those days,” Price said, “because you just don’t get many post-up players in the league anymore. Back then everyone seemed to have one: Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon. You could beam Al right back into that era. Now he’s so hard to guard because guys don’t know how to defend someone in the low post anymore.”
Price said the most important thing he tries to instill in Walker is: “Keep the big guy happy.”
“Get him the ball,” Price said with a smile. “He rebounds for you. He sets good picks for you. So keep him happy. That’s lesson No.1.”
‘The star of this movie’
One of the biggest keys to this relationship is that both men seem to think the other one is more important to the team.
Walker devoted his recruiting time to Jefferson because he knew the Bobcats wouldn’t go anywhere without him. Jefferson is the Bobcats player who has won more national awards this season and received more praise from other head coaches.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said Jefferson has the best pump fakes in the NBA. “He’s still got that herky-jerky, unbelievably tough game to guard,” Popovich said. “He gets people off their feet constantly.”
But Jefferson said he’s just here to help Walker out.
“It’s his team,” Jefferson said of Walker. “I told him from the beginning, ‘You are the point guard. You’re the player they are trying to build this team around. You are the star of this movie.’ ”
At 23, Walker is six years younger than Jefferson. But his maturity is advanced enough that Jefferson calls him the “young-old fella.”
It is Walker who talks the most in team huddles and leads the team most overtly. But it is Jefferson who gets off to a good start in nearly every game. The only players in the NBA with more first quarters of 10 or more points are Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
And if Charlotte can stay in the game until the fourth quarter against Miami, either Walker or Jefferson will try to close it out. They know very well that the Bobcats are 0-for-LeBron during King James’ four years in Miami.
Nevertheless, Walker and Jefferson believe that this is their time. They have never played in an All-Star Game. They are almost unknown to the casual NBA fan. They have never had any playoff success.
This is the chance for the Bobcats’ odd couple to get even.