Late November, 2008. Over 100 Minnesota Timberwolves employees congregate at an upscale steakhouse in Minneapolis, out to celebrate the start of a new season.
On most teams, the franchise would likely be footing the bill.
In Minnesota, it is Al Jefferson, the team's new franchise player, and one of the brightest young talents in the game.
It is an act that speaks to the loyalty and character of the 6'10" forward, and it is hardly an isolated incident. Those qualities have been trademarks of the young man they call Big Al well before his emergence as a high school hoops phenom at Mississippi's Prentiss High.
He is a refreshing kind of superstar, truly unchanged by the fame or accolades he receives, still the same down-to-earth kid who rocked the rims of his hometown courts, bringing his enthusiasm and love for the game to the stadiums of the NBA.
SON OF MISSISSIPPI
Born on January 4, 1985 in Monticello, Mississippi, Al spent his childhood in the small nearby town of Prentiss, complete with a population of just 1,500. The Jefferson family was a staple of the Progress community, a close-knit, predominantly black section of Prentiss.
"Everybody knows everybody.” Al said of his hometown in a 2008 Interview with Citypages.com. "It's a country town, a relaxing town."
"I'm the type of guy, if I'm committed somewhere, I put everything into it. My heart. My soul."
-- Al JeffersonWhile his mother Laura worked as an assistant teacher in Prentice Elementary School, Al's father was killed in a work-related accident when he was very young, leaving him without the guidance and discipline a father figure provides.
He had a strong support system around him – his grandmother, Gladys Jefferson, lived on the same property as Al and his mother, and several other family members lived in the nearby town of Progress. But not having a father in his life allowed Al to find his way into trouble as a boy.
"Al was very mischievous and he loved attention," his uncle, Dr. Ceroy Jefferson said. "He would do whatever it took to get people to notice him. He loved being the center of attention. And with that mindset, it got him in some trouble."
As Al entered his teen years, though, an incredible growth spurt saw him sprout into a 6'4” eighth-grader, and saw him discover what would become his first love; basketball.
Dr. Jefferson himself had been a stand-out player, earning a scholarship in the early 1970s to play for the University of Southern Mississippi, now known as Pearl River Community College.
He helped Al to learn the game, and the youngster's enthusiasm for the sport, along with his incredible size, became impossible to ignore.
"He was just a big ole clumsy-looking kid," Prentiss High School coach Lonnie McLemore said. "He wanted to play with the ninth-graders as an eighth-grader, and he's been excited about the game ever since."
Al started as a freshman for Prentiss's varsity squad, and it was evident he possessed superior athletic ability in addition to his now 6'8” frame.
But it was in his junior season where he became one of the elite players in the country, drawing the attention of both college coaches around the country, and the scouts of the NBA.
BIG AL IS BORN
The Prentiss High School basketball team had been known as a Jekyll and Hyde-type squad, with Al its premier player. When the playoffs began for the 2002-2003 season, Al took his team on his shoulders and willed them all the way to Mississippi 3A State Championship Final.
|Al playing for Prentice High School in Mississippi.|
He averaged 44 points over the Bulldogs' three-game run, and was the driving force behind capturing the 3A crown.
"At the end of the season, we all stepped out as a team," Jefferson said. "Once I got my feet wet at the Coliseum, every game it seemed like we got better. Once we clicked, I knew we'd win."
That he viewed the championship as a team accomplishment in spite of his tremendous performances came as no surprise to those closest to him. Known as one of the most polite young men you could ever find, the budding star now known as "Big Al” never let his increasing popularity go to his head.
"Sometimes, the only time you know Al's there is if you see him," said PHS assistant principal Willie Armstrong when Al was a student. "He's a good kid. I wish we had more Al Jeffersons walking around."
While he possessed freakish athletic ability and an NBA-ready body, his humility and loyalty showed what kind of person teams at the next levels were hoping to get their hands on. After his dream junior season, Al was given the opportunity to play for the US Junior National Team, an honor bestowed on only the nation's top high school players.