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This time last year, Al Jefferson and the Charlotte Hornets had their sights set on a second straight postseason trip, the top spot in the Southeast Division and ascending to Eastern Conference contention.
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For star big man Al Jefferson, that's meant, in part, committing to a new diet. From Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:
Fried chicken: Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson craves it and he knows it’s off his menu in the effort to lose as much as 25 pounds.
So when a certain commercial comes on the television, Big Al grabs for the remote.
“Every Popeye’s commercial I see, I have to turn the TV off,” Jefferson said [...]
Q: You said at last season’s conclusion it was important you lose 20 or more pounds in the off-season. How has that gone?
Great. 20-plus [pounds]. One thing about losing weight: It becomes a lot easier once you become disciplined about what you’re eating. Cutting out the sugar and the starch. Taking care of your body. Once I got into a routine it became pretty easy. And I knew what I was doing it for — to take some of the weight off my knees and getting my body into better shape than last year.
Jefferson came to his decision after nagging injuries — a groin strain early, persistent knee inflammation late — limited him to just 65 games last season, and significantly reduced his effectiveness when he was on the floor. His per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers dropped from their 2013-14 level, when the left-block landlord made the first All-NBA team of his career after averaging 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for a Bobcats club that surprised many under first-year head coach Steve Clifford.
Jefferson capped that bright first season in Charlotte in frustrating fashion, suffering a plantar fascia strain during a first-round sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat, and could never quite seem to get his health on track in Year 2. From Matt Rochinski of Hornets.com:
“Last year, we had a start. [Jefferson] was phenomenal. He was one of the 15 best players in the NBA,” said head coach Steve Clifford. “We need to have a best player and it needs to be Al. He’s been 19 [points] and 10 [rebounds] in this league for a long time … he never played at that level [this season] but the guy was never healthy. That’s got to be one of the things for next year. If we come back here next year and we’re going to take a step, he’s got to be our best player again.” [...]
“I feel like a lot of the little nagging injuries I had this season had something to do with the way things went last offseason,” admitted Jefferson. “I have to do a better job getting myself in good shape so we won’t have to have those nagging injuries bothering me throughout the season. I think that will solve that."
Big Al would know. After all, this isn't the first time he's walked down this particular poultry-prohibiting path.
From a feature written by Jonathan Kaminsky of Minneapolis City Pages in February 2008, during Jefferson's first year with the Minnesota Timberwolves (emphasis mine):
In the offseason [of 2006, while still a member of the Boston Celtics], Jefferson rededicated himself. He started by canceling his summer vacation plans in Prentiss, [Miss., his hometown]. While most players were still relaxing on the beach, Jefferson was in Boston, submitting to a grueling, four-hour-daily training regimen complete with weights, wind sprints, and endless shooting drills. He also started to think about food differently. With the aid of a private chef and nutritionist, he swore off the fried chicken and sweet potato pie of his childhood and learned to appreciate baked fish, grilled chicken, and steamed vegetables. The weight melted off. His rookie season, Jefferson's body fat hovered around 25 percent. Now, it was below 8 percent. He was a 6'10", 255-pound Adonis.
Not-So-Big Al went on to have the best season of his young career. He earned a spot in the Celtics' starting lineup, averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds in a career-best 33.6 minutes per game, and playing well enough to become the outgoing centerpiece of the blockbuster trade that brought Kevin Garnett to Boston.
Jefferson continued to put up monster individual numbers after his move to Minnesota — 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks in 36 minutes per game over his first season and a half in the Twin Cities — but saw precious little team success before suffering a torn right ACL in February of 2009. After surgery and rehab, he returned to the Wolves that fall sporting — stop me if you've heard this one before — a "slimmer, trimmer" physique.
This time, he attributed his significant weight loss not to cutting out the Colonel, but instead to doubling down on eating fresh:
The Timberwolves' Al Jefferson, 6 feet 10, said he dropped 31 pounds — from 293 to 262 — in seven months simply by eating Subway sandwiches.
"Ham and turkey on wheat bread, footlongs; sometimes I eat two footlongs," Jefferson said.
No, he said, he doesn't have an endorsement deal with Subway.
"But I'm going to speak to my agent about the possibility," he said.
Jefferson's scoring dipped slightly in his first season back, but his sandwich-fueled weight loss helped him stay on the court for 76 games and more than 2,400 minutes, the second-highest total of his career to that point.
The following summer, the Wolves shipped him to the Utah Jazz, where he'd team with Paul Millsap to form one of the Western Conference's most formidable frontcourts and serve as a mentor to young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. When it came to the latter, Big Al offered wide-ranging instruction ... including, it seems, when it came to eating fried chicken, according to the Salt Lake Tribune:
For 13 Jazz players, coaches and trainers, among others, the boxes were a reward. For Utah rookie center Enes Kanter, they were temptation. A barrier Kanter could cross at anytime. But in doing so, Big Turkey would immediately suffer the wrath of Big Al.
After the Jazz downed the Bobcats 99-93 on Wednesday, four extra-large boxes of Bojangles' fried chicken with sides sat atop a fold-out table, nearly within arms' reach of Al Jefferson's locker. While the Utah center discussed another huge offensive outing with the media, he paused midsentence to eye Kanter, who was contently making his way toward the promised land. Pausing six long seconds and interrupting a discussion about owning Charlotte's Bismack Biyombo in the paint, Jefferson said two words that perfectly summed up his increasingly intense — and hilarious — war with Kanter.
"Damn rookie," Jefferson said.
Big Al soon finished his thought and completed his sentence. But the battle was back on. For several minutes, Jefferson publicly hounded Kanter. And while the Utah rookie was reminded all four boxes of chicken weren't just for him at the same time a teammate made fun of his too-large dress shirt, Jefferson displayed his veteran chops. Not only couldn't Kanter dig in and fill up a heaping plate, but he couldn't even eat until everyone else with at least one year of professional service had stepped up to the line and done their part to devour what one player estimated was $200 worth of chicken. As Jefferson took center stage, verbally unloading, Kanter just paced. And paced. And paced. There was no chicken for Big Turkey, and everyone from Earl Watson and Paul Millsap to Jamaal Tinsley played roles in the act. Jeremy Evans ate. Assistant coaches chowed down. Not the Turk. Cue serious laughter.
Jefferson eventually hit the showers. Encouraged by Watson and Millsap, Kanter was finally allowed to dine.
Now an exceedingly well-compensated member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, I wouldn't blame Kanter — whose rise to prominence began with his own significant physical transformation — for chuckling upon hearing that Big Al has now gone from denier to denied.
So, yes, this particular storyline — "Big Al's changing his diet, and he's in the best shape of his life!" — is one that we've discussed before, only to find ourselves listening to it again a year or two down the line. As it stands, though, the prospect of an eventual backslide doesn't much matter.
For the Hornets, what matters is keeping Jefferson's estimable interior gifts on the court — even if he's not intended to be the hub of the attack this year — so he can help give Charlotte an honest chance at fielding an offense capable of supporting a defense that's ranked in the top 10 in points allowed per possession in each of Clifford's first two seasons. And for Jefferson, who's set to enter unrestricted free agency next summer at age 31, what matters is staying healthy enough to put up the kind of numbers that might convince some club with boatloads of salary-cap space — and with the cap set to explode to a projected $90 million for 2016-17, there'll be a bunch of them — to look past his injury history (and the possibility that he's become something of an anachronism in today's NBA) and offer him a lucrative multi-year deal.
For both sides, in this instance, immediate results matter more than sustainability. If Jefferson's latest effort to slim down accomplishes one (or, ideally, both) of those goals, then even the steep price of giving up delicious fried chicken will have been worth it.
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