After helping propel the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first-ever NBA title, and earning the first championship of his own 15-year career, veteran forward Richard Jefferson announced — in the winning locker room, mid-champagne showers and all — that he's decided to retire from the NBA.
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WTF Richard Jefferson JUST ANNOUNCED HIS RETIREMENT on Snapchat ? 😂😭😭 pic.twitter.com/QFFJlefOlR
— Alysha Tsuji (@AlyshaTsuji) June 20, 2016
Richard Jefferson says he's retiring. "Hell of a way to go out."
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) June 20, 2016
Jefferson retirement announcement came out of the blue during interview while he was drinking Moët. I confirmed "for real, you're done?"
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) June 20, 2016
A very, very, happy Richard Jefferson just told me in Cavs room he's retiring. "I'm done. I'm done." And then -- "I need a cigar"
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) June 20, 2016
Jefferson elaborated a bit — with a brief tongue-in-cheek tangent about a potential future as an erotic essayist — in a locker-room interview with FOX Sports Ohio's Allie Clifton:
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) June 20, 2016
Jefferson, who turns 36 on Tuesday, will hang 'em up after playing a larger role than many expected in these NBA Finals, averaging 5.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 24 minutes per game. He gave Cleveland a spark when stepping in for a concussion-sidelined Kevin Love in a Game 3 start, and acted as a key role-playing cog in the Cavalier small-ball lineup — Tristan Thompson at center, LeBron James at power forward, Jefferson at the three alongside J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving in the backcourt — that dominated the Golden State Warriors, outscoring them by 36 points in 66 total minutes to tilt the series.
"I knew I only could control what I could control," Jefferson said when asked during an NBA TV interview how he approached his role when getting tapped to take Love's place. "I'm not a guy that they're going to call plays for, I'm not a guy that they're going to run anything for. So I was just like, 'Richard, just rebound the ball like crazy. Rebound the ball, run the floor, play defense, get on the floor for any loose ball.' [...] That's what I can control, and then try to get shots and try to do some extra things."
There was a time when such a circumscribed role would've been out of place for Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 prototype small forward out of Arizona drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 13th overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft and flipped to the New Jersey Nets on draft night. As a rookie, he was a key reserve on the Jason Kidd-led Nets squad that won the Eastern Conference before getting swept out of the Finals by the dominant Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers. By Year 2, he was in the starting lineup for a team that took an excellent Tim Duncan-fronted San Antonio Spurs to six games; by Year 3, he was Kidd's primary finisher, leading the Nets in scoring while showing advancing chops as a rebounder and playmaker.
Those Nets teams never got over the top, though, and after seven good-to-very-good years, the Nets shipped Jefferson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. That trade began Jefferson's move from near-star to the ranks of NBA journeymen; he'd be traded three more times in the next four years, suiting up for the San Antonio Spurs, the Warriors and the Utah Jazz.
Despite Jefferson continuing to perform, produce and bring professionalism to the teams he played for, he kept finding himself on the move, often owing less to his own abilities than to front offices' desire to shed his high price tag. (He signed a $78 million deal with the Nets in 2004, and a four-year deal worth nearly $39 million to stay with the Spurs in 2010.) After coming up short of a title in his early years, and spending most of his prime being shipped around the league, Jefferson decided he was going to spend the latter stage of his career doing what felt right to him: taking whatever chances he had to pursue a championship:
"I want to play for a championship team. I want to win a championship. I've come that close. People think just the NBA, but I'll take it back a little further for you. I lost in the [NCAA] national championship game. Then I went to the Olympics and lost to a quality Argentina team and won a bronze medal. Then I lost in two NBA finals. I want to win." [...]
"If I get an opportunity to play for a championship team, I'm going to go hunting for that. I have no loyalty. I'm not one of those guys that played for the same team for 15 years like a Reggie Miller who has to decide whether or not he's going to do that. No. I'm a gun for hire."
After a respectable season as a starting swingman for the early-stage-rebuild 2013-14 Jazz, Jefferson inked a one-year deal to link up with the Dallas Mavericks, thinking that playing for Rick Carlisle alongside Dirk Nowitzki might get him back into the postseason and potentially in the mix for a ring. His late-career reorientation into a corner-3-shooting, defense-first wing helped him carve out a significant role on a Mavs club that won 50 games, but bowed out in the opening round of the postseason to James Harden's Houston Rockets.
Jefferson had agreed to a deal to return to Dallas, but backed off on it — reportedly with Mark Cuban's blessing — after lining up a gig with LeBron's Cavs. Hooking up with the King worked out better than he could have dreamed.
"I owe my entire basketball career to him," Jefferson told reporters after Cleveland's Game 7 win on Sunday. "I’ll give you a little walk down right now. I lost the national championship game to Duke, then I lost two straight NBA Finals, then my third year we lost to [the] Detroit [Pistons] after being up 3-2 and they won the championship, then I lost to [the] Miami [Heat] and they won the championship, then to top it off I went to the Olympics and we were the worst team of all time. My whole career has been so, so close. Then I had a stretch of six to seven years where you become a little bit of a journeyman.
"To be able to get on a team and walk in with a guy that says he’s going to be able to carry you and bring me here, I owe everything, every shot, every play, everything I’ve ever done to that man."
Jefferson will walk away having played more than 36,000 combined regular- and postseason NBA minutes, with career regular-season averages of 13.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 30.1 minutes per game. He proved during the playoffs, and especially during these Finals, that he's still got enough left in the tank to help a contender in limited minutes ... but man, as exit opportunities go, how do you beat this?
"My teammates keep trying to talk me out of it," he said during his NBA TV interview. "And I'm just like, 'Guys, this has been the most stressful month of my life, I don't know.'"
We don't know about all that — judging by the man's Snapchat, it seems like RJ's enjoyed himself quite a bit throughout the Cavs' run to the championship — but after doing everything he could to put himself in the best position possible to win the title that had eluded him throughout his career, and finally succeeding, no one can blame Jefferson, who has already clocked an estimated $110 million in career NBA earnings, for decided to go out on top.
"Over the course of my career, I've made tons of mistakes," he said during his NBA TV interview. "I think we all look back on our careers and you're like, 'I should have handled this situation differently, I should have approached this one differently.' But the last three, four years, I've just locked in. Like, hey, I don't know how much more I have, so I'm going to make sure I'm in the best shape I [can be], and you know, whatever happens, whether they play me or not, I'm going to show up to the gym and work.
"But this is all held together with duct tape and Super Glue," he added with a smile. "And when this is all done, it's done."
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