Richard Jefferson still chasing title

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

By just about any measure, Richard Jefferson's life is an outright success story. He's earned well over $100 million in a pro basketball career that's spanned the last decade and a half. He gave back, big time, to his alma mater by donating $3.5 million to the University of Arizona for athletic facilities in 2007 -- the largest pledge made by any athlete to his school up until that point. He is a proud father and family man.

But his career has also been marred by losing. There were those back-to-back NBA Finals defeats in 2002 and 2003 with the New Jersey Nets. There was the bronze medal he earned with USA Basketball at the Athens Games, the only Olympiad out of the last six that the U.S. has competed in that didn't end with gold. There was the bad timing late in his career, leaving the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 only to see them win the title in 2014. And then leaving the Golden State Warriors in 2013 and watching from afar, again, as another former team of his lifted up the Larry O'Brien trophy two years after his departure.

All of that disappointment led him to a city that knows that feeling all too well. He hopes he and Cleveland can break through their championship droughts together and spoke to ESPN.com about what led him to the Cavaliers.

Q: You've officially been a Cav for a couple weeks since the start of training camp. What's been your impression so far of what this team is about?

Richard Jefferson: I think being in a group that's lost in the Finals -- and I have been twice -- there's a focus that comes into training camp. Guys are a little pissed off. Guys are a little edgy. There are some injuries here and guys are trying to get healthy because they want to get on the court and get back and they want to compete. Especially when they feel like they can play better. So, it's good to be a part of it.

Q: Your initial thoughts of David Blatt?

RJ: Aw, hilarious. Really funny. Really funny. Really funny. That's just my initial thoughts. He's a good coach. It's good. The best coaches I've seen, that I've been around are people that are stern but they also have a personality to make you laugh. There's some guys that walk in and they just know numbers and they know basketball, but their personality is s---. And then there's some people that are great guys and you love them to death and you'd have them over your house for dinner, but you wouldn't want them coaching your kids' basketball league. He has a great personality, he's funny. He'll yell at you, and then two minutes later he'll say something to make you laugh and make the whole group laugh; that's a rare combination in coaches today.

Q: I want to take you back to this summer. You had a verbal commitment with the Mavs, and then the Cavs opportunity came up. Can you just walk me through what went down?

RJ: Well, I was with Mark Cuban and Chandler Parsons in L.A. As soon as I meet them, they tell me, 'Hey, we got two of them.' I was like, 'What do you mean?' Because they pretty much had tried to retool the whole team. They had let Tyson [Chandler] go, they let Monta [Ellis] go, so it was like, [I was] not going to re-sign there unless they actually have a team.

So when they tell me they got DeAndre [Jordan] and they got Wesley [Matthews] ... Right then, I pretty much verbally commit. I'm like, 'Hey, I'm going to come back.'

We were sitting there just kind of chatting it up, and I was like, 'Mark, I was going to have to leave.' And he was like: 'Richard, I wouldn't have blamed you. I would have understood.' I was like: 'I'm glad, because I wanted to come back. I'm glad we got some free agents and there's something to build on.'

And so fast forward a week or so and all this starts crumbling down. Now, I'm a man of my word and I kind of waited like a week or so to see what was going to transpire and what was going to develop and I was like, 'Mark, if you guys lost out on free agents because I committed, then I'll stay for this year and then I'll go someplace else.' He was like, 'No, Richard, I understand.' Because I had spoken to him and I had told him: 'Hey, I would have had to go someplace else. The makeup of this team is probably not advantageous for where I'm at as a 15-year vet.' And so, he understood that.

He's a professional, I'm a professional. I think the way it was done, he was happy that I wasn't trying to jump ship and go to San Antonio or go to Houston or go to Golden State. The fact that I was going to the Eastern Conference, I think that made him feel a little bit better that somebody locally wasn't trying to poach me. So, I think that probably put his mind at ease a little bit.

"I grew up in this league. I came here when I was 20. I'm 35 now, so there's been a lot of transitions during my time in this league. Going from a star to a role player? It doesn't matter. I love the game of basketball and within the game of basketball, I love to win." Richard Jefferson

Q: How did the Cavs opportunity present itself?

RJ: Once the Dallas thing with DeAndre kind of started to happen, I talked to my agent [Jeff Schwartz] and I was just like, 'I feel uncomfortable about this.' I was like, 'I'm only planning on playing one or two more years, and if a year of that's in a rebuilding year with Dallas ...'

And so, he was like: 'Well, Rich, I can call, but we should probably tell the Mavs first. And let's see. Because I don't want to call the Cavs and all of the sudden the Cavs call the Mavs about what's going on and it comes back on me and it looks like I'm trying to do stuff behind their back.' And so, we talked to Mark first and I asked him for permission, and he said, 'That's fine.' And then there was some interest here [in Cleveland] and it was pretty much a no brainer.

Q: Did you have much of an initial relationship with LeBron James from the 2004 Olympics? Was there any carryover there?

RJ: No. We were both really, really young. It was probably one of the more traumatic experiences in our careers. You look at the Larry Brown, Steph [Marbury], just the way that whole thing transpired. And it wasn't by any means to blame them, but I think USA Basketball learned from their mistakes of just trying to put a team together last minute because that's ultimately what happened. We were competitive, but we just didn't have that grit and that togetherness that was needed. It's good if you look at it like we were part of the group that ultimately changed the way we handle things in USA Basketball.

Q: If you look at your stats from 2002-09, you were a star in this league. And you've been able to be a productive member of the league since then, but was that transition difficult going from star, to I guess, role player?

RJ: It was a tough transition. Especially because I felt like I was a high-level player on high-level teams. We won a lot of division championships, went deep in the playoffs, so there was a lot of success there.

I think the San Antonio situation was tough for me. I was going through some things personally and professionally ... If you're in this game long enough, you're going to have personal times. You're going to have family things. You're going to have deaths. There's so many things that happen that I don't think fans understand. It's like, 'Oh, well he had a tough two years.' But really, it's like, well, he was injured and then somebody's grandmother could pass away ... Stuff like that.

For me in this league, it's just about growing up. I grew up in this league. I came here when I was 20. I'm 35 now, so there's been a lot of transitions during my time in this league. Going from a star to a role player? It doesn't matter. I love the game of basketball and within the game of basketball, I love to win. So to me, that's the most important thing.

Q: In your time in San Antonio, and obviously you're saying it didn't go exactly according to plan, but did you get a sense for how the Spurs are a special organization?

RJ: Yeah. They are. When you have the core group of guys that are able to be there and give up of themselves and stick to one formula and that's their formula ... They don't deviate from it very much. They do adjust it. They're not that stubborn. You look at when they beat Miami in the Finals, they were playing a very offensive, free-flowing, European style of game. But you had European guys that understood that game. I enjoyed my time there. I learned a lot. I definitely think a lot of the things that I learned there are going to help prolong my career on the backend.

Q: You own a yoga studio in Hermosa Beach, California. How much does that part of your training help prolong your career?

RJ: I cannot stress it enough. My one year in Golden State where I really didn't play, it was the first year of my career that it was like that. I got my first DNP 12 years into the league. I had always been a player, a starter most of my career. So, I had my back lock up and it just wasn't unlocking. I went and saw Alex McKechnie, who was a big Laker guy, and then I started incorporating yoga and it was something that I think now a lot of people are becoming bigger and bigger advocates of, but I'm the one holding the flag in the front of the line.

It's just like: 'Hey, look, athletes hate to stretch. Athletes hate to roll out. That's just not the stuff that we do.' But when you get into a room where you're kind of trapped and you're focused and you have to do it for 60 minutes, there is no greater [exercise]. You're working muscles, you're sweating. There's more than just stretching. It's a full-blown workout.

Q: You mentioned Golden State. In your time there, did you see any seeds of, 'This can be a championship team'?

RJ: Oh, 100 percent. I was there that first year they won in the first round and then lost to San Antonio in the second round. So, it was basically Steph [Curry's] breakout year. Klay [Thompson's] breakout year, also. It was just a good overall group.

They played an open game where it was tough to draw up plays, it was tough to try to defend it because it was such a free-flowing style of basketball. But, I definitely saw it. To say that you saw a 65-win, MVP season? No. It was a perfect season for them, though, and it couldn't happen to a better group.

Q: I heard from some people who saw you at the Cavs minicamp down in Miami and their impression of you was that you were just shooting lights out from the outside. Fair observation?

RJ: Well, that's what I do now [laughing]. That's like saying when I was 25 that I was a good athlete. Like, that's just what I did. There's always going to be an evolution to the game in the sense that now playing here with LeBron and these guys, where the shots are coming, the speed at which they're coming at, the type of plays that we're running. So now, it's about playing: 'OK, these are the shots that I need to get. These are the shots that I need to work on. These are the counters that I need to work on.' But, yeah, you get me in a gym spot shooting with nobody around? Oh, yeah, I get pissed off when I miss.

Q: You guys play the Bucks this week and Jason Kidd is the coach. What's that like for you?

RJ: You're not surprised that he's a good coach, and I think he's doing a good job. You're not surprised seeing him coaching because he was such a competitor. And [you're not surprised] because he had a vision for how he always wanted to do things. And that's why he was a successful player. I've yet to play with LeBron, so I'll say that seeing J-Kidd on a day-to-day basis is still to this day the most amazing thing I ever saw. But I'm not surprised by his success.

Q: And how about your college teammate Luke Walton?

RJ: The luckiest man alive? Oh, yeah, Luke. No, man [laughing], good for Luke. People look at it like, 'Oh, he's this, he's that, he's so lucky.' I'm like, 'Yes, he is lucky, but part of luck is preparing yourself and being a good person.' When you look at his situation, the Lakers wanted him to come, because he took a year off [from playing] and he had been working with their D-League staff. Phil Jackson wanted him to come and help with Derek Fisher. And obviously there's his relationship with Steve [Kerr]. So it was like, this dude took a year off and had the Lakers, the Knicks and Golden State calling him. So that just shows pretty much his character, how people respected his basketball mind and his knowledge of the game. So, as much as he is lucky, he was able to look at the situations and pick the best one and it excelled and now he is the interim head coach for the Golden State Warriors. Jesus. I told him he's going to have to hire me.

Q: These people that you've had such strong connections with in Luke and Jason are head coaches. Is that your next step?

RJ: Um, I truly don't know. There are some other interests I have outside of basketball, and I respect the game and how much time it takes to be a head coach. I definitely respect that, and knowing Steve and all these guys, if I were to get into coaching, it would be either player development or head coaching. I really like to work with guys on a day-to-day basis, being in the gym, helping guys get better. Or trying to oversee a whole project. But we might go the Steve Kerr route. We might go the broadcast booth for 10 years, GM, back to broadcasting and then, 'OK, I'll take over a playoff team' job. That might be the route I go versus going straight into coaching like Luke or J-Kidd.

Q: Did the Walter Tavares dunk make up for the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist offensive foul at all?

RJ: It did a little bit. The cool thing about the Kidd-Gilchrist thing was when I first came in the league, there was no YouTube, there was no Vine, there was no Instagram, but once that stuff happens now, it's all over everywhere so I was glad that this one counted. I still think the Kidd-Gilchrist one was a better dunk.