I REMEMBER MY very first draft workout was against Joe Johnson and Rodney White. I'd never heard of these guys. One went to Arkansas. One went to UNC Charlotte. Both of them were really, really good.
I came into the draft process as a very raw athlete who had worked hard in the pre-draft months to work on my jump shot and round out my game. So when I got to a workout and it was like, "All right, we're going to play one-on-one," not having done a ton of that, it was eye-opening to see that there were talented guys all around the country that I hadn't even heard of.
As the draft process went on and I'm working out for teams, my workouts progressively got better. I was trying to chase Jason Richardson or Shane Battier on the draft board -- but none of them would work out against me.
My agent at the time, Todd Eley, told me the league wasn't inviting me to the greenroom for the draft. I was like, "I was just on the All-Final Four team. I was a preseason All-American. I just was in the national championship game, X, Y and Z ... and you guys don't have me in the lottery? You guys don't have me in your greenroom?"
I ended up being the first person drafted not in the greenroom -- and there were tons of guys that were still in the greenroom waiting for their names to be called. But it just let me know that a lot of this has to do with how people perceive you.
Perception is reality.
AT FIRST, I didn't want to play for the Nets.
I got the call that I was drafted by Houston. And being the young, confident kid that I am, I was like, "Yo, they were one or two games out of the playoffs, and it's Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and me? We're good."
My high school team was named the Rockets. They were the Rockets. I was like, "This is meant to be. I'm really excited. This is awesome. I'm in the Western Conference."
Then, 15 minutes later, they're like, "Oh, hey, you're traded to New Jersey for Eddie Griffin."
I remember talking to Byron Scott, the Nets coach, and I was depressed immediately. I had no idea who was on New Jersey. I didn't know anything about them. I knew they were basically the Clippers of the Eastern Conference, except L.A. at least had "L.A." on their jerseys. At least you were living in L.A. I knew nothing about New Jersey. I was a West Coast kid my whole life.
Scott could tell I wasn't happy. And I didn't have a very good workout for them because I didn't give a s--- about them. He was like, "Hey, don't worry. I feel like we have some things that will make you happy, and we're really looking forward to getting you out here."
Like a year later, Byron was like, "Do you understand how mad I was? F---ing, we just drafted some kid, and he sounds f---ing depressed, and I'm trying to f---ing make him happy." Then obviously the Jason Kidd trade happened, and the rest is kind of history.
Eddie Griffin died a while back. He was only 25. He had some demons he was running from that haunted him. The sliding-glass doors, it's one of those things where so much of your first few years dictates your career trajectory. They're your formative years in the NBA: who you're around, what you do, the work ethic that you have, your playing time, your confidence. All of it pretty much forms what you will be for the next portion of your career.
I WANT TO thank Tim Walsh, the athletic trainer for the New Jersey Nets. Today you have 19 different people as sports scientists, sleep scientists, massage therapists and on and on. But back then, the head trainer was all you had.
A guy like that would talk to you when you needed to be talked to. He would help you when you needed to be helped. He would check you when you needed to be checked. He would make sure that you would do all the things to keep your body right.
The trainer could literally steer a locker room. A player might come in and be having a bad day. Tim would pick up on that and pass it along, like, "So-and-so's having a tough day" or "So-and-so's dealing with some s---."
Or something as simple as, "Coach is in a bad mood. I told him that, like, only two guys could practice, so he was pissed off." Stuff like that.
As I moved on in my career, I wanted to be that same hub in the locker room. Whether it's helping out a young guy or letting a veteran vent -- even if he was wrong -- to know to let him vent.
Or giving a teammate advice on an injury. Like, say a guy didn't want to get his ankles taped and he was a second-round pick. I would be like, "Hey, you don't have a guaranteed contract, do you?" He'd say, "No, but I just hate getting my ankles taped."
I would be direct: "Put something on your ankles, because if you sprain your ankle and you can't perform for these next two weeks, they will waive you. They will waive you."
These are things that guys don't even think about.
These were the things you would see a trainer like Tim do in this league. I kept that in mind when it was my turn to be a veteran presence. And after 17 years in the league, believe me, I was a veteran presence for a lot longer than I was a young pup.
THE BEST COACH I played for was Gregg Popovich.
I just wish I could have given him a better version of myself.
The San Antonio Spurs, like most organizations that have that much success, are so far ahead. They were light-years ahead before being light-years ahead became a thing.
When I came into the league in 2001, it was still about doing f---ing two-a-day practices for four days during training camp. So it wasn't uncommon to come into training camp 10-12 pounds heavy. You would lose that weight over a month of camp, and that's just kind of how it was. You would play some preseason games, you would start eating salads, and that was it. By opening night you were fine.
That's how I learned the NBA. Now, when I was 21, 22 years old, it didn't matter. I wasn't going to gain weight, and I could burn anything off no matter what I ate or how much I drank.
But come 28, I was still trying to do that same trick, and I showed up to a franchise where all of their players were ready to go.
I still had that same early-2000s, late-'90s mindset. That was my introduction. I struggled from the start. Look at other players. Whether it's LaMarcus Aldridge or Brent Barry, lots of guys have struggled in San Antonio who had success other places.
"Pop didn't care if you averaged 20 points a game. If you went under a screen that you weren't supposed to, he was calling a timeout, cussing you out and probably sitting you down." Richard Jefferson on Gregg Popovich
Pop rules with an iron fist, as he should. There's a high level of expectation. Your brain gets so mind-f---ed on the things that they want you to focus on that you almost forget to shoot.
It was an eye-opener. Before that, even on good teams I played for, it was like, "I'm one of the best players. If I go under a screen when I'm not supposed to, you're not going to take me out because I average 23 points a game." Pop didn't care if you averaged 20 points a game. If you went under a screen that you weren't supposed to, he was calling a timeout, cussing you out and probably sitting you down.
So for me, at 28 or 29 years old to have that type of coaching for the first time -- my grandmother having just passed away -- I was a little shell-shocked. I just did not play well in that situation. But the one thing that I've learned is if things aren't going your way and you act like an a--h---, it's only going to compound it. If things aren't going your way and you act like a professional, you have a better chance of getting through it. That's something that I've taken with me since being a Spur.
I think part of the reason I had success in my career after being there is because of all I learned: how to keep my body in shape, how to be a 3-and-D player versus needing the ball in my hands to be effective. I learned how to follow a game plan without fail.
So when I was in Golden State and I wasn't playing, or if I was somewhere else and injured, or on another team when things were up and down, I had to remind myself that my situation doesn't dictate my success. My attitude does. I learned that in San Antonio.
I can never say enough good things about the people and the organization.
SPEAKING OF THE Spurs, the 2003 NBA Finals were closer than anyone realizes -- a lot closer.
Years later, I was sitting with Tim Duncan, and I admitted we had no chance against the Lakers in 2002. We were all inexperienced. The Lakers were a f---ing behemoth.
But that next year, that next season, we were confident, we were primed. We won 10 straight games going into the Finals. That's pretty hard. We might have made it look easy when we did it in Cleveland, but that's pretty hard.
Now that we were on the same team, I said, "Tim, what'd you think about the Finals we played?" He was like, "I thought it was 50-50." It was the same for us. I thought we had a chance.
What made the difference? What gave them the edge in beating us 4-2?
We didn't lose because Jason Kidd was s--- or because Tim Duncan was so incredibly dominant. That wasn't it.
The people who played extremely well for them were Steve Kerr, Speedy Claxton, Malik Rose, those guys. The guys 10 through 13 in the rotation -- those random spots that shined in their roles.
Look at the Finals I played in against Golden State. Look at Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala or Leandro Barbosa or any of the ninth-, 10th-, 11th-man rotation-type guys any other year that help win one game, one half, one crucial possession. They're always the most important.
When I got to the NBA Finals again in 2016, and I'm the 10th-best player on our team, I understood that my role was serious. My responsibilities were real. I knew I could have a serious impact because I'd seen it before.
Look at a guy like Dahntay Jones. He got his number called in Game 6 of the 2016 Finals, and in four and a half minutes, he earned his ring. Hadn't been there all year, joined the team on the last day of the regular season and gets plugged in because of foul trouble. We needed to maintain our lead and keep the momentum up. He scores five points, gets Draymond Green to pick up a foul, and we keep rolling.
What if he couldn't do that? What if he came in and coughed up two turnovers and missed two shots, and it's a five-point swing back in the Warriors' favor before halftime? We couldn't have been mad at him had that happened -- he hadn't played all year. But that didn't happen. He was prepared, and he performed.
The 2003 Finals, we didn't lose because we weren't great. We lost because we weren't as complete. It taught me how important guys 10 through 13 become in an NBA Finals.
So when I was the 10th-best guy 13 years later, I was ready.
HISTORY WILL REMEMBER me as a solid basketball player who played a long time. I was never a great player. At my best, I was a very good player.
For me, I wanted to win.
That's what I enjoyed. That was my favorite part of the game. That's part of the reason why that San Antonio thing kind of f---ed with me, because that's all they were about.
How would I have handled walking away without that championship with the Cavs? Going to the Olympics and not having that go the way I wanted? Losing in the national championship game with Arizona? Losing in two straight NBA Finals in my first two years in the league? All of those things, man, first of all, it's like, "Richard, do you know how fortunate you are to get to those places? Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people never get to experience that. Like, they don't."
So I look at it like, hey, if I would have left without that chip, I still would have been joyful and happy for all the stuff I experienced. But something inside of me would have known that I came up short. And for a person that just wants to win and prides himself on that, well, that would have sucked.
I remember during the 2016 championship run, Channing Frye and those guys were hanging out with Justin Timberlake in San Francisco before Game 5. And I was too much of a f---ing stress ball. I was holed up in my room. I was a wreck.
Bron saw me on the plane and was just like, "Richard, I know. Richard, I know." Bron looks over and just sees me, a zombie staring off into space. You guys know me. I never shut up. On flights I'm always either watching something, or I'm talking to somebody, or I'm cracking jokes or doing something.
All I could think about was how it took me 13 years to get back there to the Finals. I was on really good teams in between, too. I mean, really good teams.
But you go down 0-2 ...
And even though we won Game 3, the pressure came right back on us tenfold when we lost Game 4. There was never any point where you could exhale and say, "OK, everything's going to be all right." Or, "OK, we're fine." Nope. No. No, the entire time from blowout losses to a blowout win to f---ing blowing a game, my level of stress was enormous.
"There was no fun being had by me. I kid you not. There was nothing fun about that NBA Finals. Even looking back on it, I have, like, post-traumatic stress disorder." Richard Jefferson on the 2016 NBA Finals
I wasn't sleeping. I was on f---ing autopilot mentally because I just wanted it so bad. I knew I didn't have another 13 years to do this. There was just too much stress. So, yeah, I couldn't f---ing go hang out with Justin Timberlake or hang out with anybody. That wasn't where my mind was. My mind was in a room, not watching film, not scouting the Warriors' bench, just trying to stay calm and get some sleep.
There was no fun being had by me. I kid you not. There was nothing fun about that NBA Finals. Even looking back on it, I have, like, post-traumatic stress disorder.
You can win a battle and still never want to go through that again.
In life, in anything, you can come out victorious and never, ever want to do that again because it was just that stressful. And that's the way it was. Not that I didn't enjoy the aftermath and the process. But in that moment, if you can understand, that series against the Warriors for me was reliving the national championship with Arizona. It was the 2004 Athens Olympics. It was the two failed NBA Finals in New Jersey. It was going to San Antonio and having 61 wins and losing in the first round of the playoffs.
But when we won Game 7, all of that, not that it wiped away, but it made it OK. It was like everything that you went through got you to this point and it's OK.
DURING MY BASKETBALL career, I was an athlete. Obviously that's what I brought to the table. I was that prototypical small forward: I could run, I could jump, I could defend, I could post up, whatever.
But my favorite thing to do was to dunk on people.
Alonzo Mourning. Chris Bosh. Nenad Krstic. Shelden Williams. Kevin Willis. Mark Madsen. Jonas Valanciunas. I would search those out. When I would see new big men come into the league, my favorite thing was to try and get 'em. I could have an open 3, and I would slow down my pump-fake to pull in a defender just so I could go get that big.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Edy Tavares. Klay Thompson. It was just so much fun, and I was extremely blessed to have such a good string of health that it allowed me to do it in latter parts in my career. When I dunked on MKG, I just put him in a body bag, and I was 34 years old.
To be in my mid-30s and still be dunking on people, that is so rare. That's probably what I am proudest of in my game. I attacked with a kind of fearlessness when I was young, not looking to do anything other than jump and try and dunk on someone. And even when I was old, there was a chance someone was going to get dunked on, even in my 17th season.
But when I go back and watch a highlight of mine, I don't go back to watch the dunk. I look for all the people's reactions. I want to see what their bench did. I want to see what their coach did or what the fans did.
When your bench flinches or jumps or goes, "Oh, my god," that's the fan in them. That's the basketball fan that just has a gut reaction. And then they gather themselves, like, "Oh, s---, I'm the one playing basketball here. I can't be a fan right now."
That's what makes me laugh because that's raw emotion. That's really raw emotion.
I'M READY FOR what's next. If I had to give myself a grade, if you were to ask me: How much did you maximize your God-given talent in basketball? I'd probably give myself a B-. I'd be harsh.
My goal in this next part of my life in broadcast media is when I look back on what I did with this chapter, to be able to give myself an A+ grade.
"Road Trippin'" was a step in the right direction. I stumbled onto something that resonated with people, but it came from me just wanting to get reps, me just wanting to get better.
Michael Strahan has proven himself to be the Michael Jordan of the media space. He has redefined success in that realm.
So for me, I'm going to watch Strahan in everything that he does. I just respect him so much. Another guy is Jalen Rose. He has, like, four shows on ESPN.
Now that I've been watching Jalen and watching Strahan, I'm calling games. I'm in studio. I'm doing stuff for ESPN like Get Up, The Jump and SportsCenter.
I want to do every single thing I possibly can and get as many reps as I possibly can so that when opportunity comes calling, I am locked in. I am super focused, and I'm showing everybody how hard I'm willing to work.
You see me doing Get Up at 6 a.m. That night you turn on the Nets and see me calling the game. Then, the next morning, you see me doing Get Up again. Then, that Saturday you turn on your favorite college team, and you see me calling the Pac-12. What does that say?
If I want to get to their level, I have to not only learn but I have to try and outwork them. I love Michael Strahan, but why can't I be better than him? Like LeBron James, is that arrogant to say that LeBron wants to be better than Michael Jordan? No.
But it's like, OK, if that's what you want, you realize how hard you have to work. That's what I'm just trying to do: Put myself in that space and someday earn that A+.