After years in the Association, stately, plump Richard Jefferson inevitably slid over from the bench to the scorer's table as a color commentator. By the end of his career, at the end of the bench, constantly making amusing, self-deprecating chatter, he had practically already busted his chops as a commentator. On the bench he'd say things like:
- "Tim Duncan still runs like a deer. Now, can someone get me the license plate of the guy that hit him?"
- "Ah, the starting small forward. I remember when that was me! President Reagan was in power, and we were all bemoaning Reaganomics at the end of the bench, when Red Holzman tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Kid, you're starting tonight.' I was 35. I was three years older than Red. I was actually a shooting guard but I had been eating ice cream all summer because I'd thought I'd never play. I played 20 minutes before I nearly had a heart attack. I never started again."
- "LeBron James is still the most athletic player in the league at 30. He never developed a great perimeter game like Jordan or Kobe, but he never had to. He can just steamroll his way down the lane and bank it in for an and-one after drawing two fouls on every starter on that one single play. And then he can rest for the rest of the half while his team builds a lead. Then he does the same thing in the third quarter and steamrolls over garbage time and gets a triple-double in 15 minutes and his team wins by 30. It's sick. It's not even basketball. But you gotta respect the champs."
And so on. His teammates laughed, but they also noted that whatever he said rung of truth when they looked back at the game. And so it was that when he called a game as a test run for his alma mater, Arizona, they hired him on the spot, finding him funny, reasonable, and knowledgeable. Eventually, of course, it was these same traits (and the vetting experience at Arizona) that got him a spot calling color with the local professional team, the Phoenix Suns. After the offseason (filled, for Jefferson, with research on the newer players he hadn't played with), Jefferson was ready to show he could cut it as a commentator in the big leagues.
• • •
His first game - on opening night of the regular season - was to call a game between the Suns and their hated rivals (and his former team) the San Antonio Spurs. The Suns' organization - under new management - was excited about Jefferson and the new direction he'd be taking their color commentary, and even brought in legendary retired commentator Gary Bender to give Jefferson some tips before tip-off.
"Now, Richard, it's important that the fans like you from both ends of the court. You understand that?"
"Of course, Mr. Bender."
"Please, call me Gary. I mean, do you really understand that half your audience on TV is rooting for the other team? That a third of your audience comes from Europe and China? Do you understand that you are representing your country, your family, and all that sort of thing, Richard? Do you get it?"
"Yeah, I do. It's a total honor. I get it, Gary."
"Well that's good to hear, Richard. A lot of you guys just want to push your own favorite players, favorite teams, and so on. But there's more to it than that."
"I know. But of course, I'm glad to hear you tell me so."
"Well, anyway, I was at my home a few months ago and I just happened to catch your first game between Arizona and the Oregon Ducks."
"Oh, yeah, that one. Any tips?"
"Well, you made me laugh, Richard. That's important."
"But you made me laugh only because I'd been talking to athletes for 40 years, Richard. As a fan, it didn't work so well. My wife didn't like it all that much. She's the harshest critic, of course. I'll do the best game of my life and she says "I switched over to the Portland network because I just wanted to hear someone competent call the games." "
"That's hars --"
"She's joking. It's a joke, Richard. It's very funny."
"But she seriously, honestly didn't like your style that much, and she knows her stuff."
"Darn. Well, what can be done? Do people just naturally get better?"
"Not really on their own, no. It's not something where with practice you're suddenly good at it. Every sport has its own rhythm and every game has its own beat, and you're working for the fans on that beat. The more considerate you are of what people want to see and hear, the better you'll be, but that doesn't come with repetition."
"It's tricky, isn't it?"
"No, it's not hard at all as long as you have concentration. It's the most natural thing in the world. React and respond, over and over. Sometimes you'll surprise yourself with your response, but don't think about it in the moment. You're from Arizona so you've heard of Vin Scully, right?"
"Yeah, I wasn't like a Dodgers fan, but it was kind of hard to avoid hearing him and hearing about him. And then, when I'd been a pro for many years, I lived in San Diego. Vin came out of more cars than the Padres game, and if you listened to it for a few minutes it was obvious why."
"That's what I'm talking about. He uses a sense of humor, and a personality, and a voice, and the crowd noise, but at the end of the day he's just giving the fans what they want to hear. You've got funny, you're a likable person, you can think on your feet, Richard. Now put it all together and deliver for fans. Don't just make jokes. I can't really tell you more than that. But I wanted to tell you the problem you have to figure out day by day."
"Well, thanks, Gary. How's retirement, anyway?"
"Well, we have a garden, and it's been nice to slow down a little bit. But... put it this way, I was going out of my way to catch a Wildcats-Ducks basketball game, you know? It's a little tiring, and I'm glad we got out of the house for a little bit. Overall I like it, though."
"Haha, yeah. It is relaxing but sometimes you just want to be busy."
"Oh, that reminds me, Richard. One last bit of advice: One thing you can do to really reach people is to point out things like tough effort. I know you guys think of energy as just another variable, another plus or minus. And that's fine, but to fans? Effort or its lack really speaks to people. It's kind of poetic and brings the game home to people. It's one of those big questions in life, and you can see it right on the screen. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I didn't really think about it, but you're right, Gary, and it's important. Thanks."
"Okay, well, we're going to go sit in our box, Richard. Best of luck."
"Thanks, Gary. Give your wife my regards."
And then Gary Bender departed, and Richard felt the powerful tension of a stimulant now, as tip-off was less than a quarter-hour away, and Suns-Spurs games always had decent ratings. A lot of people that he could make happy, a lot of people he could impress, a lot of people that knew him and what he was about. Many of them, as Gary told him, were Spurs fans and he felt the powerful, anxious weight of responsibility. But he thought he could carry it.
• • •
The Spurs were an organization steeped in class and tradition. So Jefferson - still reasonably well-liked by the management and coaching staff there (who'd liked his character even before they brought him in) - received a warm introduction before the game and the ring ceremony. Now mic'd up for the game, RJ began to talk a little about the Suns roster, largely an undersized group of scrappy vets that weren't going to win more than twelve games probably. An aging Anderson Varejao suddenly brought to mind what Gary had said. The words flew out when his play-by-play man gave him a lob.
"I want you guys to watch this Anderson Varejao, tonight, if you aren't excited about the season. Suns fans might not be familiar with the new signing, but he's hardly new to those of us that played in the Eastern Conference. He does so many good things for a basketball team, and over and over in his career he's sacrificed his body for the good of his team, not just his team as in the number of wins they get, but in terms of his team as people that have to get up every morning and bang their knees 10 times a week, which is the reality for an NBA player. Because they look at Andy and they see someone that bangs his knees 20 times a week and gets a little slower every year, and they know that if Andy can give twice what they're giving, they can give an extra 10%, and so they do. And if in 20 years they don't move quite as sprightly because of Andy, it's because they'll have done more and they'll have more to be satisfied about. That's gone unnoticed, and maybe that's something I can call your attention to."
His play-by-play man looked at him during the commercial break with a mixture of awe and astonishment.
"Was that alright, Jim?"
"That was more than alright, Richard, but we have some superstitions here so I won't say much more. Keep it up."
• • •
And now the ring ceremony was beginning. The Spurs (now in their second year without him) had been relatively busy, having won their fifth title in staggering fashion the year before: Each of their four playoff series went the full seven games (that had never happened in the league), and in every series they were outscored by their opponents (which only happened rarely for one series, much less four). But the Spurs made up for it with the tenacity of warriors and the clinical intelligence of surgeons. Now the Spurs' "Big Three," certainly (and finally) too old to contend at this point, were taking one more half-year on the payroll at the minimum salary, largely as a victory lap through the league and the franchise that that they'd dominated for so long. The gold, beautiful rings were unnecessary ornaments; the five rings were the halos of respect and dignity around whatever lineup they had in at a given time, and those would last for many years.
After the ring ceremony, an intoxicated Spurs fan two rows in the stands said, "RJ, you're my hero, can I get an autograph?" and RJ obliged. When he got it, the fan proceeded to rip up the autograph and say, "No one idolizes RJ. No one. This is worthless to me! Ha ha ha," to which the surrounding fans mixed mocking support and classy jeers. After all, it was true. No one idolized RJ. But it still was pretty weird to say.
Things might have been different, and it's the funny thing about these Spurs and Jefferson (known to players and coaches alike by the childish initials "RJ"): Several years ago and on the good side of 30, RJ was once touted as the player that would bring the Spurs "over the edge:" In other words, the player that would take a very good collection of talent and inject it with the youth, intelligence, and experience that would grease its path towards a title (or at least toward contention). But it never happened: RJ's first year was lost and disjointed, and for the rest of his tenure RJ become associated (a little unfairly, a little justifiably) with the word "disappearing," especially "when it mattered." And despite his Spurs continuing to post very good records and getting into the playoffs as a real threat, they never seriously looked like the best team in the league come playoff time, and when the fans looked for answers they saw in RJ an $8-10 million albatross hogging the salary cap space, they saw upstarts (on the same roster) with more upside and talent than RJ. Most of all, they saw someone that was likable, reasonable, and nice as a front for a non-entity that made bank by saying all the right things and never putting the insane effort in that was expected of him as a highly-paid professional athlete. And there it was and RJ had probably heard the drunken fan's sentiment a hundred times in various media.
But suddenly, perhaps from pride in his defense of Anderson Varejao, RJ (unlike the previous hundred times) suddenly got really prickly and angry.
"I've never wanted to be your damn idol, and if I ever had, I'm resigned to where I am. But did I ever hurt you? What gives you the right?" With muscles tensed from anger as much as pride, RJ suddenly realized that the post-ceremony commercial break was ending in a few seconds. So he waited, and his grimace turned into a smile as the camera focused on him and his play-by-play man. And RJ continued his thought on Anderson Varejao.
"You know what? I just had somebody rip up my autograph telling me that no one idolized me. Well, you know what I said about Anderson Varejao? Maybe Anderson Varejao was nobody's hero. No one in their right mind would want to grow up to be a tenacious, clumsy interior presence wide by a seven-footer's standards and whose grace and tenacity were obscured by a funny-looking mop of hair. Nobody grew up wanting to be Anderson Varejao. And yet everyone that played or practiced with him tells me he's a great player, tells me he makes them want to work harder. Doesn't that count for something? All I wanted to do for people was make my teammates laugh, and, on occasion, win a few games! And dag namit, I did it! Sometimes I was injured, sometimes I was ineffective, but I was always there for them, and I wanted you guys to laugh. Tell me that's not worth an autograph, if you're already collecting the inscriptions of heroes and gods."
But they'd already cut to commercial long before RJ had ended, and he noted that the play-by-play man looked like death on the other side of him.
"Nice try, RJ, and you can say that again if you want, but try to be a little more... self-deprecating..."
"Aw, dag namit! Self-deprecating? Dag namit. Crap."
"Perfect. That's great self-deprecating humor, right there."
"Damn it! I mean, I just wanted people to know how hard someone like Andy works. I didn't mean to build myself up. But I want them to watch Varejao tonight, is all I meant."
"That's fine. But it has to be in the rhythm of the game. Prove your point by pointing out when they do something worthy of respect. As you know Andy's going to at least once. Then give your whole spiel. And even if he doesn't give you an opening tonight, he will sometime later in the season. He'll get his if you're willing to give it. It's a long season and you'll find the time to say anything you care to. Gary always found time. Everyone I've worked with - play-by-play or color commentator - found the time to say everything that was in their head. The problem is that it's not enough to fill 48 minutes. It's filling the time that's hard."
"Well, then, we just had a ring ceremony, can I talk about my Spurs for a few minutes? Size 'em up, talk about what they mean, and so on?"
"Go for it. You'd better, in fact. It's a good idea. We're live in 10 seconds!"
• • •
To be continued...