Al Jefferson didn’t sleep Sunday night. How could he? His 82-year-old grandmother, Gladys Jefferson, had just passed away.
Gladys had raised and guided Jefferson, pushing him to be more than just an unknown young child living in small-town Prentiss, Miss. It was nothing but pure, tough love for Jefferson. Without Gladys, he never would’ve made it. Never traveled from Boston to Minneapolis to Salt Lake City, finding a home in the most unlikely of places. Never, ever have become Big Al.
Which is why Jefferson’s game-high 33 points on 14-of-18 shooting Monday during a 105-90 victory against the Detroit Pistons was so perfect. Why his game-high 12 rebounds and team-high 36 minutes and 13 seconds of action felt so right at EnergySolutions Arena before a crowd of 19,393. And why when Jefferson accepted a last-second pass from Devin Harris, then threw up a 25-foot prayer that magically sailed through the net for the first made 3-pointer of his career, the night and the game belonged not to Jefferson or the Jazz, but to Gladys.
For 48 minutes, a grieving Jefferson got away from everything. Friday, he’ll watch his grandmother be buried. Monday was all about relief. The drama between Raja Bell and Utah coach Tyrone Corbin was boxed up and put away. The Jazz (20-21) ended a two-game losing streak and knocked off a Detroit (15-27) team they were supposed to. And Jefferson honored Gladys exactly the way she would’ve wanted. He took the court when he didn’t have to - Utah would’ve given Jefferson the night off; his teammates would’ve completely understood if Jefferson quietly disappeared. And then he gave his grandmother with one of the best offensive performances of his eight-year career.
“God don’t put you through nothing that you can’t get through, and God don’t make no mistakes, either,” said Jefferson, who missed shootaround so he could catch up on his sleep. “You’ve just got to get through it. Because you go through pain and that’ll make the happiness even better.”
Down 81-79 with 10:22 left in the fourth quarter and showing little proof of being a playoff-worthy team, the Jazz finally improved when the minutes mattered. Utah outscored Detroit 30-13 during the period, led by Jefferson’s 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. A Jazz team that entered the game not even considering the 3-pointer as part of its offense - Utah only took three during a loss to Chicago on Saturday, making none, and didn’t attempt one during the first half against Detroit - connected on 4 of 7 during the fourth. Meanwhile, the suddenly-cold Pistons were held to just 3 of 13 from the field.
For three quarters, Detroit’s Rodney Stuckey (team-high 29 points) and Greg Monroe shredded Utah inside and out. Then the Jazz’s defense kicked in at the same time Jefferson took over.
“We just got more aggressive,” Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. “Raja did a great job on [Stuckey], staying, making him work for everything. … The bigs were really up more, giving him different looks so he couldn’t attack the basket like he did earlier in the game.”
Jefferson’s 3-ball was still to come. Big Al entered Monday 0 of 23 downtown. With Jefferson idly standing near the left wing and Harris holding on to the ball as the game clock ticked toward zero, Utah’s starting point guard remembered jokingly getting chewed out last season when he didn’t allow Jefferson to take a meaningless 3. So this time, Harris passed it.
Jefferson flicked his wrist and sent the ball skyward. The shot was perfect. He responded by touching his chest and pointing toward the ceiling, soon surrounded by smiling teammates.
Gladys was up there, somewhere. Resting. At peace. Free. And the little kid she forever pushed to be something had hit a shot straight out of a storybook. It was pure Hollywood. Directly from Big Al’s heart.
“My grandmother is with me all of the time,” Jefferson said. “She made me the man I am today. She was with me when I made mistakes, and with me when I did great. I know she’s resting. It’s tough to go through, but it’s part of life and you must go on.”
Pistons-Jazz box score: http://bit.ly/xEbrFz
Storylines A shining light for Utah
R In short • The Jazz end a two-game losing streak by knocking off Detroit, 105-90, on Monday.
Key stat • Utah’s Al Jefferson honors his dead grandmother with a game-high 33 points on 14-of-18 shooting.
Key moment • Jefferson hits the first 3-pointer of his career with 4 seconds left in the game.