Utah Jazz: For Jeffers, living life was hardest part of NBA dream
Whatever the odds are of the Jazz coming back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, Othyus Jeffers would have to regard them as anything but insurmountable.
Just consider the odds that Jeffers would be here to take part in the Jazz's playoff run at all.
A former NAIA Player of the Year, Jeffers went undrafted out of Robert Morris University in Chicago in 2008 and was called up by the Jazz from the NBA Development League on March 4 to fill a roster spot following the Ronnie Brewer trade.
Even that pales in comparison to what Jeffers had to overcome off the court to reach the NBA. Before he graduated from high school, two of his brothers were shot to death on the streets of Chicago's West Side, not far from where the Bulls play at the United Center.
Jeffers himself was shot in the left thigh in April 2007 when he came to his sister's defense during a dispute with her boyfriend. Jeffers can trace the zigzag path the bullet traveled up and across his thigh, miraculously missing any major arteries.
"My mom always told me that you live and move on," Jeffers said. "Yeah, things hurt, but it can't stop you from living your life, so that's what I've been working with ever since."
A 6-foot-5 forward, Jeffers has gotten into five of the Jazz's playoff games, including a key stretch in the second half of Game 2 against Denver. That victory sent the shorthanded Jazz to their stunning first-round upset of the Nuggets and on to face the Lakers.
Even if Jeffers has seen only occasional action, Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor nevertheless says: "The thing he's done is he's climbed the mountain from where he was. I think he appreciates and doesn't expect anything. He appreciates everything."
Jeffers was so determined not to let the shooting derail his basketball path that he didn't even spend the night in the hospital afterward. He quickly ditched the crutches he was supposed to use and was back playing within weeks.
"A day after the shooting, he called me into the room," said Standell "Tank" King, Jeffers' half-brother, "and he got up on his crutches, he's like, 'You know what? I'm not going to let this get me down,' and he actually laid on the ground and he had me stretch his legs out."
Aubrey Volious, Robert Morris' associate head coach, said simply, "He has a will that is beyond years."
There have been countless NBA players from Chicago -- Jeffers mentions Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Antoine Walker -- but Jeffers sees making it with the Jazz as something for his entire family, neighborhood and city to share given the road he took.
Even now, he still has his same phone number with the 773 area code from home. Friends send text messages out of curiosity during the playoffs. "They look at me as just one of them," Jeffers said.
By making it in the NBA, Jeffers hopes to deliver a better life to his family back home. "I try to remind him every day about where he came from," King said, "and it's not a long trip to get back there if you don't stay positive and humble."
Tragedy strikes twice
Maybe it was destined that Jeffers would end up with the Jazz. He made a college recruiting trip to Utah one summer and was courted by former coach Rick Majerus. Jeffers remembers Salt Lake City as being hot but also beautiful with the mountains.
"For some strange reason, it feels like I was here the whole season," Jeffers said. "The guys are a great group of guys. Nobody's to themselves, everybody's open."
Jeffers grew up in The Village, a neighborhood near the University of Illinois-Chicago ravaged by gun violence. He lost his older brother Gerome Allen, with whom he tagged along to the basketball court, when he was just in third grade.
During his senior year at Hubbard High, Jeffers had another older brother, Edmund Allen, shot to death. King remembers he and Jeffers were watching Carmelo Anthony play at Syracuse on TV when the call came. The next day, they went to practice.
Jeffers' high school coach, Calvin Holiday, remembers the plea from Jeffers' mother Geraldine Allen after Edmund's death: "She said "You've got to help me out, I can't lose another kid.' I said, 'My doors are wide open. He's more than welcome.' "
"It never crossed my mind," Jeffers said of not making it out of Chicago after his brothers' deaths. "To us, people who lived there, that's everyday life. You don't look at it like, 'That could be us tomorrow.' We just keep living."
There's one member of the Lakers who needs no introduction to Jeffers or his story. Back in 2003, Jeffers' Hubbard team upset Shannon Brown's top-seeded Proviso East team in overtime of the Illinois sectional finals.
With everything that Jeffers has gone through, Brown said, "I'm just glad he never quit on his dream and that he's staying positive." The two share mutual friends in Chicago and Brown knows the tragedies in Jeffers' past.
"It's easy for guys to fall into that trap," Brown said, "and to be like, 'You know what? There ain't no hope for me. I might as well continue doing what I'm doing, whatever.' He got out of that."
A close call
Jeffers, who transferred from Westinghouse High as a sophomore, lived with Holiday at times his final season at Hubbard. He headed to Los Angeles Southwest College for a year, then returned to play at Illinois-Chicago, just blocks from where he grew up.
Before he'd go to class, Jeffers would help take his younger brothers and sisters to school. Geraldine Allen worked as a unit clerk at the nearby Rush University Medical Center.
Only weeks after being selected all-Horizon League first team as a junior, Jeffers was on his way to play in front of what he hoped would be NBA scouts when he came to his sister's defense after she called claiming that her boyfriend, Andre Childs, had beaten her. The boyfriend pulled a gun and both Jeffers and his sister were shot, though Jeffers didn't realize it immediately. Childs was later charged with two counts of attempted murder, but pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.
Childs is serving concurrent six-year prison sentences, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, and is projected to be paroled in June 2012. For all that happened, though, Jeffers holds no ill will towards Childs.
"Even though he shot me, he was a great guy," Jeffers said. "It was something that it wasn't him. But people make choices and you've got to live with them."
The shooting stunned those who knew how Jeffers had worked to stay focused and positive after what happened to his brothers. "It floored me because I said, 'What? He's the nicest kid you'll want to be around,' " Holiday said.
For his part, Jeffers said he didn't realize how close he'd come to losing his life until after the shooting death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor that fall. Taylor was shot in the thigh as well, with the artery damage leading to his death.
Three years later, though, Jeffers is able to joke about some of the circumstances. The emergency-room nurse who thought at first that he hadn't been shot. The friends whose concern faded once they saw how quickly he was able to recover.
Jeffers was back walking in a week and playing again in two weeks. "Everybody went from 'He got shot in his leg,' to 'Well, he just got grazed. It went in and out,' " Jeffers joked.
"I wasn't in fear," he added. "Everything was in front of me. I worked hard to get to where I wanted to be, then that, snap your fingers, was gone. I said, 'If I get back, I don't want any situations to happen again.' "
With Childs on the run after the shooting, Jeffers decided to transfer from Illinois-Chicago, which had an open campus. He considered turning pro and playing overseas, but was convinced to come to Robert Morris, an NAIA powerhouse with a more secure campus.
Jeffers now calls it "the best decision I ever made." He averaged 24.0 points and 11.2 rebounds to earn NAIA Player of the Year honors. Volious kept him pointed toward the NBA with stories about undrafted players like Avery Johnson and Mario Elie who made it.
As the D-League's Rookie of the Year in 2008, Jeffers started this season in Italy before returning to the D-League in the hopes of getting called up to the NBA. He thought it would come from San Antonio, after taking part in an offseason minicamp with the Spurs.
Instead, Jeffers ended up with the Jazz, his NBA dream officially coming true. "He's came out here, he's worked hard and I think that's the reason he's on the team," said Deron Williams, praising Jeffers as the type of player perfect for coach Jerry Sloan.
"If hard work and somebody who really wants it is any indication, then he'll be there," O'Connor added of Jeffers' future beyond this season.
For the first stop of his first road trip with the Jazz, Jeffers returned to Chicago for a March 9 game against the Bulls. With dozens of family members and friends in attendance, he hit two free throws in the final minute of the Jazz's 132-108 victory.
Volious said he almost had tears in his eyes, especially after seeing the look on the face of Jeffers' mother and sister. He has coached five players he believes could have reached the NBA, but Jeffers was the first to do so.
"It wasn't about me, it wasn't about the coaches, it wasn't about the school at that point in time," Volious said. "It wasn't about none of that. It was about Othyus Jeffers had did what he set out to do."
About Othyus Jeffers
» A 6-foot-5 guard/forward, but as Jeffers himself admits, "Nobody knows what my position is." He even played some power forward in the NBA Development League.
» Called up by the Jazz on March 4 to fill the roster spot left by the Ronnie Brewer trade and was signed for the season March 24.
» Averaged 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in 14 regular-season games and has appeared in five playoff games so far.
» The first player from NAIA Robert Morris University in Chicago to reach the NBA. Played at Hubbard High and Illinois-Chicago in his hometown as well.
» On being part of the playoffs just two months into his NBA career: "It's something you want to happen in your career, but for it to happen right now, it's crazy."