Richard Jefferson has been dunking a lot lately. This is of some significance, because the man is 36 years old and playing in his 16th NBA season. Basketball senior citizens shouldn’t be yamming as much as Jefferson has this season, but here we are.
Jefferson isn’t just dunking on fast breaks with no one in his way, either. He’s dunking on, over and around people. Here’s a brief sampling of his 2016-2017 dunk-a-thon.
A few weeks ago, Jefferson soared over Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier for an alley-oop, then swung his legs back over Rozier’s head on his way down from the rim in the NBA’s universal sign of disrespect. Rozier caught some feelings and launched the ball at Jefferson’s back as he jogged back down the court.
On Christmas Day, the holiest of days, against the Golden State Warriors, Jefferson dunked all over Klay Thompson in the fourth quarter of a narrow Cleveland Cavs’ victory, a feat so shocking that you need to watch it three times until you can fully believe that it actually happened.
On Sunday night in a back-to-back no less, Jefferson cut to the basket as J.R. Smith was driving, caught a pass in the lane and dunked right in the face of poor Corey Brewer.
Watching Jefferson’s dunking rebirth feels sort of like if you were strolling down the street one day and a stegosaurus came bounding around the corner. Jefferson is a basketball dinosaur, in a sense, but one who’s found a way to avoid the meteor shower.
Following the 2011-2012 season, Jefferson wasn’t long for the NBA. After a disappointing stint with the San Antonio Spurs, he was traded to the Golden State Warriors, who turned around and traded his expiring contract to the Utah Jazz a season later—usually a sign that a career is nearing its finale.
After spending a year with the Dallas Mavericks, Jefferson joined the Cavs ahead of the 2015-2016 season, and he’s been dunking ever since. So what happened? How did an aging forward with seemingly nothing left in his tank suddenly become not just a key role player on a championship team, but a dunking savant?
Jefferson became a stereotypical Californian.
Luke Walton, currently in his first year as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, has been a close friend of Jefferson’s since the two were teammates at the University of Arizona. Walton, who lives in Hermosa Beach, convinced Jefferson to move there four years ago. Jefferson’s lifestyle immediately changed, and so did his game.
“His body was breaking down a little bit, and he moved here and bought a house, and started playing beach volleyball with us every day in the summertime,” Walton told Bill Simmons on a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast. “So he’s in the sand, he’s jumping a thousand times a day, he’s hitting balls. So without even knowing it, everything is getting stronger again.”
As Jefferson’s legs regenerated, he began adding yoga to his training regimen. He loved it so much that he now owns his own yoga studio, Soho Yoga, in Hermosa Beach. Between beach volleyball, yoga five days a week and the occasional soul cycle, Jefferson’s offseason was completely transformed, and the effect on him is clear on the basketball court.
“He doesn’t say this, but to me, it’s the only explanation,” Walton said of Jefferson’s rebirth. “Because now all of a sudden he’s dunking on people again at the age of 36. He’s a huge part of why [the Cavs] beat [the Warriors] in the Finals last year.”
Jefferson’s passion for yoga was born during his one year with the Warriors, when he played just 10 minutes a game and often received a DNP next to his name in the box score. Getting loose proved difficult for Jefferson when he didn’t know when he’d playing or how much, and yoga proved to be a life-saver.
“Look, athletes hate to stretch. Athletes hate to roll out. That’s just not the stuff that we do,” Jefferson told ESPN in 2015. “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.”
Playing for a team that has an opportunity to win a championship can certainly reinvigorate a veteran in the twilight of his NBA career, but Jefferson’s dedication to reinventing himself and his renewed focus on taking care of his body cannot, and should not, be overlooked.
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