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Richard Jefferson Talks LeBron James, The Lakers, And Playing Pickleball With Referees In The Bubble

The NBA’s Bubble came to an end last week, and the Los Angeles Lakers emerged from Orlando with the franchise’s 17th championship. It was the culmination of the weirdest season in NBA history, and for the final 40 days — starting with the Western Conference Finals, ending with LeBron James lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy — Richard Jefferson was in attendance.

“The Bubble, it was really something that I truly enjoyed,” Jefferson told Dime. “It was such a unique experience that you knew it was going to be once in a lifetime. I don’t know, it was just something that like to be down there and to see everyone interact and kind of work together in a little community, it was really, really cool.”

Upon his return home from the Bubble, we caught up with Jefferson to talk about Orlando, the champs, the LeBron vs. Jordan discussion, his partnership with Rockin’ Protein, and much more.

What was the sense among everyone as it went on? Was the Bubble fatigue thing as real as it seemed to those of us at home?

I think the players were … I can’t speak for the players. I think there was a little bit, but it’s like, yo, if you have a chance to win a championship, that’s one thing. But I think everybody handles those types of situations differently. One thing I will say is that the staff and the crew, everybody missed their kids and missed their families, and there were people that celebrated their 50th birthdays, 60th birthdays. They were away from their family during COVID, but there was also something that was very comforting about being in the most tested place probably in the world. It was literally the safest place to be in the entire world. So, there was something also comforting about that, given everything that’s going on out in the real world.

And then I’m guessing there’s like this sense of togetherness that you’re in this, I’m in this, this collective mindset about everyone. Is that fair?

Yeah, especially when you’re just like, hey, this was the first time it ever happened and it’s probably going to be the last time anything like this ever happens. And there were people that were going from the NBA Bubble to cover the baseball Bubble, think about that. And so, it was one of those things that as long as you understand that the sooner we get back to normalcy, the sooner our country will be in a better place, and being able to pull this off is a huge part of getting our country back to where it needs to be. And so you’re kind of making a commitment there, like, hey, I’m not saying that sports is like this crazy healing thing, but ultimately being normal and getting things back to normal is, and I think people really took that on and really understood it.

So, of course, Lakers come out on top in this gigantic experiment. What was it about them that made it so they were always able to get past the various hurdles, whether it’s on the floor, whether it’s the Bubble fatigue, whatever it might be and route to a title?

Well, look, we stand by, whether it’s Michael Jordan, or Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant, some of these guys, some of their mental focus and their mental ability to zero in. And I think LeBron James was definitely the leader, and I think everyone followed in. And Anthony Davis was pushing for something that he had fought his entire life for, and that’s to win a championship. And there was just a lot of motivating factors there. I think the team that was the most focused and the most locked in was going to be the team that overachieved, and I think the Miami Heat were the same way. They were underdogs, even though I think they’re probably a little bit better than people wanting to give them credit for, I think they were the team in the Eastern Conference like that.

In all of the discourse around this Lakers team, the thing that interests me the most is “they got the best version of LeBron on defense all year long.” Was that because of anything LeBron did? Was it stuff the coaching staff put in place? Stuff the guys around him were doing? Was it a combination of everything?

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Well, I think LeBron is one of those individuals, he might not give everything attention, but he hears everything. So, when you talk about, “Oh, well, he’s not the best player in the world, because defensively, he’s ranked 178 out of 300,” I think he has done a good job of like, “Hey, look, I’m not going to be able to be the defensive guy that I once was, but I need to pick up my defense.” And I think having Anthony Davis there, a defensive star, was a huge part of that. And so I think Bron wanted to prove to everyone that he could play defense at a high level and a championship level.

His motivating factors are always, “How can I take away other people’s criticism? I want to be the best version of myself, but if they say I can’t shoot, I’m going to prove that I can shoot. If they say I can’t knock down shots or I can’t do this…” I think it was part of the reason why he led the league in assists. He was like, “Oh, people think I can’t adjust my game? Well, I’m going to lead the league in assists and prove to people that I’m someone that you’re going to want to play with.”

That leads into something I’ll ask in a second, but before I get to any more questions about LeBron or AD, I want to ask about those veteran guys who finally got a ring — Dwight, Jared Dudley, Dion, Markieff Morris. You were a really good player, made your Finals your first few years, but it took you a while to get that ring. What goes through a guy’s mind when after years of grinding, they finally get to the promised land?

Dude, every pain, every injury, everything that you’ve ever been through in your life is worth it. That’s the only way I can say it, it’s the only way I can express it is that everything was worth it. I think Rondo had already been there, but he had had a long journey to get back there. I think Dwight Howard had been through a lot, just so many guys. That’s what you play for. When you’re a kid, you’re not like, “Ooh, I’m want to make it to the postseason. Oh, I want to make it…” No, you’re like, “Dude, how cool would it be to say I’m a champion?” To have that ring for the rest of your life. And I think that’s what so many players understand. It’s like when you get to that place of, “Hey, this is my chance, the favorite or not, I don’t care.” People are like, “How’d you come back from 3-1?” It was like, well, that was my only option at the time, and I’m going to do everything I can to maximize whatever options I have.

With Anthony Davis, was there anything about this situation that allowed him to be the best version of himself and how did that manifest itself over the course of the year?

I never want to give somebody credit for someone else’s success, I don’t. But when you see a guy like Bron say he needed to go down to Miami to learn how to win, he’s kind of giving D-Wade, or Pat Riley, or Erik Spoelstra, he’s giving them credit saying, “Look, as much as I want to win, I need to learn how to do it and how to do it at a high level.” And I think Anthony Davis, part of the reason why he wanted to pair up with the Lakers and go there is because he wanted to put himself in this position. I truly believe that playing next to Bron, I think there was a couple of moments, if you really watch him with the Pelicans, where he would get bagged up, or he would tweak his ankle and he might not return, I think there was multiple times that that happened.

But I think this year, he started coming back. He was like, “No, like I’m going to play, I’m going to do this, I’m going to get out there. It doesn’t matter how my body’s feeling, I’m going to play it in the game.” I think Anthony Davis, he wanted to prove to people that he could go the long haul, that he could help lead a team. I think being around Bron … Bron doesn’t miss a playoff game. Bron shows up. Now, some days you got to be lucky. You got to avoid injuries, you got to do this stuff, but there’s a lot of days where you’re banged up, you tweak your ankle, you do whatever, and you still got to show up. And I think being around those types of players, especially leaders, I think that can motivate players, even great players.

That leads really nicely into my next question. With LeBron, what is it about him that elevates guys around him from good or great players to championship caliber players?

Well, I think when you get around great players — whether it’s Kobe, or Magic, or Tim Duncan — you know that these players are going to do 70 percent of the work, whether it’s defensively, offensively, and how you pair up next to them will dictate your level of success. And so, I think being around Bron and just the way he wants to play the game, how much he does every single night playing winning basketball, you’re going to be put in a position. Like, it’s crazy that one guy, over the course, of history can dominate this way. And so, I think players, when they get around him, they know what they’re signing up for. They’re signing up to try and compete for a championship, so the minute you step on that floor, the minute you show up at training camp, you know. We can talk about a team saying it’s championship or bust, well, if you’re playing with LeBron James, at the end of the day, it don’t matter what team you’re on, it’s championship or bust.

It seems like that no human finds the LeBron vs. Jordan conversation more tiring than LeBron James himself, and I agree with him on that. Is that a sentiment you share or do you kind of disagree with him when he says that it prevents us from appreciating greatness?

It does. I think it’s so stupid, in my opinion. Now, these great players, like Kobe said it during The Last Dance. He’s like, “Dude, I stole all of Mike’s plays. Mike was a mentor to me, ’cause if it wasn’t for Michael Jordan, I wouldn’t be Kobe Bryant. So, anybody that’s trying to go Kobe versus MJ…” But I think the reason why LeBron James is in this conversation so heavily is because, truth be told, LeBron James is really on that level where those comparisons can happen, but it’s happening over the course where you have people, like, I don’t want to say recency bias, but if you’re a 45, if you’re 50, if you’re 60, and you saw Michael Jordan dominate in your heyday, watching LeBron James is something that’s a little foreign to you. You’re like, “What is going on here?”

And look, it’s the same thing. People might’ve thought we’ll never see a player as good as Magic, or as good as Bill Russell. But there’s going to be a player that comes along that’s as good as LeBron James again. There will be. Now, will he be as dominant for as long as Bron or MJ? Probably not, because in my opinion, what LeBron James is doing stat-wise and success-wise, I don’t think can ever be duplicated again. I just don’t know how it’s humanly possible. LeBron James went to the Finals in nine out of 10 years. He has I think, like, 1,300 more points than Michael Jordan does in the postseason. And so, that means that whoever is going to break LeBron James’ postseason scoring record is going to have to go to like 12 straight Finals and average 30 points a game in order to break it. That’s not humanly possible. Careers aren’t that long.

Right.

I think that, as far as a career-wise, I don’t think that there’s a more unbreakable record in all of sports.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t show the Heat a little bit of love here. I know you mentioned something that I agreed with fully, which is it felt like people undersold just how good they are. Do you believe that they were a team that got hot, took a bunch of stuff, and they were able to turn into the best version of themselves for a few weeks, or do you think this success is sustainable for next year, the year after, and going forward?

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There’s a lot of people that are going to have to prove that the way they played in the Bubble, they can play in other places. I think that they’re going to have to prove that. I think Tyler Herro, just the way he played, I’m sorry, I think he would have been able to silence a Boston Celtics’ crowd, but he’s still got to go and prove it, he’s still got to go and prove it because showing up every single day at the same AAU arena is probably going to be easier for the young players and harder for the older players.

What do you have going on with Rockin’ Protein?

Well, I’ve been so excited, man, to work with Rockin’ Protein. They’re a brand that I grew up drinking and I would drive by their sign next to my house every day on my way to practice. And I’m the local kid, and so when they reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in partnering with them, it’s like, “Dude, well, I already drank it anyway, so I might as well partner, and discuss, and talk about it.”

For me, working out has always been kind of that thing that balances me out, even as a little kid, I just enjoyed working out constantly. Now, that I’m a retired athlete, and I’m working out, and I’m trying to stay in shape, and I’m just trying to keep everything tight, so I can stay in these suits that I’m now wearing on TV, ’cause I didn’t have a lot of suits when I was a player. So, when I retired, I had to buy like 15 to 20 suits. I can’t go and all of a sudden get fat and not be in them.

And so, working out and training and being able to just grab a quick drink with all the protein that you’re going to need — that’s the one thing the sports scientists, they tell you, “Make sure you get your protein as soon as you workout.” And I was already drinking it because it tastes great. So, to be able to partner with them is something that is kind of cool for the local retired kid to be able to do something and really put out to the public how good this product is.

How did your general health and wellness routine change after 17 years in the league? Was it a matter of doing different stuff? Was it a matter of doing less of the same stuff? Anything like that?

Well, it’s all about adjustments and it’s all about tweaks. For me, I wanted to keep working out. I remember my wife was like, after I retired, I think I might’ve retired on a Thursday, hung out for a little bit. And she was like, “Well, what are you going to do on Monday?” I woke up and she’s like, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “Well, I’m going to go work out.” And she was like, “Still?” and I’m like, “Yes, that is what I do.” I’m going to wake up, I might not go and shoot hoops, but I’m going to go and lift, I’m going to go and run, I’m going to go and take yoga, I’m going to go and do a SoulCycle class or Barry’s Bootcamp class. I just need to work out. That’s just the only way that I can keep my brain and keep everything moving.

So, my last question is, now that you’re retired, is there a sense of relief that comes from not having to go through a full NBA training, dieting, all that regimen? Or is it something that you wish you were still doing on a daily basis?

Oh, no. The full NBA training regimen, I’m pretty much doing that minus the basketball.

Oh, wow.

I’m doing that minus the basketball. That’s the thing, I don’t go to the gym and do two hours of drills. And even as I got older to eliminate the pounding, I would typically just do shooting. I wouldn’t play a ton in the offseason when I got to 34, 35, ’cause that’s just more pounding on your body. So I’d do a ton of shooting and then really, when you get to that age, it’s just about keeping your body fit. It’s not about, like, I’m not going to become a better dribbler, or I’m not going to become a better shooter, I’m not jumping higher, or I’m not doing anything.

So, it’s just a matter of keeping your body fresh, and tight, and in shape. I continue to do that. I do a lot of stuff now, whether it’s playing volleyball, I picked up pickleball during the Bubble life. And so, I’m just trying to do things to stay active and that’s where Rockin’ Protein and having that type of drink that can give your body all of the necessary things that you need to make sure that you’re maximizing your workouts.

I apologize, this is actually going to be my last question. Is Scott Foster as good at pickleball as everyone says he is?

Yes, he taught everyone. It’s 10,000 hours — there were guys up there that got so good that had tennis backgrounds or played a ton of ping-pong growing up. So, I think that the playing field got leveled, but as far as understanding the game and understanding spacing, yes, he is the master. He was definitely the Bubble master.

Well, I’m sure there are plenty of guys in the league who would love to get the chance to pick it up, just so they could beat Scott at his own game.

Oh, I’ll say this, hearing the referees say “Ball don’t lie” is one of the funniest things ever.

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