MINNEAPOLIS — Al Jefferson had more pep in his step than a bailed-out prisoner when he was traded from Minnesota to Utah this past summer.
But his giddiness to get out of that town isn't why Big Al expected a chilly reception in his return to the Twin Cities with the Utah Jazz.
Truth be told, Jefferson has no idea how Timberwolves' fans will welcome him back tonight when he and the Jazz visit the Target Center.
"I don't know. I know I'm not going to get like a LeBron James (reception)," Jefferson said. "I'm curious to see how it's going to go. I was traded; I didn't leave. The fans always was good to me and I was good to them, so I think it's going to be OK. I don't think it's going to be that bad."
Jefferson does know what Mother Nature has in store for his return, including low temps in the teens — a point Jefferson jokingly made when the topic of his first visit to his old stomping grounds was broached at practice in Cleveland on Tuesday.
"It's going to be cold going back," he said. "I've got my big jacket."
Even without cozy winter wear, Jefferson maintains warm feelings for Minnesota, where he played three seasons before joining the Jazz.
He didn't love being on a perennial losing team, even if the Timberwolves were occasionally pesky (especially, it seemed, against the Jazz).
Nevertheless, the manner in which the Minnesota organization and the community treated him after he made the biggest mistake of his life remains fresh on Jefferson's heart.
On Feb. 28 of this year, Jefferson was busted for drinking and driving. He regretted it, publicly held himself accountable for his actions and apologized profusely, and made amends through hours of public service and a two-game suspension.
Jefferson learned a lot from that lesson, including how to treat others going through trials.
Minnesota taught the Mississippi transplant that.
And he deeply appreciates that the community — from the team to fans — forgivingly embraced him instead of ostracizing him for his admitted lapse of judgment.
Jefferson was touched during his tribulation.
"It showed when somebody is going through some real tough times instead of turning their back on me they supported me and helped me through it," Jefferson said. "That's one of the things that will always stick with me."
That's not the only thing that impressed him about the weather-hearty folk up Vikingland. Jefferson spoke highly of the Minnesota fan base, which has stuck with the T-Wolves through mostly thin and really thin times.
There were some good seasons, especially with Kevin Garnett, but the franchise went a miserable 61-185 while Jefferson was there.
"We didn't win a lot of games, but they supported us," Jefferson said. "They supported us night in, night out."
Jefferson also bonded with people in the organization. He specifically mentioned two guys: former general manager Kevin McHale, who's now a TV analyst, and perhaps the worst dancer in NBA history, Mark Madsen.
Regarding McHale, who brought Big Al to Minnesota from the Boston Celtics in the Garnett trade in 2007, Jefferson recalled: "We had some good times together when he was the GM and also a coach."
And while talking of his old teammates in general, Jefferson dropped this line about Madsen: "Mad Dog was a good fit and a guy that kept my head on right, so there's a lot of good memories there."
When the big man found out he'd been traded to Utah, however, Jefferson was thrilled about the prospect of making memories while helping his new team put a whole lot more Ws in the win column than he was used to doing in his previous six NBA seasons.
Jefferson actually said he'd like to apologize to Minnesota fans if they were offended by him being so happy to go to Utah.
But it was a golden opportunity for the 25-year-old to take his talents west and shine with a potential contender, which he believes fans get.
While talking about his excitement to head back to Minnesota, Jefferson recapped reasons for his giddiness to get out of there.
"It was three things," he said. "It was the winning situation; the Utah Jazz (are) a team I always respected with Coach Sloan, and to play with Deron Williams. It was them three things that I was really excited about."
Before he tried on a Jazz uniform or was introduced to the team's execution-oriented system, Jefferson relayed that message of excitement to everybody in the Beehive State: media, fans, teammates, even his new coach.
"I think that's changed," Jerry Sloan joked of Jefferson's excitement level Tuesday.
Au contraire, coach.
A big smile — one Utahns saw a lot of last summer — lit up Jefferson's face when he was asked if things have panned out how he'd planned with the Jazz.
"Most definitely," he said. "We're 11 games above .500. I ain't never been 11 games above .500, so yes. I'm learning a lot from the coaching staff and playing with Deron Williams is a wonderful thing, so yes."
Sloan credited Jefferson for blocking shots, improved passing, his unexpectedly clutch stroke from the free-throw line and other things he's done to contribute to Utah's 20-9 start.
Jefferson and Williams talked about him becoming an All-Star, and he's putting up solid numbers most nights with averages of 16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Probably not, unless coaches vote him in as a center. But they're definitely solid contributor numbers.
Regardless, Sloan said the jury remains out on him.
"I don't think it's fair to make a judgment on him at this point," the Hall of Fame coach said. "Because I think he'll get better and better as he gets more familiar with what we're doing and more familiar with his teammates. I think that's what continuity will bring ya."
Jefferson believes things have also turned out better for the T-Wolves, and especially star-in the-making Kevin Love. Minnesota's power forward is putting up Jeffersonesque numbers in his third season — 20.8 points and 15.5 boards — and his ex-teammate noted the similarities between their situations.
"I think it did work out for the both of us," Jefferson said. "He (is) in a position to get paid a lot of money to take care of his family. He's kind of going through what I went through two years ago when I was putting up big-time numbers but losing games."
Jefferson remains grateful for his opportunity to blossom in the Twin Cities, where he averaged 20.1 points and 10.4 rebounds.
"That's when I felt like I let the world know about Al Jefferson," he said.
"The NBA knew about Al Jefferson. The world didn't know because we weren't winning games or playing national games, but I felt like I let the league know what kind of player I could be or the type of player I was.
"If I had a chance to do it all over again," he added, "I wouldn't change a thing. ... I gave it all I had."
Jefferson continues to do that in Utah while going through some highs and lows, learning a new system and sharing post touches with Paul Millsap.
With two more seasons on his contract after this one, Jefferson can hardly wait until he feels "100 percent comfortable" in the Jazz system.
"The scary thing about it," Jefferson said, "is it's only going to get better."7 comments on this story
And warmer, too.