SALT LAKE CITY — When he first heard the Utah Jazz wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract, Othyus Jeffers wondered if it was a practical joke.
The 6-foot-5 swingman and some Iowa Energy teammates have, after all, razzed each other about getting called up from the D-League to the NBA.
"I had to call three people myself to make sure it was true," Jeffers said.
It was clear by the smile on his face Friday, a day after he officially signed with the Jazz, that this was not just a well-played prank. It is the real deal.
"My coach clarified it," a grinning Jeffers said. "Then my agent called, then I got the big call from Mr. O'Connor, so I was OK."
Better than OK, truthfully.
"It's a dream come true," the 2008-09 D-League Rookie of the Year said, "and hopefully I can keep fulfilling it."
He might want to chat with Sundiata Gaines for some pointers on that.
While Jeffers' minor-league team headed to Erie, Ohio, the 24-year-old made his way to his new home in Salt Lake City. He'll be with the Jazz for their home game tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers, and hopes to stay longer than a week-and-a-half.
"This is a great organization," Jeffers said at the Jazz practice facility. "I hope I can please them."
Jeffers, or "O" as friends call him, certainly has a challenge ahead of him.
Impressing Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and general manager Kevin O'Connor enough to earn a gig for the remainder of the season won't be easy. Utah has depth at the wing position — even after trading away Ronnie Brewer three weeks ago — and the front office is interested in possibly filling the 13th roster spot with an NBA veteran big man, such as Mikki Moore when he's healthy.
Adversity, however, is something Jeffers has battled and become familiar with during his life, though you'd never know by his demeanor.
"I'm always smiling," he said.
Not an easy thing to do considering his past.
Years ago, two of Jeffers' older brothers were shot and killed not far from his family's apartment in Chicago's rough West Side. He was also shot in the leg while trying to protect his sister during a fight with her boyfriend.
Jeffers credits his mom and his college studies in psychology for helping him overcome his tough background, focus his emotions and make positive things happen in his life, with this call-up to the NBA being the ultimate highlight.
"You learn how to dissect the mind pretty much," said Jeffers, who finished his college career as Sporting News' NAIA player of the year at Robert Morris University after stints at Illinois-Chicago and Los Angeles Southwest College.
"Basketball is different from your outside life, so that's a whole 'nother part," he said. "So, I just try to channel to the right parts and, you know, I'm doing OK. I'm fine."
Jeffers' mom tried to keep him busy as a child with "small little things" — reading books was emphasized, and he fondly recalls spending time drawing the Chicago city skyline that was visible from his seventh-story apartment.
"She kept me in after-school activities," he said.
One activity gobbled up the biggest chunk of time — an investment that's paying off.
"Basketball," Jeffers said, "seemed to be the one that took the most time and also it used to be the thing that the majority of the family was drawn to."
It eventually helped Jeffers escape a sometimes-scary scene and earn a spot in the NBA. Now, he added, "I'm just living a dream (for) the rest of my family who played ball and didn't make it."
Despite painful moments, Jeffers has plenty of good memories from the Windy City.
He recalled — while smiling, it should be noted — watching the Jazz play the Bulls in the NBA Finals from the TV set in his apartment in the same city as the United Center.
He also heard all about the "Original Bull" who now happens to be his head coach."He's the one," Jeffers said of Sloan, "they talk about how if you want to make it or get close to the league, you've got to start by playing like him: hard-nosed, defense. ... It's funny I'm here with him."
Jeffers seems to have heeded the advice of those who lauded the tenacious play of the first Bulls player to get his jersey retired. Similar to Sloan's style, the versatile swing player and athletic power forward describes himself as being a "hard-nosed player, defensive-minded first," but added that "when it's time to put the ball in the hole and it's my turn, it's time to go."
Jeffers met his new teammates for the first time Friday — the morning after they rallied from 13 points down to stun the Suns 116-108 in Phoenix — when the Jazz had a workout to help their newest undrafted rookie become familiar with the system.
He comes in with a connection, though. Deron Williams played with a couple of Jeffers' high school buddies, Luther Head and ex-Jazz guard Dee Brown, at the University of Illinois.
"I guess it's my time to play with the third amigo," Jeffers joked.
He also knows ex-Celtic Antoine Walker from Chicago and was well aware of the legacy left behind in his West Side neighborhood by former resident Isiah Thomas. In fact, Jeffers said an autographed pair of the Hall of Fame point guard's basketball shoes are still strung out on an electrical line for all to see.
Jeffers reflected on the significance of those symbolic shoes in relation to his plight. It's pretty special now for him to be able to say, "Hey, I made the NBA like him."
The Jazz's fifth D-League player laughed and added, "It's time for me to throw a pair up there."
GAME NOTE:Andrei Kirilenko, who crashed hard to the floor Thursday after being pushed from behind by Robin Lopez, is expected to be ready to play tonight, a team spokesman said. The small forward, who's recently missed multiple games with back spasms, soaked his back in a spa Friday but did not receive any other treatment.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company