CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Over the past two seasons, Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter forged a friendship while working and joking with each other as Utah Jazz teammates. One’s from Mississippi and the other’s from Turkey, but they became bosom buddies on and off the basketball court.
On Saturday night, Kanter made Big Al his pen pal.
Hours before the Utah Jazz’s 88-85 victory, Kanter crafted a handwritten letter and then had a ballboy deliver it to Jefferson’s locker around the tunnel at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Moments later, Jefferson, now the Bobcats’ starting center, strolled over to the Jazz locker room and asked coach Tyrone Corbin for permission to enter. After his former coach jokingly answered, “As long as you don’t do nothing crazy,” a sweaty Big Al waltzed in, shared a good laugh about the note, and reminisced with Kanter and his old Utah friends.
“He was just like a big brother,” Kanter said after Utah improved to 8-22 with its second win of this road trip. “He was really a nice guy.”
The affable 21-year-old wanted to playfully reach out to his first NBA mentor and the guy who used to relentlessly tease him, so he wrote Jefferson a letter during some downtime before the game.
The (partly censored) letter, which Jefferson later showed Utah media while laughing, was a classic:
“Dear Big Al,
My Boy! I’m gonna pump fake you all night.
Jeremy (Evans) said he is gonna dunk on you.
Airport was closed but thank you for letting us land on your bed.
Biggie says you’re a (inside joke).
Your Boy Big Turk”
The letter and interaction with Kanter brought a big smile to the face of Jefferson, who signed a three-year, $40-plus million deal with Charlotte this past offseason. (By the way, Big Al left the kingdom-sized 10-foot-by-12-foot bed he was often teased about back in Utah.)
“He showed me some love. I thought it was funny,” Jefferson said. “I thought it was real funny.”
The Jazz got the last laugh on this night.
With Utah leading by one, Jefferson had two chances to put the Bobcats ahead in the final 13 seconds, but he just missed two tip-in opportunities. Jazz shooting guard Alec Burks was credited for a block on Jefferson’s second putback miss, and rookie point guard Trey Burke snatched up the loose ball and was fouled.
Capping a terrific game, Burke calmly sank two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put the Jazz up by three.
The Bobcats fired off two heavily contested desperation 3-pointers in the final 1.9 seconds, but both shots badly missed.
Talk about a buzzkill.
The visitors spoiled a festive night for Charlotte. Team chairman Michael Jordan was on hand to help introduce a logo/name rebranding for “Buzz City,” as the Bobcats will become the teal-and-purple Hornets again next season like the town’s NBA team used to be before relocating to New Orleans in 2002.
Jefferson, the Jazz’s leading scorer from 2010-13, finished with a solid night of 19 points and 11 rebounds, but he had to earn those points while battling with the guys he trained over the past few years, Derrick Favors and Kanter.
“We just didn’t make shots down the stretch like we wanted to,” Jefferson said. “They sealed the game at the end and got stops when they needed to.”
While the biggest storyline of the night was Jefferson and his reunion game with the Jazz, Burke stole the show with his poised play. For the second time on this road trip, he followed up a bad game with a stellar showing.
Not only did the 2013 NCAA player of the year hit the clutch free throws, but Burke ended with 20 points, four assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers. He hit four of the Jazz’s 10 3-pointers, which helped Utah rally out of an 11-point deficit for the nice victory.
“It was just a fight. We lost against Atlanta (118-85 Friday) night and we said we can’t play like that,” Kanter said. “We have to just put effort in for 48 minutes.”
After losing to former Jazzmen Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver in that dud, the Jazz certainly didn’t want to drop a second straight game to another recent teammate.
“They hung in there,” Corbin said, “and I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated the fight after last night’s performance in Atlanta.”
The heavyweight fight was especially entertaining, on and off the court.
Favors held his own against Big Al, scoring 14 points with nine rebounds, while Kanter had eight points and four boards. Although he didn’t get a pump-fake shot over Jefferson, Kanter used that move against another Bobcat big. That came a couple of hours after Jefferson said he still watches Jazz games and added, “I really don’t like how Turk be stealing my moves and making them look better. I really don’t like that.”
During their extra physical play against each other, Jefferson did get Kanter to fall for a ball fake on one possession.
“I didn’t want him to score on me,” Kanter said. “I played with him like two years and I know his every moves so I just didn’t want him to score and he only got two.”
Jefferson was the least-surprised person to watch Favors and Kanter contribute to a Jazz win. When he became an unrestricted free agent this past summer, the 28-year-old figured it was time for them to get an opportunity after playing behind him and Millsap.
“I was giving them (the Jazz) the first option because I wanted to see what they wanted to do,” the 10-year NBA veteran said. “But in my heart I kind of knew that it just wouldn’t really make basketball sense to bring me or Paul back when you’ve got Derrick Favors and Enes coming up — two young guys who are going to be great players in this league.”
Once he ended up in Charlotte, Jefferson said he spread the word about how much he appreciated his time in Utah.
“I tell everybody when I first got here, Utah really changed me as a person on and off the court,” he said. “(It) just really taught me how to be a professional and taught me what it’s going to take to have success in this league. My three years there was a great experience.”
The feeling, obviously, is mutual.
“Big Al had a great time here (with the Jazz) and we really enjoyed having him,” Corbin said. “He is a really good guy, great in the locker room and great on the floor. He was a great leader for our young guys. We miss him and we wish him well, but we are happy to get this win tonight.”
So, is Kanter expecting Jefferson to return the correspondence?
“Maybe when he comes to Salt Lake,” Kanter said, smiling. “I don’t think he’s going to write me a letter tonight after he missed those last two shots.”
That’s probably a safe bet considering Utah beat the Bobcats (13-15) for a ninth consecutive time.
Jefferson has until Dec. 30 to write back. That’s when the Bobcats visit Utah for the only time this season.
Big Al shouldn’t expect a letter from the other Jazz big who credited him for helping hone his offensive skills.
“No, man,” Favors said, smiling when asked if he’d written Jefferson. “I spoke to him this summer and I spoke to him before the game, but I didn’t write him a letter. I ain’t doing all that.”
Moments later, Favors jokingly mocked No. 0 about the letter, interrupting the Turkish center during an interview by teasingly saying as if he were Kanter, “And I love you, Al!”
He didn't add any XOXOXOs.
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