The other day, I pulled up to the Starbucks drive-thru in Crocker Park for my usual order. The nice lady taking orders at the window must have thought I was insane. The scene she saw when she looked into my car — I’ll fully admit — was not a normal sight: a 35-year-old man in the driver’s seat with a laminated photo of Kevin Love propped up in the shotgun seat. With a seat belt on.
She took my order: One hot green tea and one banana.
Green tea for me. Banana for Lil Kev.
As she was passing me my order, she gave me this quizzical look. She needed to say something.
“Wait, you … you play for the Cavs, right?”
She was staring at the 8×12 photo propped up in the front seat like it was a stuffed animal or a pet.
“That’s Lil Kev!” she blurted out.
Before I could answer, her eyes lit up.
“So that must make you … Richard Jefferson! Keep those snaps comin’, we need them!”
As I drove away, I just started cracking up. I had to pull over. There I was, a grown man with a laminated photo for a passenger, laughing to himself in the parking lot at Starbucks. And I was less recognizable than a picture cut out of a magazine.
Looking back, I think I’m just lucky she didn’t call the cops.
If you’re asking “Who’s Lil Kev” or “What’s Snapchat?” don’t worry. Just do what I did a few weeks ago, when I didn’t know anything about Snapchat either: Find a young person to explain it to you. That’s how Lil Kev started. After practice one day, I saw Kyrie and Jordan messing around on Snapchat, so I asked them how to use it. They were eager to help — even though I felt like a grandparent who had just got his first smartphone.
Right before the playoffs, we were on the team plane and I saw a photo in a magazine of a guy that was a dead ringer for Kevin Love — of a guy with a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt on — and I started posting a series of videos on Snapchat about it. At first only my teammates and friends followed the shenanigans, but then I made my account public and that’s when Lil Kev was really born. I took him everywhere — to the club, in my car, on the couch watching playoff games. Soon people were sending me pictures of customized Lil Kev T-shirts that they’d made. The response to each video I posted was overwhelming. It was a surprise at first, but then it made complete sense: Cavs fans wanted to see us as we really are.
Suddenly it was the running conversation on our team. What was Lil Kev gonna do next? He was more than a mascot — people talked about him like he was a real person. It wasn’t even about me anymore. I was the medium. Lil Kev was the star. (No wonder the Starbucks lady recognized Lil Kev before me. Don’t worry, no offense taken.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now I’m at my computer. I’m wired. It’s the night before the biggest game of my career and probably the biggest game in Cavs history. I’m finding it hard to relax and wind down. All I can think about is the sound of the Q on Thursday night. The last home game of the season.
Lil Kev and Snapchat have been fun, but that’s not why I’m writing this. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a social media guy. I’m the old guy. I don’t have a Twitter. I don’t have an Instagram. I’ve just never found much use for them. To me — and maybe this is an age thing — it’s too difficult as an athlete to convey what you’re really feeling on social media without it being misinterpreted or coming off as manufactured. Other guys are better at striking that authentic balance than I am, but it was never my thing.
In my 15 years in the league, and all the basketball I’ve played in my life, I’ve thought a lot about team chemistry. How do you come together at the right time? I’ve been on Finals teams and I’ve been on teams that had no chance to make the playoffs by midseason.
To me, this season — and our team — comes down to narratives. All year long we heard about chemistry issues.
LeBron and Kevin. Narrative.
Kyrie’s injury. Narrative.
We got a new coach. Narrative.
Oh, we’re not getting along. Based on what?
Who was telling our story? Not us.
We obviously had a high-profile coaching change. We had slumps. We had injuries — Kyrie missed the first 24 games of the season, so he’s only just now getting to playing the type of MVP-level ball he’s capable of. We clawed our way to 56 wins just trying to find our rhythm.
It’s O.K. for others to speculate, but those narratives didn’t show us as we really were. And for most of the season, that was fine with us. We ignored it and tried to get our groove.
Which is why the timing of Lil Kev is interesting. It coincided with the end of the regular season, when something was starting to happen with our team.
The change really took off at a dinner at LeBron’s house right before the first round.
We were 15 guys sitting around his big dining room table. In the middle of the meal, he stood up and addressed each guy in the room. He pointed out something that each player brought to the team, and explained how it was going to be vital if we wanted to win a championship. And he gave each one of us a memento, a little gift. I won’t share what exactly it was because it was a team thing. But it wasn’t anything big. I think it just struck us all in that moment how special a position we were in. Bron was saying to us, “We can only do this if we do it together. That’s all that matters.” He’s won championships before. We wanted to listen.
Then after the Atlanta sweep, we had a lot of down time. It was crucial to keep the camaraderie up while we waited for the next series. So Kevin invited everyone over to his house for dinner. Channing and I got there three hours early to raid Kevin’s liquor cabinet and challenge him at darts in his basement. Lil Kev was there, obviously. Some snaps were made.
Then at dinner, just like last time, we went around the room and talked about what we needed to do to get through the next series and adjust. At that moment, I was so proud of the guys. It had been a long season, and we had weathered so many different setbacks to get to that point.
That’s when I realized that the Lil Kev story may have started as a joke, but it had grown into something more than just some fun thing that I was doing on an app during my down time. It showed us being ourselves but more importantly, it reflected what was true about our team. And you know what happened? Some of those chemistry questions started quieting down.
Maybe the greatest part of it has been the response from Cavs fans. After a win, the messages that I get on Snapchat are bonkers. Let me just tell you, Cavs fans say the wildest stuff. I can’t print it here. And after a loss, if I’m not snapping, people say things like, You have to keep snapping. Let Cleveland fans know you guys are O.K. Let us know you’re locked in.
There’s another reason I’m sharing this now — when I should be trying to relax. It’s a personal reason. I’m no longer a young buck in the league. I’m not 25 or 30, I’m not the main guy. I’m riding on someone else’s shoulders. When I came here this year, I knew my role. I’m just trying to help the team and do my part. I know how hard it is to make it to the Finals. To make it to a Game 6. I know how lucky we are that we’re home for this one.
LeBron brought it home for me after the Toronto series. We were sitting diagonal from each other on the team plane when we were flying home after our victory in Game 6. I was staring off into space and shaking my head. I didn’t notice he was watching me.
Bron got up from his seat and sat down next to me.
“Richard, I know.”
I was still shaking my head.
“Richard, I know.”
Head shaking. I didn’t know what to say. I was a little emotional.
“Four more, come on,” he said.
I’ll probably tell him how much this meant to me when this is all over. LeBron knows the journey I’ve been on. I made my first NBA Finals when he was still in high school. He’s very aware of what he’s trying to accomplish for this city. He’s aware of how much it would mean to me, and the rest of the guys, to win a championship.
I don’t care if you’re a LeBron “fan,” or not, I have seen it: Bron has something I’ve never seen. The way he says “follow me and I’ll take you there” with actions, more than words, is like no one else I’ve ever played with. He’s the kind of leader who makes you want to carry the weight too. I feel indebted to him. We all do.
I know there are certain clichés that you always hear about sports fans, but what I can say about our fans is that very few fans, in very few arenas, can sustain the level of intensity that they bring every night. I’ve played in plenty of arenas, so trust me when I say it’s a level of passion that’s very, very rare — in any sport.
Everyone knows Cleveland’s sports history. But unlike the Cubs or the Red Sox before their titles, Cleveland’s lack of championships isn’t accompanied by a sense of misery. It’s not fake. It’s not, “We’ll get it next year.” It’s, We can do this. Let’s do this.
Now that game day is here, I don’t have to tell you: This is a big one. But I’m not worried about Cavs fans. We know you’ll bring it. But we need you now more than ever.
I’ve been to the Finals twice in my entire career, but I haven’t been to the mountaintop. I’m not taking this chance for granted.
This has been one hell of a ride. Let’s keep it going.