Jefferson's $3.5M gift will help finance new Arizona practice facility

Carmelo Anthony and Steve Smith set the bar.

Now, New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson has eclipsed them all, making the largest donation ever by a current professional athlete to his former school when he pledged $3.5 million to Arizona's new $14 million basketball/volleyball practice facility.

The massive donation, paid in installments, means the 27-year old Jefferson will have the naming rights to the building.

According to the University of Arizona sports information department, the previous high donations were made by Denver's Anthony to Syracuse for $3 million while Smith gave $2.5 million to Michigan State. New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez donated $3.9 million to the University of Miami. But he only signed to play for the Hurricanes and never suited up for them.

"I had heard a long time ago that they were looking for someone to handle the naming rights and the word was that coach [Lute] Olson wanted to hold off to get a player to do it," Jefferson told ESPN.com Friday night from Tucson where he was working an Arizona elite camp.

"They started coming up to me and said, 'you're from Phoenix, you're an Arizona guy, and you have always represented the University of Arizona.' So we started talking about the right amount."

Jefferson played three seasons for the Wildcats from 1998-2001 and started 77 of 84 games. He averaged 11.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He helped lead the Wildcats to the 2001 national championship game where they lost to Duke. He was chosen No. 13 in the 2001 NBA draft.

In a statement released by the school, Olson said, "Richard has always been a stand-up guy. For him to make this kind of statement about how much he cares for this program speaks volumes to Richard's character. This is a very, very generous gift."

Jefferson joked, saying that Arizona threatened if he didn't come up with the naming rights then Gilbert Arenas might do it. Jefferson said he didn't want his former college teammate and fellow NBA player to outbid him.

"It's a large amount and you could do a whole lot with that kind of money," Jefferson said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a practice facility of this type."

Jefferson, who is in the third year of a six-year, $76 million deal, said other athletes should do what he's doing.

"If you sign for a large amount, you should do something substantial, like give $100,000 to your school," Jefferson said. "A lot of players owe a lot to coach Olson and to coach [Mike] Krzyzewski [of Duke] and to Roy Williams [of North Carolina] and to Jim Boeheim [of Syracuse]. We've all learned the game of basketball and they've allowed us to go to the NBA and to make the money."

Jefferson said he only completed two-and-half years of school before he withdrew in 2001. He said his mother received her college degree when she was 40. So, he said he has no issue waiting until he finishes playing to resume his education. But he does want to earn the degree.

Jefferson is about to begin his seventh season with the Nets with a career average of 16.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. He has helped the Nets get to the playoffs in each of the last six seasons. He said an injury-plagued season in 2006-07 got him down a bit but he feels healthy now and, with trade talk about him leaving New Jersey moot, he's settled in for another "exciting season."

"It was a tough year for me and the team as we struggled with off court issues and then the injury with my ankle lasted until really the playoffs," said Jefferson, who played in only 55 of the 82 games last season. "I didn't play without pain until the playoffs. And then my grandmother passed away before Game 6 against Cleveland [in the Eastern Conference semifinals]. Overall, it was a tough year. But I'm healthy, and then, this opportunity came about. It's all been a blessing."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.