Richard Jefferson's final notes in Cleveland among his sweetest

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- After playing in 1,301 regular-season and playoff games combined, Richard Jefferson made it to preseason game No. 5 of his 17th NBA season before the plug was pulled on his career, possibly for good.

About an hour before Cleveland faced the Orlando Magic -- while Jefferson was on the court, getting shots up, and rookie Kay Felder was in the corner of the locker room, scrolling his phone -- news broke that the Cavaliers had agreed to a deal that would send Jefferson, Felder, some money and two second-round draft picks to the Atlanta Hawks for the chance to save a boatload of cash ($12.8 million in luxury tax) and stock their shelves with a couple of European players they'll keep stashed overseas for the time being.

Given the complex nature of the deal, the trade was not official come tipoff. And so after being informed about the pending transaction, Jefferson and Felder were pulled out of the lineup. With nowhere to go since the team was on the road, they were left to sit in their warm-ups and watch from the bench as their last game as members of the Cavs organization played out in front of them.

No one would blame Jefferson if he had been upset. No one would fault him if, after all the practices and shootarounds and bus rides and plane rides and hotel rooms and ankle tapings and ice baths and arena meals suddenly stopped, he ended up simply going through the motions, like Spike Lee's famous dolly shot from "Malcolm X." There, but not really there.

Not R.J.

Instead, you saw him halfway through the second quarter, when there was a break in the action and coach Ty Lue was calling for a massive five-man substitution, get up from his seat with the rest of the subs heading in, pretend to tear off his warm-up pants and even take a couple of steps toward center court to really sell the gag, as if he was going to sneak in with the group like a concertgoer trying to get through a crowded gate without a ticket.

His teammates ate it up, and Jefferson returned to the bench wearing a smile so big you would have thought the Cavs just won Game 7 all over again.

"He's had a good career, and if he goes somewhere else, someone is going to get a good player. ... He's a pro. He's a good dude, and you got to get past his bad jokes, but it is what it is."
Channing Frye on Richard Jefferson

"He's been a great teammate," Kyle Korver said after the game when asked about Jefferson, who slipped out before media was allowed into the locker room. "He has the ability when he walks in the room to just lighten the mood. He can always, no matter what's going on or how tense things might be, he can just lighten the mood in a really fun way. It's just one of his gifts. ... It's something that we're going to miss, for sure."

Korver said there was a processional throughout the night, with just about every Cavs player and staffer approaching Jefferson to thank him.

"Richard won a championship with us," a Cavs source told ESPN, not wanting to be named until the trade became finalized. "That's the hardest part, is the blood, sweat and tears. That guy helped us win a f---ing championship."

When I first interviewed Jefferson in October 2015, it was clear that the near misses of his career weighed on him. Sure, he came into the league at 21 years old, stayed a decade-and-a-half and earned well over $100 million in the process. So, of course, he was fortunate. But he was also the guy who started his career with back-to-back NBA Finals losses when he was with the New Jersey Nets; who was on the embarrassing USA Basketball bronze medal team in 2004; who was traded by the San Antonio Spurs in 2012, only to see them win a ring in 2014; and who was dealt away from the Golden State Warriors in 2013, only to see them win it all in 2015.

He was the runner-up, the also-ran.

That perception is changed now.

He leaves the Cavs with that championship in 2016. And what a championship it was, with the Cavs becoming the first team in league history to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit -- against a record-setting, 73-win Warriors team -- while lifting a 52-year title drought in Cleveland. He also was a true originator who connected the team to its fans in ways that had never been done before.

First, he was responsible for the Cavs' unofficial mascot, "Lil' Kev," during their '16 playoff run. Then he created the wildly successful "Road Trippin'" podcast with teammate Channing Frye, Cavs sideline reporter Allie Clifton and Spanish radio announcer Rafa Hernandez Brito; it went from 1,700 listens in February 2017, just after it launched, to more than 4.2 million listens in the eight months since.

Lil' Kev was a Tommy Bahama ad ripped out of an in-flight magazine -- because the model (loosely) resembled teammate Kevin Love -- and then paraded on Jefferson's Snapchat account, allowing fans to follow along with the laminated legend. "Road Trippin'" became almost like HBO's "Hard Knocks," only in podcast form, with the players choosing the production's focus, documenting the Cavs' bid for a repeat ring from the inside and being picked up by LeBron James' "Uninterrupted" multimedia platform along the way.

"Is the podcast anything without Richard? Probably not," Frye said. "It might have to be on hold until that fool figures out what's good with his career. His career is more important than that. That's just kind of how it is. For me, it's fun, and that's why I always said I enjoyed it. I wasn't there to be famous or to be like 'Mr. Podcast.' I was there to just have fun, have a glass of wine with my friends and enjoy it. This comes and goes. This is quick."

To Frye's point, it was only four months ago when the (almost) 37-year-old Jefferson was guarding the 29-year-old Kevin Durant in the Finals. It was only eight months ago when he dunked on Durant and followed up the slam with a wink for good measure to help spark a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback on Christmas Day. And it was only 16 months ago when he started Game 3 of the '16 Finals in place of Love -- who was out with a concussion -- and put up nine points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals to help the Cavs climb back into the series.

Atlanta plans to waive him, and if this is it for Jefferson, he can look back at a solid career. He was never an All-Star, but he scored nearly 15,000 points. His teams advanced to the postseason 12 times. His body of work, according to BasketballReference.com, compares closely to the careers of notable forwards like Paul Silas, Zach Randolph and Carlos Boozer.

The fact that Jefferson made it as long as he did with Cleveland was improbable, anyway. First, he retired after that Game 7 win against the Warriors and had to be persuaded to come back. Then he was nearly traded the summer after the championship because he revealed what the Cavs' rings looked like on his Snapchat account before the team was ready to release them to the public. Then-GM David Griffin was so ticked that he was ready to ship him out of town, sources told ESPN, before eventually calming down and accepting Jefferson's apology.

There is a little bit of a rebel in Jefferson that he can't shake, but it keeps life interesting. When Jeff Green had a nasty dunk against the Washington Wizards last weekend, Jefferson spontaneously celebrated on the court by crouching down and screaming at the back of Ian Mahinmi's head like he was a WWE wrestler entering the ring.

In the 2016 Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Raptors, with Cleveland reeling from a Game 3 loss by 15 points, Jefferson poked fun at the Raptors' "We the North" slogan by saying, "We the South are going to be OK." Of course, the Cavs were OK in the long run, but they went on to lose Game 4. Oops.

He got a STOP sign tattooed on the top of his hand, by the knuckle of his thumb, to act as a personal safety net. When he is out drinking, it's a reminder to himself of when to say when.

Frye has known Jefferson since they were teenagers, when Jefferson was showing Frye around the University of Arizona -- they both played for the Wildcats -- and has seen his friend handle whatever comes at him over the years just fine.

"Do I feel bad for him? Have you seen his house in L.A., in Manhattan Beach? He's living good," Frye said. "He's doing OK. He's not dying. S---, he's just not on this team. We have a really good team, and this team has to do not what's best for Channing's best friend to be here or for Richard to be here, they have to do what's best for Cleveland, and right now we got really freaking good players on this team. ... He's going to be my boy. Hopefully he's not calling me too much if he's bored. But we're good.

"He's had a good career, and if he goes somewhere else, someone is going to get a good player. ... He's going to go somewhere else, and he's going to help that team. He's a pro. He's a good dude, and you got to get past his bad jokes, but it is what it is."

R.J. has a habit of ending his media sessions by saying, "You guys are awesome," and acknowledging the press before he walks away. I'd return the compliment here, but I'm pretty sure he already has enough self-confidence to carry him in whatever he does next.