I remember walking into Barclays Center to cover my first NBA Draft, a sophomore in college. I took in all the sights and sounds around me as I stood on the Barclays Center floor, noticing all the big networks setting up their stations and players gathering on stage to take pre-draft pictures. There was a guy who stood out. Vividly. He had red-and-black plaid pants on and seemed to be making jokes on the stage.
My first thought: That dude has some character. “That dude” was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Later that night, the Portland Trail Blazers traded Hollis-Jefferson to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Mason Plumlee (and a pick that became Pat Connaughton). Hollis-Jefferson. He wore a Blazers cap to meet the commissioner, then was told to take it off because he was staying right there in Brooklyn. His eyes lit up when he learned the news and he could barely contain his excitement, even though he was joining a 38-win team on a steady decline. But his family was only a Turnpike ride away in Chester, PA.
Reporters rushed him as he went into the Nets locker room. He cheered and rapped, “Look out Brooklyn, here I come… You can’t hide, you can’t run. I’m coming, baby!”
He was great to the media and people around him. Personally, that same Arizona sophomore came into the locker room before a game in 2015. Noticing something off, Rondae asked if I was alright. He insisted to pull up a chair and talk about life – from his end to my end. He turned out to be the first real feature story I ever wrote, murmuring words that ring true for so many people facing adversity: There’s beauty in the struggle.
During the interview, Rondae became emotional. He told me about his life growing up, how he rarely got to live with his mom because she was a single mother working tireless hours through the day and night. Saying “goodbye” to her was so difficult because he really only got to live with her for a couple of years. Jumping from house to house as a kid, Rondae found guidance and strength in his grandfather.
Basketball became his escape, and the Brooklyn Nets were the first big team to take a chance on him. And who could forget this...
He became a fan favorite very quick. His gritty style of play provided a peep of optimism during a time when there was very little. During Brooklyn’s worst days, he stayed positive – constantly preaching his acronymed philosophy “CHAP’ – calm, humble and patience.
He quickly became the glue guy in the locker room, and he was only 22-years-old.
In the middle of Hollis-Jefferson’s rookie season, the Nets fired GM Billy King and head coach Lionel Hollins. Rondae was the only one from the King era to make it out – and last a three years under Sean Marks. Marks kept RHJ and gave him a shot, despite Kenny Atkinson’s offensive scheme which simply didn’t match his game.
But, Rondae had a solid showing in his second year under Atkinson. He was the primary starter at the 4 and had a breakout year, averaging 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds. However, entering this past season, Hollis-Jefferson was hobbled after straining his hip in Jeremy Lin’s charity basketball game in China.
He fell in and out of the rotation. The Nets had expanded their depth and inserted guys that played the style of ball they wanted to play. Still, his work ethic and high character fit the Brooklyn culture and he helped build on it by being the “glue guy” around the locker room ... and one of the better dancers on the bench. Between the Nets’ analytical-heavy approach and their desire to clear space for free agents, the writing was on the wall.
At that point, you become desperate to show your worth. Oftentimes as a result, you start forcing things that aren’t there and lose track of what got you there in the first place. It almost felt like a situation where you work for a company while knowing you’re probably going to lose your job no matter what you do (see: Lehman Brothers, 2008.)
To his credit, he kept playing, he kept working and he continued to be the heart and soul inside the locker room. In Game No. 73 on the season, only one game separated the playoffs and the ninth seed as the Nets were in the midst of a brutal seven-game road-trip.
His signature moment as a Net had arrived.
Trailing 103-78 to enter the fourth quarter, Hollis-Jefferson came off the bench and onto the floor after playing just 16 minutes in the six games prior – four DNP-CD’s. He came out with a vengeance and led the Nets on a 19-4 run, dropping 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. Suddenly behind his and D’Angelo Russell’s lead, the Nets were in a tie game when Hollis-Jefferson put his head down, lowered his right shoulder and flipped an impossible shot into the basket, pounding home the game-winning shot with 0.8 second left.
It was one of the most immaculate moments in NBA comeback history and perhaps the biggest regular season win in (Brooklyn) Nets history. Given all the circumstances, it felt… poetic.
After the game, D’Angelo Russell was hugging an emotional Hollis-Jefferson. He told Michael Grady, “He’s the heart and soul of this team.”
And if you needed further proof of how much these guys appreciate him…
And this just shows how much the Nets appreciate Rondae. Candid stuff that you see on and off the floor. pic.twitter.com/aEWxe7Rutv— Anthony Puccio (@APOOCH) March 20, 2019
Rondae is a tough kid from Chester and the 7th Street Ball Courts. He wears his heart on his sleeve and puts others before himself. That’s what made him a fan favorite and that’s what made him the “heart and soul” of the Brooklyn Nets, even when he wasn’t playing much – if at all.
There’s little doubt that Hollis-Jefferson will find a home elsewhere but for now, we say farewell to the longest tenured Net. He is a big reason why they’ve built a culture and find themselves in the position they’re in today.
See you then!