Jason Terry: The view from a longtime friend

Jason Terry: The view from a longtime friend
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

The Arizona Wildcats will retire Jason Terry's jersey at halftime of Thursday night's game. Seems as if everybody has a Jason Terry story, a favorite moment.

For fans, it might be a game, a moment or a superstition, such as eating chicken fingers before a game or sleeping in his basketball uniform as Arizona advanced through the NCAA Tournament on its way to the national title in 1997. But this won't be about all those stories. This will be just about one story, one friendship, spanning two decades.

It will be about Jason Terry and Kelvin Eafon.

* * *

Eafon, you might recall, played basketball for Lute Olson as a reserve guard in 1994-95 and 1995-96 before taking his two-sport talents to Dick Tomey's football team. He became a valuable short-yardage running back for the Cats, rushing for 16 touchdowns in Arizona's 12-1 season in 1998. Eafon now coaches basketball at Pueblo High School in Tucson.

Back when Eafon was a senior at Dallas Seagoville High, he played against Terry's Seattle team in club basketball. Terry was a junior at the time. The next time they met, Terry was on his recruiting visit to Arizona and the coaches wanted Eafon to be one of his hosts.

"He remembered me, which is crazy," Eafon said. "He was just a cool dude."

Terry and Eafon immediately hit it off, roommates on the road, and plenty of people will tell you they were inseparable around Tucson for the next few years, even as Terry evolved into the valuable sixth man on the national championship team while Eafon moved to football.

"He loved football," Eafon said of Terry. "A real big Seattle Seahawks fans, a huge U of A football fan. Don't ask me how he got it, but he had a full uniform, helmet and everything, that he used to put on while watching games after I went over to the football team.

"We would always be together because we basically came from the same situation: single moms, tough neighborhoods and whatever. We just kind of stuck together.

"That's a brother right there. That's my little brother. I remember his mom telling me when she dropped him off here, saying, 'Don't let anything happen to my baby,' and I took that seriously. I really tried to look out for him."

* * *

One of Eafon's first memories of Terry on the court came during an early-season practice at Bear Down Gym.

"Here was this freshman, about 6-1 1/2, 121 pounds," Eafon said. "Joseph Blair was there, Ben Davis was there. Donnell Harris, A.J. Bramlett. And we're on scout team, going against the starters, and JT comes down the lane and dunks on everybody.

"This just doesn't happen. It was like, 'What?' That's the first time I noticed him."

Even then with a coach's eye, Eafon also spotted the work ethic, the competitive fire that would fuel Terry through his Arizona career -- capped by a senior season in which he averaged 21.9 points and 5.5 assists.

"He was a real quick, slick ballhandler," Eafon said. "He mostly went right, but he was so quick, so fast, getting up and down the floor. And he had a funny-looking shot but he could hit the open shot."

Eafon said he helped Terry work on that shot for several years when Terry came back to Tucson in the summers. Terry, who had won two state championships at Seattle's Franklin High and then the national title at Arizona, was in pursuit of an NBA title. His Dallas Mavericks team lost in 2006 to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Terry was 7 of 25 from the field in the elimination game.

The teams met again in 2011, when the Heat used the 6-8, 250-pound James to guard Terry, who again struggled early in the series as the Mavs lost two of the first three.

Eafon was one of those Terry confidants dispensing encouragement and advice.

"We had a lot of texts going back and forth, and I'm not known for texting a lot," Eafon said. "But it was a situation that when I saw LeBron on Jason, I knew JT was a great scorer and could put the ball in the basket. The first time they put LeBron out there, I felt Jason let him off the hook by not being aggressive and not playing his game.

"I told him, you guys will not win a championship (with you playing that way), and Dallas really needs this championship right now. That's what he always liked about me, that I was just kind of a leader, a confident guy, always pushing him to do well.

"I think he put all that in his mind. If you go back and look at those games, he went after LeBron with a vengeance."

Terry, in the clinching Game 6, scored a game-high 27 points.

Soon after that, Eafon got an invitation to join the Mavs celebration in his hometown.

"He flew me down to Dallas, made sure I got to feel the parade and feel the love from my hometown. He threw a big party to celebrate the championship. Everybody you can think of in terms of basketball was there," Eafon said.

"I can't even tell you how many places he flew me to go watch him play and have fun with him."

And there was one other time, too.

"My grandfather died, the most important man in my life, and I had called JT just to let him know what was going on," Eafon said.

Terry asked about Eafon's travel plans to Dallas, which were a couple of days out.

"Within an hour, I swear, he had an American Airlines ticket sent to me," Eafon said. "All I had to do was get to the airport and get to Dallas. That's how cool he is."

* * *

There are plenty of stories of Terry's generosity, including helping underprivileged kids at his basketball camps -- Eafon helped run those camps when Terry held some in Tucson -- and making sure all of his nine siblings got a college education. Terry often came back to town to support the Tucson Summer Pro League, which Eafon helped develop into a successful decade-long venture.

Terry took care of his college business, joining Blair -- his former teammate and now an Arizona graduate assistant -- in earning a degree last summer. Terry graduated with a bachelor's in general studies.

That was part of the impetus for the Pac-12 presidents approving Arizona's request to retire Terry's jersey. The school had been banned from doing so as part of an agreement after Terry was discovered to have received $11,500 from agents during his college career.

"At the end of the day, there has not been a guy -- football, baseball, anything -- who has better represented U of A," Eafon said. "And he did that not knowing if they were ever going to retire his jersey."

That day is here.

Jason Eugene Terry -- The JET -- will have his jersey retired at McKale Center, and Eafon just smiles.

He recalls the times visiting Terry in Seattle, and being introduced at an indoor swap meet to a woman who showed Eafon a picture of her eighth-grade son who, like Eafon had been, was a football-basketball standout. Turned out, that kid in the picture was Nate Robinson.

Or he recalls the times, with a big laugh, of being around Tucson and pulling into a drive-thru, with Terry wondering to the server if he could get the "Wildcat discount."

They've come a long way.

"I can't say enough about him," Eafon said. "I'm so proud of him."

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.