Approximately 250 fans descended upon the Salem Wal-Mart yesterday afternoon to meet third-year forward Al Jefferson.
Shawn Sambataro, 14, of Salem, N.H., got a high-five and an autograph from Jefferson and remarked, "This is awesome. It's the best thing ever."
Gap-toothed 7-year-old Zachary Pendenza of Derry recently had his tonsils taken out but he wasn't going to miss this day.
"You're my favorite player," he told an appreciative Jefferson, who signed autographs, T-shirts, basketballs and whatever else was placed before him.
Like a savvy politician, Jefferson offered profuse thanks to a well-meaning woman who brought the dieting Jefferson a snack. He continued to sign, pose and win over fans.
With his green, shamrock-laden sneakers and his Celtics T-shirt with the No. 7 on the back, Justin Winiarz left little doubt who his team was and that he was a big "Big Al" fan.
"He's part of my team," said the 19-year-old from Derry, who is only two years younger than Jefferson. "He's one of my top players. He's out to prove everyone wrong, and I think he's going to do it."
After a terrific first year in Boston, Jefferson, who made the leap from tiny Prentiss (Miss.) High to the NBA, struggled in his second year. He hurt his ankle on the first day of camp last fall and recurring ankle injuries helped limit him to 7.9 points a game. He sat out 29 of 82 games and the Celtics were one of the worst teams in the NBA with a 23-59 record. Jefferson never lived up to the perhaps premature hype, which included the team putting him on the cover of last year's media guide.
Now entering his third year, the 6-foot-10 Jefferson spoke yesterday on a wide range of subjects during his promotional visit for Pepsi.
Q. You're much thinner, how much weight did you lose?
A. "I lost 30 pounds. It's helped me out in many ways especially my ankle. I've got a lot of weight off it. At first it was tough, but I was dedicated and I knew what I had to do."
Q. What was your high weight?
A. "I was 288 pounds over the summer. Now I'm 257. As a rookie I was 283 and last year I was 276 pounds. My high was 289 pounds my junior year in high school."
Q. How did you do it?
A. "I stopped eating my fried foods and sweets. The toughest to give up was fried chicken. I stay away from it. Now I eat baked chicken."
Q. Is the ankle 100 percent?
A. "I'm close. Real close. It doesn't concern me. They didn't think I'd be ready for camp so I'm way ahead of schedule. As long as it's not keeping me from what I want to do, I'm not concerned."
Q. Some people doubted the severity of the injury last year, did that hurt you?
A. "I put that all behind me. It's in the past. When I wasn't able to come back (late in the season) it was a big disappointment to me and everybody else."
Q. Was all the hype entering last season too much, too soon?
A. "I won't say it was too much, too fast. The first day of camp I got hurt. When I recovered I got hurt again. It was just a bad year. It's a good thing I'm just 21."
Q. What are your goals for this year?
A. "I just want to go out, play hard and be the player I know I can be."
Q. There was a lot of talk last year that you were a future All-Star. Might that have been overstating things?
A. "I still see that in myself. I'm not going to doubt myself. I know what I can do."
Q. Was last year a blow to your confidence?
A. "If anything, my confidence went up. I proved to myself I could work hard."
Q. Realistically, are the Celtics too young to do much this year?
A. "We have a great group of guys looking to make noise this year."
Q. Your coach Doc Rivers was mentioned in Sports Illustrated as a coach on the hot seat. Do you think that's accurate?
A. "Personally, I don't see him on the hot seat. He's a great coach. He's got the talent and the coaching skills."
Q. He's been tough on you. How is your relationship with him?
A. "He's always been straight with me. He tells me what I need to do and how to do it. He's the kind of coach a young group of guys need. If I'm not doing well, he'll tell me. If I'm doing well, he won't tell me. He doesn't want me to get a big head."
Q. There were a lot of trade rumors with you in the offseason including to Philadelphia in a deal for Allen Iverson. Does that effect you?
A. "It's a business. Just because you're traded doesn't mean it's a bad thing."
Q. Would you like to be traded?
A. "(Shaking his head) I'm glad I'm here. It's a great town with great fans and a great team. I want to spend my whole career here."