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Ready for the Big Time

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

High School Basketball
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Photo Credits: Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated

Ready for the Big Time

Already a polished star, Brooklyn hoops phenom Sebastian Telfair is set to become the first point guard to jump from high school to the NBA

It's a frigid Tuesday night in the Bronx, the kind that seems to
drain the color from the city. Inside the gym at Lehman College,
Brooklyn's Lincoln High and Manhattan's Wadleigh Secondary School
are about to tip off in the second round of the Public Schools
Athletic League playoffs. The winner will advance, and the
loser's season will be over. Those facts, however, are all but
irrelevant to most of the thousand or so fans on hand, including
the rapper Cam'Ron and his camo-garbed posse. The crowd is here
to see Sebastian Telfair, Lincoln's 6-foot point guard, nicknamed
Bassy.

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue Original Layout

There are plenty of believers in the house, but also some
skeptics, because going to see Telfair is like eating at a
restaurant that's reputed to have the world's best seafood: So
much praise breeds skepticism. Although he's just 18, Telfair has
already been incubating in praise for years. Ever since The
Dallas Morning News ran a feature on him as a seventh-grader,
Bassy has been anointed as the Next Great New York Point Guard,
fawned over by the press and the roundball kingmakers who, like
television networks calling the winners on election night,
compete to be the first to declare the next big thing. Telfair
has posed for magazine covers, hung with Derek Jeter and Jay-Z
and played on ESPN2, making him basketball's second-most-hyped
high schooler ever, behind his friend LeBron James. The scrutiny
has been even more intense because of where he plays--in the
media capital of the world--and because of his royal bloodlines:
His cousin is the reigning King of New York Point Guards, Stephon
Marbury of the New York Knicks. And in June, Telfair could become
the first point guard to jump directly from high school to the
NBA.

So the skeptic watches the early going against Wadleigh and
notices not what Telfair can do but what he can't. He practically
cracked the backboard with that jumper! Why is he launching from
three feet behind the arc? Wasn't that pass needlessly risky?
Just when the guy with the James Earl Jones pipes who's bellowing
It's all hype! is starting to sound like he's onto something, it
hits: the moment when the superlatives make sense. Late in the
first quarter Telfair receives an outlet pass at half-court, and
in one fluid motion he relays the ball 30 feet past a defender to
an empty spot on the court. An instant later a cutting teammate
runs into the pass for a layup. It is a remarkable play--all the
more so because in order to make the ball bounce just so, the
righthanded Telfair had to throw a spinning, underhanded bounce
pass with his left.

That marks the beginning of an assist-a-thon. Telfair launches a
parabolic 60-foot chest pass for another layup. He leaps, catches
the ball, spins 180 degrees in midair and fires a perfect
baseball bounce pass for a dunk. He serves as a one-man
press-buster, weaving through Wadleigh players as if they were
traffic cones, then flicking a look-away pass for a basket.
Though he sits for most of the fourth quarter of Lincoln's 103-77
victory, he still finishes with 14 points and 14 assists. That
scoring total is less than half his season average of
33.2--earlier in the season he set the school record, with
61--but, as he explains later with a shrug, "I didn't need to
score for us to win [the Wadleigh] game." Such talk is catnip to
NBA general managers seeking an unselfish playmaker.

Of course Telfair's opponents this night, and every other night
in his high school career, are still just kids, mostly a
collection of baby-faced 5'5" guards and gangly centers with
wispy mustaches. Facing Wadleigh is a far cry from playing the
Sacramento Kings on the first night of a back-to-back, as Marbury
was doing on the same evening. Maybe that NBA talk is a bit
premature.

Undoubtedly Telfair would benefit from a season in college, and
he has already committed to Louisville, doing so in a
preposterous press conference on Oct. 16 at Lincoln's gym. (His
teammates wore T-shirts that read NBA OR COLLEGE? on the front,
then spun as one after Telfair announced his decision, revealing
the phrase TELFAIR SAYS LOUISVILLE on the back.) The Cardinals'
Rick Pitino is a player's coach, and Telfair would fit perfectly
into his run-and-gun system. An extra year would also give him
time to get stronger--the smallest player in recent years to make
the prom-to-pros jump was the 6'5" DeShawn Stevenson in 2000--and
to learn a few more of the nuances of the game.

To a man, NBA personnel experts say Telfair should go to
college--and in the next breath declare him a surefire lottery
pick this June. Hard for Telfair to pass up the chance to be a
lottery pick. Hard for him to turn down making history, even with
the lingering memories of past New York guards--Omar Cook, Lenny
Cooke and Erick Barkley--who declared for the NBA too soon.
Pitino understands. "I told him, 'As badly as I want to coach
you, if you can be a lottery pick, I would advise you to go,'"
the coach says. "If he can be the first-ever point guard taken
out of high school, that's great."

So, Sebastian, what's it going to be, dorm rooms or David Stern?
Telfair smiles and purses his lips for a moment, then answers.
"I'd say it's 50-50 right now."

Don't believe him for a second.

It's hard to believe, too, that Telfair is, in many ways, still a
kid. True, he might be miked during a basketball game and have
his every move followed by a documentary film crew, but he still
lives with his mother, Erica; his father, Otis; and three
siblings in an apartment at the Surfside Gardens housing project
in Brooklyn's Coney Island. He's still poor by most definitions
(Otis is on veterans' disability) and still uses the
buy-one-ticket-and-pass-it-back ruse to get into movies with his
friends. At school he goes to classes like the other kids, still
waits eagerly for the bell to ring.

x

"That's what's impressed me the most," says one NBA exec.   "[Telfair] sought out criticism and responded to it. That's unusual, especially for someone so young, with so much hype."

x

Except that most other kids don't finish their school day by
answering fan mail, as Telfair was doing on a recent afternoon.
Scrunched into a graffiti-covered school desk in a Lincoln High
classroom, he signed copies of a magazine called High School
Sports that had his picture on the cover, then slipped them into
envelopes. He wore the matching green hat and jersey of the
Shamrocks, a team in the Entertainers league at Harlem's Rucker
Park, where he played last summer with NBAers such as Jamal
Crawford, Eddy Curry and Jamaal Tinsley. All around Telfair,
students yelled and flirted, but he managed to conduct an
interview as calmly as if he were sitting in a Starbucks sipping
latte. He smiled, maintained eye contact, played with his
hat--switching the brim from front to back, back to front--and
gave the kind of polished answers some pros take years to master.
No wonder shoe companies are already jousting for his signature
on an endorsement contract. "He's as mediagenic as any kid I've
seen," says venerable basketball scout Tom Konchalski, who has
seen plenty of kids in his 25 years of scoping out East Coast
high schoolers. "He's got a magnetic smile, he's polite, and he
looks like the boy next door."

Telfair's poise is the product of a life lived in the spotlight.
Like Marbury, Telfair was dubbed the nation's top player in his
class by Hoop Scoop recruiting service when he was in sixth,
seventh and eighth grade. In 2000, after his eighth-grade year,
he became the youngest player invited to compete at the Adidas
ABCD high school camp. In interviews Marbury often mentioned his
young cousin, as did Telfair's brother Jamel Thomas, who played
at Providence and now serves as Sebastian's personal coach when
he's not playing in Greece. (Maintaining the tradition, Sebastian
now unfailingly touts the skills of his nine-year-old brother,
Ethan.) Telfair has already become part of the legend at "the
Garden," the near-mythic Coney Island blacktop that Marbury and
his brothers grew up playing on and that Spike Lee featured in He
Got Game.

Rather than bask in the adulation, though, Telfair has tried to
justify it--uncommon at his age. Almost every day since ninth
grade, he has stuck with a workout regimen designed by Jamel. He
does sprints on the beach; performs shooting and dribbling
drills; does push-ups, dips and pull-ups; and runs the 15 flights
of stairs in his apartment building five times. "A lot of people
say they want to come along and do the workout with me and
Jamel," says Telfair. "They always do fine until the stairs. Once
they hit the stairs, they're like, 'No way, man, I'm done with
this.'"

In the past, critics focused on Telfair's erratic shooting and
slight build, so he worked on both. The constant drills have made
him less streaky as a shooter and more capable of dominating a
game from the outside. And by eating better and working out, he's
gained 27 pounds since his sophomore year and now weighs in at a
toned 182. "That's what's impressed me the most," says one NBA
exec. "He sought out criticism and responded to it. That's
unusual, especially for someone so young, with so much hype."

Konchalski, the dean of East Coast high school scouts, can't help
but compare Telfair with Marbury, whom he saw play for Lincoln in
the early 1990s. "He's worked hard on his body and is much
thicker now, though not like Stephon was," Konchalski says.
"Stephon was stronger and a better shooter, but Sebastian's a
better penetrator and sees the floor better. He's also quicker,
though--" here Konchalski chuckles--"mind you, we're talking
degrees of quickness here."

The comparisons between the two (they are first cousins, once
removed) are inevitable. They grew up in the same housing project
and played for the same school; both won city championships
(Marbury got one, while Telfair is going for his third straight
this spring); both have brothers who also played high-level ball;
and both are the subjects of books (for Marbury, The Last Shot,
by Darcy Frey; for Telfair, a work-in-progress by Ian O'Connor, a
columnist for The Journal News in New York's Westchester County
and USA Today). Telfair says Marbury was a "role model, even if
he didn't know it," and Sebastian was excited when his cousin was
traded to the Knicks--he let out a whoop when he got the news on
his cellphone during class.

Their relationship has all the trappings of a wonderful family
story, except that Marbury and Telfair haven't spoken in months.
Neither will say why. Telfair shakes his head and says only,
"He's real busy these days." Marbury says Telfair "has a lot to
learn" and that he "has his own identity." Telfair's brother
Daniel Turner, an assistant to Lincoln High coach Dwayne Morton,
will say only that it's a family thing. "There's a little bad
blood between the families," he says. "That's why you never see
stories with them together. We got no problem with Stephon, but
he does his own thing."

Whether they want to or not, the two will most likely see each
other on the court very soon. Despite all the diplomatic hedging,
Telfair's as good as gone to the NBA. He talks about "being ready
for the league" and boasts of how he's been working on NBA
three-pointers. Asked if he's entering the draft, he says, "Who
told you?" Asked what he'll be in three years he says, "An NBA
All-Star." A source close to the Lincoln team put the likelihood
that he will go at 95%.

Even if the natural inclination is to lecture Telfair on all he
could gain from college--perspective, patience, maybe a dose of
humility--it would be hard to blame him if he were to choose the
NBA. The Los Angeles Clippers are said to be infatuated with him.
He has been compared with Allen Iverson and called "T.J. Ford
with a jump shot."

Telfair also has his family to think about. Surfside Gardens is
one of the most dangerous areas in New York City. On Feb. 8 three
men were shot in the elevator of the apartment building where
Telfair lives; two were killed and the other was critically
wounded. "I know I can handle living there, but I don't know
about my family," says Telfair, who was good friends with the two
murder victims and gets teary as he talks about the shootings.
"I've seen more friends killed than I can count. I don't want to
put my family through that much longer."

Telfair says such losses have only made him concentrate more on
his game. After dipping in the Hoop Scoop rankings because of
mediocre summer camp performances last year, he raised his stock
this season by playing his best in Lincoln's biggest games. In a
December game against Edgewater High of Orlando that was
televised on ESPN2, he led Lincoln to a 82-77 victory, scoring 16
of his 27 points after spraining his ankle. The following month
against Harvard-Westlake at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, he scored 37
points in front of a host of NBA suits, including Celtics boss
Danny Ainge and Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak, as Lincoln won 85-82.
On Feb. 7 he had 30 points, including a buzzer-beating
three-pointer to dispatch Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy and
its star power forward, likely No. 1 pick Dwight Howard. "After that," says O'Connor, "everybody was talking
about Telfair."

For Bassy, who began practicing his autograph in the fourth grade
and estimates that he's signed "thousands" this season alone,
being the center of attention is not unwelcome. "I never imagined
it would be like this, but it's been a lot of fun," he says from
behind his school desk. "Part of being a basketball player is
being an entertainer, so I try to entertain."

At this he summons an NBA-ready grin, and for a moment it's
almost possible to forget that Sebastian Telfair is still a
teenager. Almost.