Point of Origin
In its nearly 100-year history, the Coney-Island-based school has produced such local legends as former Mets centerfielder Lee Mazzilli, Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Marv Albert and former Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury. But by the time he was starting his senior season at Lincoln, Telfair had already gained plenty of notoriety himself for having led the school to back-to-back titles, and like his cousin Marbury before him – at the time a member of the Phoenix Suns – also appeared destined for the NBA.
It was a journey that was not going unnoticed.
While most his age were concerned with breaking out before their senior photo, Telfair was having his face plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Instead of worrying about whether or not his friends would ridicule his dance moves on prom night, Telfair had to worry about his basketball moves being dissected during nationally televised games. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, he and his entire team’s quest for a third-straight title was being chronicled by filmmakers for a documentary entitled Through the Fire. With games being attended by the likes of Derek Jeter and Jay-Z, and offers coming in from some of the top shoe companies in the world, it was clear that when you’re touted as arguably the best point guard ever to come out of New York City, high school can be a little different.
“It was a lot of pressure to put on somebody, and now that I’m older, I can look back and see that better, but I wouldn’t change anything,” Telfair said. “I look back and I think about what that attention meant for everybody around me too. That exposure got the school better equipment and gave my whole team the chance to play on national television. It was an experience we’ll always remember.”
But regardless of how much scrutiny he faced that senior year, Telfair always managed to remain calm, cool and collected. After twisting an ankle just before halftime of a game being broadcast on ESPN2, the guard returned in the second half to score 16 of his 27 points en route to a come-from-behind victory. During a contest against Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy and their projected no. 1 pick, Dwight Howard, he netted 30, including a game-winning trifecta at the buzzer.
It was apparent that the larger the spotlight for Telfair, the larger the performance, and in the championship game that would earn Lincoln its third-straight title, he scored a team-high 25 points in front of 12,000-plus fans at Madison Square Garden. With his high school career officially in the books, the all-time leading scorer in the history of New York prep schools bypassed the option to play at Louisville and entered his name into the 2004 NBA Draft.
But while his selection at No. 13 by the Portland Trailblazers solidified that he’d come a long way from being the Coney Island kid who occasionally had to borrow his sister’s sneakers to play basketball, Telfair quickly found out that his journey was just beginning. After all, minutes aren’t very easy to come by for an 18-year-old point guard playing on a team with Damon Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel.
“I definitely wish I would have handled things better,” Telfair admits of his time in Portland. “It was my first time coming off the bench for a team, and was a huge adjustment for me to be making after always being the guy with the ball in his hands.”
Joel Przybilla – a teammate of Telfair’s for his first two NBA seasons – said he actually believes Telfair did a good job of making the transition, and enjoyed his time with him in the City of Roses.
“You could tell at times he was frustrated, but he was obviously very young at the time and was coming into a situation where there was so much pressure,” the center said. “I actually think he handled things very well, and have enjoyed watching how far he’s come in the years since. I think he’s established a good role for himself here in Phoenix, and I always appreciate it when he and I get a chance to catch up.”
The depth at the point guard position didn’t create many consistent opportunities for Telfair, who was eventually dealt to the Boston Celtics – one of four teams he would suit up for over the course of his next five seasons. Following a stretch that included more sharp turns than the Cyclone, it was easy to understand why the Brooklyn native was seeking a little bit of stability entering free agency in 2011.
“I wanted to find a team that I felt I could really be a part of,” Telfair said of signing with the Suns. “I wasn’t worried about being the man or any of that stuff, I just wanted to find a place where I could fit in and contribute.”
Even though it meant stepping into a situation where he knew he would be a backup, Telfair believed the value of playing behind a veteran like Steve Nash outweighed the extended minutes he would have received by signing elsewhere.
“It’s definitely not a decision I’d have made during my younger years,” Telfair says. “But I understood that at that point in my career it was about finding the right situation, and getting the chance to learn from somebody like Steve was the right situation for me.”
It was an opportunity that Telfair took full advantage of, and after having played the majority of his career with younger point guards like Steve Blake, Rajon Rondo and Randy Foye, Telfair tried his best to absorb everything he could from the two-time MVP.
“Playing just that one season with him played a big part in molding me as a point guard,” Telfair said. “It not only helped me in terms of how I played during games, but changed my preparation heading into games. I think in the long run, that could be what becomes the most helpful in my career.”
The influence of Nash – a player who Telfair’s own mother lists as her personal favorite – has been evident throughout his second season in the Valley, and according to teammates, the attitude of the man affectionately nicknamed “Bassy” has proven to be contagious.
“He makes this entire team better because of the way he plays not just during games, but in practice,” guard Goran Dragic explained. “He is always giving it his all which puts pressure on other players to compete just as hard. Those are the type of players you need on a team if you want to grow.”
But while his experience in Phoenix may have helped Telfair learn how to better prepare for basketball games, nothing could have prepared him for some of the tragedies that have taken place away from them. This 2012-13 season has been a harsh reminder of that, with the campaign beginning just two days following the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. Even months later, Telfair says it’s still tough to think about the national tragedy that literally hit so close to home.
“When I was a kid, there were always threats of hurricanes, but you’d prepare for them and they’d end up just being a bad storm,” Telfair said. “I knew right away that this was different. The day it was happening, I was seeing pictures on Instagram that people were taking from their windows. I saw one of an SUV on top of a mailbox, and when I saw that, I knew how serious this was.”
Things didn’t get easier for Telfair, who shortly after a quick stop in New York to face the Knicks – his first visit to the Big Apple since Sandy struck – he was informed of the passing of his father.
“With everything that’s happened to him this season, he’s remained resilient,” forward Jared Dudley said. “But if you look at everything he’s been through, that’s how he’s been his whole life, and it’s helped him grow into a man who’s emerged as one of the leaders on this team.”
Asked about the resiliency Telfair has always been able to display, the playmaker credits his love for basketball – a relationship which he doesn’t take for granted.
“This game allows me to fight through anything,” Telfair explained. “There’s nothing that I would rather do than play basketball, and I’m very appreciative of the fact that I get to make a living by playing it.” When one walks “through the fire” they are said to come out the other end a stronger person for having gone through the experience. And following a career that’s been part three-ring circus and part roller coaster ride, Telfair continues to show time and again just how far he’s come in the past couple of seasons. And while it’s obvious that the scrutiny faced by Telfair on a nightly basis has changed since high school, his selfless approach to both the game of basketball and the game of life hasn’t.
After reiterating that he would never want to redo anything about his experience at Lincoln in large part because of what it meant to his teammates, Telfair stops for a moment to think things over. It’s hard to tell if he’s considering changing his answer or if he’s reliving the amazing ride once more in his head.
He finally concludes his thought, “Everybody’s road to success is different, and so far, this one has just been mine.”