January 22, 2008

Mike Trudell
Wolves Reporter

On the extreme south side of Brooklyn, New York, lies a peninsula known as Coney Island, marked by its Atlantic Ocean beach and remnants of what used to be the largest amusement area in the United States.

Coney's roughly 60,000 residents dwell primarily in 30 or so public housing towers ranging between 18-24 stories tall. Like the projects of many big cities, Coney's play host to a degree of poverty that has produced drug use and violence, even with increased state funding aimed at revitalization in recent years.

Sebastian Telfair is from one of those projects.

But hold that thought ... Telfair's story isn't one of poverty, drugs or unhappiness. It’s not about someone who rose above, or came out of, his upbringing. On the contrary, Telfair has a special, amorous relationship with Coney Island. He's had a solid, two-parent family throughout his life and considers himself extremely fortunate for all that he's been afforded in his 22 years. Surely, the “Lucky Me” tattoo on his back is anything but sarcastic.

On the other side of the pendulum, Telfair’s life - and particularly his basketball career - has been under a long-lens microscope since he was a remarkably quick 8-year-old. After his outstanding senior year in high school was documented by ESPN, judgment was ubiquitous. Why did Telfair get a movie, and why was he on the cover of "Sports Illustrated"? Why did Adidas give him a huge contract before he stepped on an NBA floor? Just 6-0, he couldn’t cut it in the NBA, right?

Was the skepticism and attention warranted? Inevitable? Who exactly is Sebastian Telfair? What’s his story? What happened from Brooklyn ... to Portland ... to Boston ... and Minnesota?

Let's start back on Coney Island.

Courts like "The Garden" are omnipresent on Coney Island.
Coney Island
“Where I'm from, basketball is what you do."
- Sebastian Telfair

In Brooklyn, there’s a basketball court on every block. For Telfair, affectionately referred to as “Bassy,” ballin’ was a family birthright. His older brother Jamel Thomas was a terrific player whom many expected to be drafted out of Providence College, and his cousin is Stephon Marbury, idolized in the projects as the first player to make it out of Coney Island.

“Coney is a great area to grow up in basketball, because everybody plays the game,” said Telfair’s high school coach, mentor and close friend Tiny Morton. “You can go to any park and get a good game because it’s so competitive.”

And basketball is the best way to stay out of trouble. Telfair saw “a lot of bad stuff,” noting that there's simply not much to do on Coney Island. Yet certain "dangerous people" on the streets were respectful to him because they saw him doing something positive for himself by playing ball.

“That's a community thing when we see someone going down the right path,” explained Morton. “We try to shield them from the negatives in the community. It wasn't just his family or coaches, it was the entire community."

“My family kept me on my heels," Telfair said. "They made it clear from an early age that there were consequences to everything that you do. I couldn't go out and be selling drugs, or being a gang member, because my family would have been whooping on my butt."

In short, Telfair was a good kid with a good family, which trumped the fact that trouble was constantly knocking at his door.

A year after LeBron was taken No. 1 overall, Telfair owned the national high school scene.
A Family Dream Yet Unrealized
“If someone were going to tell you how to make the NBA, it'd be exactly what Jamel did. But it didn’t happen."

In Telfair's mind, Jamel Thomas did everything right: He worked harder than everyone, he stayed out of trouble, won a high school championship and led the Big East in scoring, joining Richard Hamilton and Ron Artest on the All-Big East First Team. Accordingly, Thomas and his entire family at most expected and at least hoped to hear his name in the 1999 NBA Draft.

It didn't happen, and Jamel responded by ensuring that the same thing would not happen to his kid brother.

“Jamel looked at me as his second chance to do it," said Telfair. "I was his chance to hear our name get called in the draft. That's why he worked me so hard.”

The workouts started when Telfair was so young that to him, their rigor became regular. That's what you did if you wanted to make it.

“He pushed me as hard as I could be pushed," Telfair exclaimed, shaking his head. "Wherever he went, to play with NBA players or whatever, he brought me and I played too."

Telfair first realized how good he was as a nine- or ten-year-old, playing AAU basketball for Brooklyn USA and a coach he affectionately refers to as “Ziggy,” whom he credits for “getting me on the map.” Jamel, along with other family members, Ziggy and Tiny Morton all held artist’s brushes in painting Telfair’s basketball future.

“Sebastian did a good job soaking up a lot of information from different people he came in contact with,” said Morton. “He did a lot of listening. I have to give him the credit, because it takes a strong young man to sort out all the advice that's coming from many different directions.”

“I was really lucky, to tell you the truth,” said Bassy. “It was like God just put people in my life that helped make me the best person and player I could be."

The buzz was palpable when Telfair made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a senior.
The Brightest of High School Stars
"I know some of the things the spotlight brought were tough, but I was able to bring some of my teammates to a lot of places they never could have gone to. They did things that they might never do again, and I'm proud of that."

Abraham Lincoln High School is located about 20 blocks from the edge of Coney Island. Tiny Morton won a state championship as a player at Lincoln, served as an assistant coach during title runs from Thomas and Marbury, and was the head man when the kid phenom first wore Lincoln's blue and grey jersey.

“Sebastian came to Lincoln with a great deal of publicity, and we were learning together,” said Morton. “But it was more than a coach-player relationship. I was more like a big brother to him, and that helped us be so successful.”

Telfair and Morton won an unprecedented three consecutive NYC PSAL (Public School Athletic League) championships at Madison Square Garden. In the process, Bassy surpassed Kenny Anderson as New York state's all-time leading scorer. Telfair was undeniably dominant, averaging 33.2 points, 9.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds as a senior.

Meanwhile, just a year after the LeBron James craziness sent high school basketball to new heights, a charismatic star in basketball's mecca had a full ESPN crew documenting his entire senior year.

"I realize that having ESPN and everything there opened me up to some criticism, but 20 years from now, my kids will be able to look at that movie and say, 'That's my father right there,'" said Telfair. “That’s special.”

With the 13th overall pick...
"She don't want the same thing to happen to him that happened to me. She's just nervous. But I tell her all the time, Sebastian is not me. He has the talent, I had to work to get my talent. He has a special gift."
- Jamel Thomas

After verbally committing to attend Louisville to play for Rick Pitino, Telfair went against the doubters and skeptics and declared for the NBA Draft. Boy, was Telfair’s mother nervous. But on June 24, the worries quickly turned to tears with David Stern's words:

"With the 13th selection in the 2004 NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select ... Sebastian Telfair."

"You really have to be in my shoes to understand how much that meant," said Morton. "All the negative press, the agents running after you and the pressures of being a kid being drafted ... When I heard his name, it was crazy. It was crazy. It was all tears for everybody."

Meanwhile, Telfair knew he was up against some towering expectations.

"I got the movie, I got a big Adidas deal," he reflected. "And yeah, I was unfairly judged because of those things even though (Adidas and ESPN) came at me. But what was I going to do, give back my Adidas money so that people wouldn't say things about me? No way. My kids will eat because of the deal I worked for."

Telfair was good, just not great, as a youngster in Portland. Why wasn't that enough?
Blazing His Trail in the NBA
"I didn't come in and average 20 points a game. I got a movie, and people said that I wasn't living up to my Adidas deal because I wasn't putting up huge numbers. But, I felt like I was playing good. Not great, but good."

Expectations, expectations, expectations.

"From his youth, people were watching Telfair's every move," says Ryan Gomes, Telfair’s friend and teammate of the last two years. "Coming into the NBA, (other players) wanted to see Telfair. Everyone was figuring out, 'Who is this guy? What does he bring?'"

Read: Telfair had a target on his back.

They watched him dominate the McDonalds All-American game with his driving and dishing, leading a team featuring current teammates Al Jefferson and Corey Brewer, along with rising stars Dwight Howard (whose Atlanta-area team Telfair beat that year) and Josh Smith.

Fast forward to Blazers training camp, where 12-year veteran Nick Van Exel and 10-year vet Damon Stoudamire were waiting at the point guard position. Telfair said his goal was to learn everything he could from the vets, but an opportunity would come later in the season as he earned the starter's job for the final 26 games of the season. Telfair exhibited the considerable talent that made Portland draft him in the first place, averaging 12.2 points and 5.6 assists in those 26 starts.

Then in his second year, he put up 9.5 points and 3.6 assists in 24.1 minutes a game. He had notched a few double-doubles and was averaging close to 13 points and five assists early on, before hurting a ligament in his thumb forcing him to miss a month. Steve Blake and Juan Dixon played well in his absence, and Telfair never got his spot back.

"People were saying, 'He's doing good, but he's not doing great so he shouldn't be in the league,'" said Telfair.


"That's what you have to deal with," he said. "If you get a $50 million contract, they expect you to play $50 million basketball."

That, and the team was 27-55 his rookie year and 21-61 during his second professional campaign.

"Timing plays a role in your success," said Morton. "Having the right people and players around you is important."

After two good, but not great years in Portland, Telfair needed a change of scenery.

Telfair said he wasn't fully committed to basketball in Boston.
New York and Boston
"I didn't completely commit myself to basketball. Of course I played hard, but my main focus wasn't basketball at all times. I needed to change my lifestyle a little bit."

Prior to the start of the 2006 season, an incident occurred outside of a New York City club in October from which Telfair was subsequently exonerated of all wrongdoing. But the mere fact that he was there was enough for him to be tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.

"It's really, really hard to explain to everybody that I'm a good guy who got into a bad situation," he said. "What else can I say about it?"

Indeed, once it hits the papers....

"Guys want to enjoy themselves and go out and have fun," said Gomes. "Sometimes trouble finds you in certain situations, and that's what happened with Sebastian. It doesn't matter what actually happened at the time. It's just how people perceived it. He understands that."

"I was lost in Boston," Telfair recalled. "(2006-07) was the first time I felt like a kid left home alone. That affected how I played on the court."

Still, he headed into the season as Boston's starting point guard. Early on, the Celtics were decent, flirting with .500 in an awful Atlantic Division. But when Paul Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak went down with injuries, the season looked lost.

"With our injuries, we were more of a half-court team, not an up-and-down team where Bassy excels," said Gomes. "It was about getting it down to Big Al (Jefferson) on the block, or to Kendrick Perkins or myself. It took away from where Sebastian is more aggressive, more comfortable."

Then, as often happens in the NBA, the Celtics figured that Telfair already had a few years in the league, but they needed to see what rookie Rajon Rondo could do. To say that the New York incident played a role in Telfair’s minutes would be speculative, but not improbable. As such, the remainder of the season was far from productive for Telfair on the court. Still, he progressed mentally.

"Due to how everything went down, whether or not I did anything wrong, it changed my life," said Telfair. "I wouldn't change that for anything."

Regaining His Edge ... In Vegas
"It was the first time I was 100-percent committed to doing nothing but basketball in the offseason."

Telfair knew he'd be traded after the season, but before he knew his destination, he completely refocused his life towards basketball and his family following a move to Las Vegas.

"I didn't go on any vacations," he said. "I got my life together as far as the people I kept around me. It's for myself and my family, not for anybody else."

Unlike the isolated incidents that delivered negative national press, Telfair’s rededication was uncovered in the media. But his wife, Samantha - whom he met eight years ago in high school - and the couple’s two kids, Samaya (two) and Sebastian Jr. (five months), were right there.

"That's my joy, what made me change my life. I have kids that are going to read articles when they get older, so don't make me a bad person if I'm not. If I do something to deserve it, then it's on me."

"Even though he may have felt badly about how things were portrayed in the media, he turned things around quickly to get back on his feet," concluded Morton. "I’m going to give that credit to Sebastian for getting his life back on track."

It was in Vegas that Telfair learned he’d been traded to Minnesota along with Gomes, Jefferson, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff and two first-round picks for Kevin Garnett. Nationally, Telfair was largely dismissed as a journeyman point guard who couldn't find a home, a relative throw-in to the trade.

The question, again, is why? He'd had little stability, or consistency of advice, from coaches and GMs, was on three struggling teams (an average of 24 wins a year), would be a senior in college and still had immense talent. Meanwhile, locally, more than one article drudged up the few isolated incidents of trouble, with few taking the time to explore Telfair's rededication to his career and his family.

Telfair is "A consistent jump shot away from being everything he's supposed to be," said one NBA scout.
"This year, it's been the exact opposite. It changed with the result of the New York City incident, because I saw my career flash in front of my face. At the end of the day, basketball is what I love to do, and I won't jeapardize that for nothing."

Telfair couldn't have been happier after arriving in Minnesota.

"When I first got here, between (owner) Glen Taylor, (VP of basketball operations) Kevin McHale and the coaches, nobody judged me before we started playing basketball," Telfair explained. "They saw that I worked hard in training camp, and that's the kind of person they took me as."

“He’s been great," said McHale. "He’s been easy to coach, he’s been attentive and he’s been willing to learn. He’s been a pleasure to be around.”

On the floor, Telfair has shown flashes of brilliance, exhibiting his north-to-south talent that lets him get to the rim on anybody in the NBA. Through Tuesday, Jan. 22, he's averaging 9.5 points, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 2.03 turnovers. His dimes rank 19th in the NBA, and his turnover average is less than that of Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Andre Miller. Where he's struggled is with his shooting (39.8 percent), leading one NBA scout to say Telfair is very close to being very good, and "A consistent jump shot away from being everything he is supposed to be."

Furthermore, McHale said Telfair still needs to ascertain what he can and can’t do on a nightly basis in the NBA, and that he sometimes forces the issue too much. While Telfair was able to drive at will in high school, the difference in the NBA is that drives are often shut down by big guys. Remember, Telfair is the first high school point guard to go pro, and he's just now getting 30 minutes a night (32.7) for the first time in his career.

As for Tiny Morton, who watches every second of Telfair’s game action:

"I always ask Sebastian to think about Chauncey Billups and Steve Nash, two point guards that took some years to become great point guards. Sebastian still has room to grow and can get there if he keeps working hard."

Indeed, take a look at the numbers for Nash, Billups and Telfair in their respective first four years:







Bassy's dime totals in his fourth year are better than both Nash and Billups, and his scoring and rebounding are nearly identical. His shooting is right there with Billups and just below Nash. This data is most valuable when you look at career numbers for Nash and Billups. Take Nash's last four years, which include two MVP awards: He shot over 50 percent each year. Of course it's anything but easy to get there, but consistent shooting is the biggest difference, and the next step, for Telfair.

"I’m happy with where he’s taken himself,” said Tiny Morton. “I want him to understand that he needs to stay positive and confident."
Lucky Him
"I'm getting the opportunity of a lifetime right now, and I feel that I'm grabbing it by its horns. Yeah, we're struggling as a team, but I'm very confident on the court right now. At the same time, I'm very humbled and know I have work to do."

Though suffering the tragic loss of his grandmother recently, Telfair's family is just now moving to a new house back east, thanks to him. He still hears his fair share of criticism, still has yet to live up to the lofty expectations thrust upon him at 18, and still has some special people looking out for him.

When Morton calls Telfair, he always makes sure to remind him that he can play the game of basketball.

"I’m happy with where he’s taken himself,” said Morton. “I just wish that he can continue to keep his mind focused on what he needs to do with his own life right now. I want him to understand that he needs to stay positive and confident."

At 22, is Telfair fully confident as a person? Maybe so. Is he fully focused and completely confident as a basketball player? Maybe not … yet. Either way, he believes in the "Lucky Me" inscribed on his upper back.

Then again, maybe you make your own luck.