Commentary

Telfair is as good as advertised

Originally Published: December 1, 2002
By Rob Bodenburg | ESPN RISE Magazine

Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in the New York Metro December 2002 issue of SchoolSports Magazine (which later became ESPN RISE Magazine). We're taking a look back at high school greats as part of ESPN RISE's Best Baller package.

Everyone knows about Sebastian Telfair's family. But they don't really know about his family.

[+] EnlargeSebastian Telfair
ESPN RISE MagazineSebastian Telfair broke Kenny Anderson's state scoring record while at Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.).

Allow us to explain. Everyone knows that Telfair is Stephon Marbury's little cousin. And most people know that he's Jamel Thomas' little brother. But they don't know about how his mother, Erica, and father, Sylvester, are with him every step of the way, helping Bassy keep it real despite all the hype and expectations that come with being New York City's new Chosen One. They don't know that in addition to Jamel, he has eight other siblings -- six boys and four girls in all -- all of whom have played a part in Telfair becoming the young man he is today.

Ask the Lincoln High (Brooklyn, N.Y.) superstar junior point guard about his favorite thing to do away from the basketball court and his answer is simple: hang out in his house with his family and just chat. Not play video games. Not hang out with friends. Not cruise the streets of Coney Island. Just chill out at home with the family.

"My family, they're the key. I feel like I need my family more than I need my ability to dribble on the court," says Telfair, 17, a first team Preseason SchoolSports All-American. "They keep you humble. They're there for me when other people are not.

"When you're outside playing, you're like Michael Jordan," adds Telfair, who lives with his mom, dad, two sisters and his little brother. "But when I come inside the house, I'm just Sebastian."

Being Sebastian is a nice life, no doubt. He's friends with fellow hoop prodigy LeBron James (the two speak on the phone several times a week). He gets to play ball in the summer with NBA players like Mark Jackson and Anthony Mason. And he's often recognized when he enters restaurants in Coney Island.

But it's not always easy, either. The 6-foot, 173-pound playmaker has been hailed as NYC's "next great point guard" practically since he was in diapers. His cousin, Stephon Marbury, plays in the NBA and was a local legend in high school. His brother, Jamel Thomas, played at Providence College and now hoops it up professionally overseas. And Telfair was preordained the nation's best baller in the Class of 2004 before the 21st century even began.

And yet, throughout it all, Telfair has remained as down to earth as could be expected of any kid in his situation. Sure, if you spend 45 minutes on the phone with him, you're likely to be interrupted numerous times by people calling him. But what's noteworthy is not the volume of phone calls he receives, but the fact that he apologizes for the interruption every time.

"I'm very proud of him and how he's handled things," says his father, Sylvester Telfair. "Like I tell him everyday: Just be yourself, be real and be truthful. Just stay level-headed. Don't get caught up in all that other stuff. Just be true to yourself. And he does that."

In the interest of full disclosure, we should admit that Telfair has been on the cover of our magazine before. Back in March of 2001, near the end of his freshman season -- a season during which he lived up to the expectations by averaging 17 points and six assists per game while leading the Railsplitters to the PSAL semifinals.

But in the 21 months since then, a lot has happened. A lot.

During the summer after his freshman year, Telfair blew everyone away at the 2001 adidas ABCD Camp, earning co-MVP honors in the underclassman all-star game with LeBron and cementing his status as the top player in his class. He cranked his game up yet another notch during his sophomore season, averaging 29 points, seven assists and three steals per contest and leading Lincoln to the PSAL championship and the state semifinals.

All the while dealing with those unreal expectations, doing his best to ignore the hype and not getting sidetracked by all the hangers-on who want to hitch a ride on the Telfair train. This is a kid who's 17 going on 30. But what's amazing is that he handles himself more like a 30-year-old than a baby-faced 17-year-old.

"He's learning how to deal with people and deal with situations that a lot of kids his age don't have to deal with," says Dwayne Morton, the Railsplitters' head coach since 1995 and himself a former Lincoln High point guard. "I see a kid becoming a grown-up. He's making a big transition. It's good to see him mature the way he has."

A big part of that maturing process came this past summer in Teaneck, N.J., at the ABCD Camp. With LeBron sidelined by a broken wrist, Telfair was the main attraction. From a distance, it might look like he didn't disappoint, earning a second straight underclassman MVP award.

But his rep took a major hit. The player haters came out in full force after ABCD.

He shoots too much. He's gotten caught up in his own hype. He doesn't play hard all the time. He's no longer the best player in his class. He's not even the best point guard in his class.

All of a sudden, the same recruiting gurus who had built Telfair up as the best thing for basketball since the slam dunk were tearing him down as overrated. Once considered the consensus top player in the Class of 2004, at press time he was rated No. 6 by PrepStars and No. 10 by RivalsHoops.com.

But Telfair, who has remained the same respectful young man he was 21 months ago, could care less about his critics. If he listened to what other people said  good or bad  he'd have gone crazy by now, because people have always had plenty to say about Sebastian Telfair.

"This is the first time they've really written bad things about me," says Telfair, who is still rated the No. 1 player in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com. "But it doesn't really bother me. As long as they keep saying bad things about my game and not my personality, I'm cool with that because I know I can go out and prove them wrong and work on my game.

"I'm a good person," he adds. "That's what I want people to know."

True enough, but he's also got mad skills on the court. Telfair has that rare synthesis of flare and fundamentals. Crossovers. Pull-up J's. Runners in the lane. An improved 3-point shot. Sometimes a flashy behind-the-back pass, sometimes a good old-fashioned bounce pass -- whichever is necessary under the circumstances. In fact, Morton says the biggest improvement Telfair needs to make is learning that he doesn't have to show off all of his skills every time out. Often it's as simple as just doing what it takes to win the game.

That will come in time. Almost everyone close to Telfair says what will allow him to succeed is not that he's more talented than 99.9 percent of ballers in the country. Rather, it's that he works tirelessly to improve. The road to NBA stardom is littered with NYC point guards who were supposed to be the next great superstar. For every Kenny Anderson, there's an Ed Cota. For every Stephon Marbury, there's an Omar Cook. That's why Telfair runs flights of stairs to stay in shape. That's why he continues to add new dimensions to his already ridiculous game.

The future is impossible to predict. Heck, Telfair still has two seasons of high school ball left before he moves on to college and then possibly the NBA. And if the next two years are anything like the last two, there will plenty of twists and turns along the way.

But thanks to the support of his family, wisdom beyond his years and skills that make you wonder if he was born with a basketball in his hands, Telfair seems well on his way to living up to the hype that has followed him for years.

"You've got to have good advice. You gotta be smart at what you're doing," says Telfair, stressing that he has no plans of jumping straight from high school to the NBA. "I'm going to college, and I'm not going to come out just because other people say I should. A lot of people get bad advice because they listen to the wrong people. I'm going to come out when I'm ready and when I think I'm going to stick.

"There are a lot of guys who have skills," adds Telfair, who says he'll make his college favorites known publicly at the end of this season. "I can name 100 guys from where I'm from who have the skills to make it to the NBA. That doesn't mean anything. It's not about who has the skills, cause there are lots of guys with skills. It's about who ran and who did push-ups and who stayed in the gym and took extra shots and who spent the time working on their game. It's the guy who works the hardest who's going to outshine everybody."