“I’m Still Here”
Nine years into his NBA career, Sebastian Telfair looks back with hard-earned perspective—and a promise that he’s not finished.
by Ryan Jones / @thefarmerjones
They like to quote him lines from his movie. They could be anyone—strangers at a restaurant or a shopping mall—but often they’re his fellow pros. They see Sebastian Telfair, and they recite the lines, his words, uttered unscripted when he was a high school kid and committed to digital permanence.
They seem to like the “country boy” quote best. They remember the scene from the documentary they saw in middle or high school, or maybe in their college dorm, the scene they watched and laughed through and rewound to watch again. Telfair, brash, Brooklyn-bred, by that point so used to the cameras that followed him everywhere, sitting on a chartered bus as his fellow 2004 McDonald’s All-Americans file down the aisle. Dwight Howard. Al Jefferson. Josh Smith. And there’s Bassy, slyly eyeing them all as they pass.
“What up country boy?…You a country boy, too…Where you from?…You know your ass country…If you ain’t from New York, you from the country.”
He smiles, shakes his head. “That quote right there…” Telfair says. “I get that all the time.” It’s late March, and he’s courtside at the Verizon Center, an hour before the Toronto Raptors—his team for all of five weeks at this point—play the Wizards. He’s got a few minutes before he gets his pre-game shots in, and he seems happy to be looking back.
Among media and fans, and yes, even his NBA peers, Telfair’s past seems always at the forefront. We remember the movie, the magazine covers and we might have read the book. We knew him first, and best, when he was 16, 17, 18 years old. “I can’t shake it,” he says, the words an observation where you might expect a complaint. “It’s mostly good. People watched that time of my life, and they enjoyed it. I had a lot of fans from it.”
His was quite the rare adolescence—the hype, the relentless documentation, and oh, yes, the dazzling talent that gave us a reason to pay attention in the first place. It figures that everything that came after Sebastian Telfair left high school would be informed, if not shadowed, by everything that happened before. And that’s fine. It only becomes a problem when the past negates the present, when other people’s memories cancel out the continuing story of a young man’s life.
The hard part is not getting defensive.
It’s not hard for Telfair. We should clarify that. In the Verizon Center on this March afternoon, and in a longer phone conversation last summer, defensiveness doesn’t seem to be an issue for the man himself. Now 28, married, a father of two, increasingly involved in the Coney Island community that raised him, he comes off content with his life and fully convinced that his best basketball moments lay ahead of him. No, the trick is writing about him—a guy with nine NBA seasons on his résumé and millions of dollars in the bank—and overcoming the compulsion to smack your readers in the head. It’s especially tricky if you were there before the hype. It’s damn near impossible if the hype is at least partially your fault.
What’s to defend? His modest stats (7.4 ppg, 3.5 apg) and vagabond history (the Raptors are his seventh team) qualify him for journeyman status, but none of that hints at what he has accomplished, simply by sticking around. In a league where the average career lasts roughly five seasons, Telfair just completed his ninth. How many 5-11 guys could manage that, let alone start 192 games along the way?
But see, that sounds defensive. No, he’s not a perennial All-Star, not the world-beater his SLAM covers and the SI cover and the book and the movie seemed to promise, even if they never promised any such thing. He was a spectacular high schooler who humbled opponents with his scoring, handles and dimes, a big-game player who led Lincoln High to three New York City championships and a state title; by any measure, he remains one of the best players in the star-studded history of NYC high school hoops. But well-earned attention blurred into hype thanks to his lineage (Stephon Marbury is a cousin, former Providence star Jamel Thomas his older brother) and the connection to LeBron James, whom he followed at the peak of the preps-to-pros rush.
This is where we come in. We, who handed him our Basketball Diary as a junior, the year after LeBron held down the same. We, who put him on the front of this magazine with his man from Akron, promising that the two of them were ABOUT TO RULE THE WORLD. We, who put him on another cover—still before he’d played an NBA game—with Dwight and Al and Josh and Shaun and Marvin, a 5-11 dude surrounded by trees. Even in that lineup, Bassy was front and center.
And the SI cover and the book and the movie, all of which turned the focus away from what he had done, toward what he might (or might not) do. Inevitably, it meant comparisons to his bigger, more NBA-ready classmates, and to LeBron, against whom all but an increasingly tiny handful of players in the history of the game will suffer. It meant expectations nearly impossible to surpass, and he shied away from none of it. And that is why, when you type his name into your favorite search engine, the first word that autofills after his name is “bust.”
Bust? Like we said, it’s hard not to get defensive.
“There’s no middle ground for me: You’re either an All-Star, or you’re nothing,” he says. “Some people would cave to that. But I’m out here playing basketball every night for nine years. I’m in the NBA right now. You know what I’m saying? My personal goals, I’m still chasing. But I’m playing in the NBA. I’m still here. My story is definitely not over.”
When we spoke last summer, Telfair was still a Phoenix Sun. He had recently been named winner of the team’s Dan Majerle Hustle Award, voted on by the players, coaches and fans, as the Sun who “most personified the hustle and determination” of its namesake. He was a contributor, a guy valued for his defense and work ethic, backing up a future-Hall-of-Fame point guard. As NBA jobs go, it was a good one.
He knows he’s come a long way.
“It took some years to make that adjustment from playing high school basketball,” he says, laughing at all the statement implies. Hype aside, it was talent that led Portland to make Bassy a Lottery pick, grabbing him 13th overall in the prep-heavy 2004 Draft. He spurned Rick Pitino and Louisville to make the jump, a kid from the projects who chose first-round money (and a sneaker deal with adidas) over college ball.
He can’t ever regret the decision to sign those contracts, not when he knows how those pen strokes changed the lives of his family. But the honesty with which he acknowledges their cost is unexpected. “My first four or five years in the League, I’d always say, Nah, I’m happy with my decision. And I meant that at the time,” he says. “But it took me ’til, like, 24, watching the NCAA Tournament, and I’m like, Damn, I don’t get to perform on that stage. And I know, if you put Bassy on that stage, coming right from Lincoln? I would have shined.
“And college definitely would’ve helped me,” he goes on. “I didn’t have the structure. And I would’ve gotten an opportunity to get out of New York for a year without having money. It would’ve filtered a lot of BS that I dealt with early. So I can’t say that I wish I didn’t go to college. If I had the opportunity again, I’d take it. But I made my own decision. I don’t have no fingers to point. I don’t have a sneaker contract to blame. I don’t have nobody to blame.”
Unused to the structure, his game far from polished, Telfair was hardly blessed to be drafted by a Portland squad at the tail end of the Jail Blazers era. He acknowledges his struggles in those first two seasons, when he was a part-time starter (and got one more SLAM cover) on a bad, oddly constructed team, and accepts the blame for off-court mistakes that left many wondering if he’d last beyond his rookie deal. “I’ve definitely grown up,” he says. His daughter, Samaya, was born around this time, and Sebastian Jr came along a couple of years later. “Becoming a man and a father, I’ve definitely matured,” he smiles. “I’m a good citizen now.”
If he seemed to settle into his personal life, the game has never let him settle anywhere for very long. A year in Boston, followed (thanks to the KG trade) by two in Minnesota, his steadiest and most productive stint as a pro. He started 94 games in two seasons, averaging close to 10 and 5. But stability eluded him: more trades, to the Clippers, Cavs and back to the Wolves, before he hooked up with the Suns prior to the start of the lockout-shortened ’11-12 season. Then Phoenix went into full rebuilding mode, and Bassy was traded once more.
His performance against the Wizards in March is a glimpse of what, at his best, he brings to the court. In 16 minutes off the bench, Telfair scores 10 points on 4-6 shooting, including 2-4 on threes, adds 3 assists and doesn’t commit a turnover. Minute for minute, end to end, he’s arguably the Raps’ best player. “I thought Sebastian set the tone for us,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey says after a 109-92 loss. “He came in, gave us defensive energy, pushed the ball, knocked down some shots. That’s what you’re supposed to do coming off the bench.”
Afterward, I ask Sebastian if, given the chance, this is the sort of contribution he can make on a regular basis. “Absolutely,” he says. “I mean, at the minimum.”
There’s no telling where he’ll get that chance next. He’s unrestricted this summer, still desperate to play on a good team. (As we went to press, rumor was he may be headed back home to suit up for the Brooklyn Nets.) None of his 11,822 career minutes have come in the postseason. He speaks of this not as frustration, but motivation. “I want to be in the Playoffs, chasing a ring,” he says. “That’s my goal right now. I want to make some kind of a mark.”
It says something that the dude with the thoroughly documented life feels his lasting mark is yet to be made. A decade ago, give or take, we watched his public development, some of us more actively than others, but all of us on some level engaged. We paid attention. We remembered. If that’s not a mark, what is?
He’s making it in other, quieter ways. Being a dad, a husband. Starting a foundation, Supreme Telfair, that splits its energies between entrepreneurship and grassroots community involvement—a youth basketball tournament, partnering with NYC-based nonprofits like the Beacon Program, donating meals to Hurricane Sandy victims back in Coney Island. These things are the present and future.
But the past remains, inescapably so. And he’s fine with it. He saw his movie a few months ago. He was still with the Suns, on the road in Milwaukee, and Through the Fire came on the hotel cable. “One of the trainers texted me, ‘You’re on channel whatever,’ and I watched it,” he says. “I hadn’t watched it outside of that first year it came out.”
The dumb question. The obvious one. How did it feel?
“I didn’t know how it would feel, actually,” he says. “But it felt good.”