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Telfair trying to 'get back to myself'

His fists clench. His jaw tightens. And his teeth gnash.

Sebastian Telfair has been pulled out of the game.

Again.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, Telfair rages as he walks to the bench.

All those offseason moves the Portland Trail Blazers made -- letting veteran point guards Damon Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel walk into free agency, passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in the draft -- were supposed to clear the way for his inauguration as the Blazers' next leader.

And that uptempo style the team played for the final 27 games last season, when it fired Maurice Cheeks and ushered in a youth movement with the rookie Telfair taking the point, was supposed to cater to his strengths.

But here Telfair is, heading back to the bench late in a game in Dallas, a three-minute spurt in the fourth quarter in the books, and his night over after playing 12 minutes.

Afterward, he bites his tongue, shakes his head and says he can endure it.

Still, he wonders. Where are the flames? Where is the heat?

Where's the fire?

"From the start, I thought I was going to be put in the fire, and that if I was thrown into the fire, I would be able to react to it," Telfair, 20, said. "But I felt like I was never thrown into the fire."

He started the first 21 games of the season, posting respectable averages of 10.8 points and 4.3 assists, while playing with the NBA's second-youngest roster. But he felt both confused and constrained under the heavy hand of new coach Nate McMillan.

The uptempo style the Blazers employed last season when Telfair averaged 11.1 points and 6.6 assists in 26 starts had been replaced by a plodding half-court offense that was predicated on pick-and-rolls and post-ups by forward Zach Randolph.

And Telfair felt that anytime he tried to unleash the flair that made him a high school sensation at Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High, he was yanked and told to harness his energies into running the team's sets.

"I don't feel that I was put in the position to be the player I wanted to be," Telfair said.

Soon, the quest for the proverbial fire Telfair spoke of, the one where he would be put into the spotlight and asked to lead the Blazers into the future, was replaced by another search:

Sebastian Telfair needed to find himself.

In mid-December, Telfair tore a ligament in his right thumb, causing him to miss 12 games. By the time Telfair returned in January, Steve Blake was flourishing as the starter, and rookie Jarrett Jack was commanding minutes off the bench with steady play.

Telfair's starting role was gone, and so too was his spirit.

McMillan continued to harp on Telfair to run the team's offense, to eliminate turnovers, to shoot less and pass more. In an attempt to please, Telfair stifled his racing speed, his jitter-bug quickness, and his creative flair.

In the next 25 games off the bench, Telfair would average seven points and three assists in 20 minutes a game.

"I wasn't being myself," Telfair said.

He began saying aloud that he was trying to find himself, trying to balance the way he knew how to play the game with what McMillan wanted.

Along the way, McMillan, sensitive to the pressure put on a 20-year-old point guard, began to detect that he was losing Telfair.

"I saw him a few times talking to himself," McMillan said. "So I had to tell him, 'Play. Don't worry so much about what I'm saying. I want to see you play.' I wanted to take that pressure off what a coach says, and tell him to just play and we will figure out how to fit your style into what we want to do."

In the last month, there have been flashes of the old Telfair. He hit four 3-pointers at Denver, dished seven assists at Boston. And in a game in Charlotte before the All-Star Break, Telfair was at the head of a fast break. He looked right, and passed left, threading a laser between two Bobcats players and into the hands of Randolph, who scored.

Still, Telfair says it has been a struggle. As a point guard, he says he needs freedom. Freedom to create, freedom to make a mistake. When asked if he has that, Telfair's ire is momentarily raised.

"You think I feel comfortable?" he asks. "That pass I threw that got to Z-Bo [Randolph], that one time it doesn't get there ..." He emphatically slaps the leather on his chair, showing where McMillan would place him on the bench.

"And it's not that coach doesn't like me, or he is being mean, he just feels like he is teaching me, which he has," Telfair said. "And that's why those passes I used to make, or those mistakes I used to make -- I got that out of me."

He says that begrudgingly, almost as if part of him has been stolen. And maybe that's why he describes his relationship with McMillan in the coolest of terms.

"Me and Nate's relationship? He teaching me a lot," Telfair said. "I don't know other than that."

When told that's not exactly a strong endorsement, Telfair shrugs.

"I mean, I'm learning a lot from him," Telfair said. "And Nate has a lot on him. He's got a young team, so he has to cater to everybody. It's like having a lot of kids and you have that one kid who needs a lot of attention."

The coach and player are far from feuding. In fact, Telfair says he appreciates McMillan's insistence on teaching him how to run a team in the half-court.

"Even if it may not be for the best for my abilities right now, it's going to help me tremendously in the long run," Telfair said.

And in turn, McMillan has appreciated Telfair's willingness to be coached, even as he notices his player's frustration at being removed from games.

"I have a great deal of respect for him, and I like him, I really do," McMillan said. "It's like he is a warrior. A true warrior. He is confident in his ability, and he is fighting, trying to do right. I see him when I sub for him, and he is like, 'I don't know if I can deal with this much longer.' I can feel it. I can sense it. But he is not pouting and it hasn't stopped his play. As a coach, you hope your players respond like that."

The fight McMillan sees is Telfair's battle to find himself. It is a battle Telfair says he is beginning to win, and it started with his mind.

"I've gotten over the hump," Telfair said. "The first thing I had to do was accept my role on the team. Accept that we have three point guards, accept that we are all playing well, and take it for what it's worth. I could have continued to be behind that hump by not being satisfied with the time I'm getting, but I have accepted it and I'm doing the best with that time.

"After that, with that time I'm getting [20 minutes per game since losing the starting job], I found I can just be myself," Telfair said. "Heck, I'm coming out anyway, so I'm going out there, pushing the ball, shooting 3s and saying, 'This is how I play.'"

But just when he began to find himself on the court, Telfair momentarily lost himself off of it.

That's when the words of an old friend, rapper Jay-Z, rescued him through a phone conversation, and through a verse in one of his songs.

It was Feb. 7, and a resurgent Blazers team that had won seven of its past 12 games boarded its private jet in Portland and headed east for a five-game trip.

When the plane landed in Indianapolis, Telfair opened his Louis Vuitton bag and noticed makeup, brushes . . . and a loaded .22 automatic gun.

He said he had inadvertently taken his girlfriend's bag when he left their Portland home, which contained the gun that the two use when they go to a Portland-area gun range.

Scared, Telfair stashed the gun in a pillow case on the plane. Four days later, as the team prepared to fly from Boston to Toronto, the gun was discovered by flight attendants during a sweep of the plane.

Telfair was questioned by Massachusetts State Police, but he was not charged because they couldn't place him in possession of the gun while he was in the state.

Still, the NBA suspended Telfair two games for violating the league's firearms policy, which prohibits players from carrying weapons on team transportation.

"It was an accident," Telfair said. "I made a mistake."

Still, the sterling image Telfair had tried so hard to create -- for instance, he has never been tattooed -- was taking a major hit. Even as he pleaded that the incident was an innocent mistake, he was being branded on Portland radio waves as a thug, the most recent in a long line of players in Portland whose unlawful actions led many to brand the team as the "Jail Blazers."

His phone rang incessantly, but Telfair would never answer.

"I was embarrassed," he said.

But then the call came that shook him out of his funk. It was rapper Jay-Z, who befriended Telfair from their days in Brooklyn.

"He told me, 'What you doin', man, this ain't you'," Telfair said. "Once I talked to him, I realized he still loves me, and that everybody else will still love me, because they know me. They know that ain't me."

Telfair said his talk with Jay-Z taught him he had to get over it, that he couldn't worry about how the media and people would view him, that he had to stay true to himself. That became more clear after listening to a song off Jay-Z's "Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse" album.

The song was about an incident in which Jay-Z was accused of stabbing record executive Lance "Un" Rivera at New York's Kit Kat Club in December of 1999. The lyrics that struck Telfair:

So imagine how disturbed I was
When I seen how big they made my fight scene at the club
Let me explain exactly how this shit was
This ----- Un, yo I scratched him
He went home without an aspirin
But it's cool cause he's back friends and half-inning is over
It's in the past and I'm glad, now I'm back to being Hova.

"I was listening to that in the shower, and I was like, 'Dang, that sounds like my situation," Telfair said. "And that's like how I want to explain it: I made a mistake, and now I'm back to being Bassy."

The title of the song?

"I Did It My Way."

As long as Telfair continues to do things his way, Blazers management figures he will work out just fine.

General manager John Nash, who pushed hard to draft Telfair out of high school with the 13th overall pick in 2004, says Telfair is "right on track."

"Sebastian has surpassed what anyone would have realistically expected," Nash said.

Nash bristles at talk that Telfair hasn't lived up to expectations, or that he is a bust.

"That talk is ridiculous. Those are the same people who said Chauncey Billups was a bust," Nash said. "The fact is, it takes a while in the NBA, and it takes a while to make the transition from high school. The bottom line is, when we drafted him, there wasn't any commitment to play him in his rookie year, he was going to sit and learn from the veterans. Yet, somehow he forced his way onto the floor through way of practices. And this year, there was no commitment to start him, but somehow he won the starting job. Then he got injured."

Nash challenges anyone to put Telfair's numbers against those of other players drafted out of high school, particularly Clippers point guard Shaun Livingston, chosen fourth in the same draft.

"He's just like the rest of the high school players," Nash said. "It's rare when they come in and contribute right away -- LeBron and Dwight Howard being the exception. They all have to go through some growing pains."

Whether or not the Blazers will be patient with those growing pains remains to be seen, as McMillan says it "would be very difficult" to enter next season knowing he has to juggle three capable point guards.

Blake has emerged as McMillan's favorite, ranking second in the NBA to Billups in assists-to-turnover ratio (3.79) while averaging 9.6 points and 4.6 assists in 40 starts. And McMillan calls Jack "the surprise" of the season because he has played so steadily. But McMillan has always referred to Telfair as the future of the franchise.

Either way, Telfair says it "wouldn't be fair" to bring back all three next season.

"I think we have been lucky with the personalities of all three, because we help each other, we cheer each other,'' Telfair said last week. "But, this is the NBA, this is a business, and we all want to play. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. I mean, I could see it if there was one guy who you could pinpoint and say, 'Aw, he shouldn't play.' But I don't see that. I definitely don't feel that way about me. I know I can play, and I definitely know that Jack can play, and I know that Steve has proven himself that he is a better player than people know.

"So whoever got to be traded, whether it's me, Jack or Blake, I don't think it's fair,'' Telfair said. "I don't think we fit sitting on the bench.''

One weakness that has prevented Telfair from advancing more quickly is his jump shot. Although he can get into the lane seemingly at will, teams have learned to sag off Telfair and dare him to make an outside shot. He is shooting 36.2 percent from the field, down from the 39.3 percent he shot his rookie season. But he has shown drastic improvement from 3-point range, where he has made 36.7 percent, up from 24.6 percent last season.

"I still think I have to improve, but I don't think anyone can say my outside shot hasn't been better," Telfair said.

He says he will work to continue that progress this summer, only this time, unlike last offseason, he will return to his roots.

"I gotta go back to the hood," Telfair said. "I'm going to be working out with my brother Jamel [Thomas]. He would say I got too Hollywood last year when I was at IMG, doing pool workouts, shooting a billion shots, playing with Chauncey Billups."

He says he has to get back to "the sand," meaning Coney Island, for morning runs. Back to running steps at the Surfside Gardens, the projects he grew up in. And back to the playground courts, back to the Rucker League.

"Got to get back to myself, back to me," Telfair said. "Because I'm still coming. I'm still going to be that player I say I am, and say I'm going to be."

Jason Quick covers the Trail Blazers for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland.