|Thursday, August 22
Updated: August 27, 10:00 AM ET
Sebastian Telfair's a Coney Island special
By Michael Kruse
Special to ESPN.com
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Sebastian Telfair thinks he's special.
Not in a pompous sort of way. Certainly not in a surly sort of way. But that's what he's been told, that's how he's been treated, so that's what he believes.
The 5-foot-11, 165-pound point guard is the best high school player in the best basketball neighborhood in the best basketball borough in the best basketball city in the best basketball country in the world.
"Just a basketball player," he says on a hazy Monday night in the Coney Island projects. "But I'm not going to say I'm nobody. Because in my mind, on the court, I'm somebody."
Here, too. This is home.
On a late summer evening, Telfair's hanging out with his crew, and they're speaking their own language, watching dozens of neighborhood kids shoot baskets, throw footballs and play dice. They're doing their thing.
He's wearing his baggy shorts, his jewelry, his jersey, his oversized cap and his fancy sneaks. And he's answering questions about what it's like to be Sebastian Telfair.
What's it like? It's, like, normal. It's the way it's always been.
This is as normal as normal gets for the baby-faced hoops prodigy. His cell phone bleats. Kids fly by on their bikes and clamor for his attention. A head bob. A handshake. Maybe even a wassup.
That's what he is here in Coney Island. Not Sebastian. Not Telfair. Just Bassy. But he's also the big name from the Big Apple -- the standout from perennial Public power Lincoln High School.
The Slam cover boy. The second-cousin of Phoenix Suns star Stephon Marbury. The half-brother of former Providence standout and current overseas pro Jamel Thomas. The heir apparent to the New York City point guard throne.
He's next. And everybody here seems to understand that. Even the kid himself.
"You don't change, but people change," he explains, "People act different around a person who's somebody. That's a fact."
And Telfair's somebody. Telfair's special.
Is this normal? Not really. But it is his normal.
"I was put on this earth to play basketball," the kid says. "Right here in Coney Island."
Sebastian in the spotlight
"When I was little, kids used to make fun of my name, but I like it," he said earlier this week. "It seems like a name you'd read about."
And hear about. Folks did. Way back when. Especially in and around the Big Apple.
They gathered around the playground's basketball court -- a strip of blacktop Marbury dubbed "the Garden" -- and watched a tinier Telfair put on dribbling displays.
Kids his age, older kids, drunks and druggies all cheered for Bassy when he put the ball between his legs, wrapped it around his back and beat teenagers in games of one-on-one.
All when he was seven and eight years old.
"Free shoes?" he thought at the time. "For basketball? All I've got to do is play basketball? That put a smile on my mother's face."
And on his. He was The Man. And he knew it. Already.
Former Lincoln point guard Tiny Morton -- the school's current coach -- saw Telfair the summer before his freshman year.
"I watched him play in tournaments against bigger guys," Morton said, "and he was dominating games. Then he went to ABCD."
He wasn't even supposed to play at the high-profile adidas All-American camp in 2000. His people just brought him over there -- because, after all, it was only a matter of time before the kid was ready to do this for real.
But a spot opened up -- a spot for a point guard -- and camp officials threw him a uniform. The 135-pound pipsqueak took advantage of the opportunity.
He went head-to-head with some of the country's best prep prospects -- college-bound talents three and four years his senior -- and the local legend became a national name.
Telfair had it. He had that something special.
"I don't know if you can define it or not," said Bobby Hartstein, Lincoln's head coach from 1980 to '95 and one of ABCD's top administrators.
"He played the game with great pace and great skill, and he had a real presence on the court. You knew he was the guy in charge -- even at that early age."
He was the guy in the spotlight as well.
Upstart sneaker company And1 featured him in a commercial before his freshman year at Lincoln. Will Blythe profiled Telfair that fall in Men's Journal and called him "The Marvel."
He started and starred as a rookie Railsplitter -- just like Stephon and did even more in his second season. The wunderkind averaged 29.1 points a game en route to a PSAL championship.
Sebastian's summer of discontent
"The Takeover," Slam screamed. "Sebastian Telfair and LeBron James are about to rule the world. Imagine that."
Telfair won his second straight MVP award in the ABCD Underclassmen All-Star Game this summer. But he took almost 30 shots to do it. And his rep took some hits.
Darius Washington, a fellow rising junior from Orlando, Fla., took the Bassy-bred chip on his shoulder and went right at the cover boy. Shaun Livingston, a lanky 6-6 point from Peoria, Ill., used his length to frustrate Telfair.
And the Class of 2004 as a whole started to assert itself as one of the best collections of talent in quite some time.
"What happened to Sebastian this summer can happen to anybody who's a member of this Class of 2004," said Dave Telep, a national recruiting analyst for TheInsidersHoops.com. "If you don't come out and make your mark, people are going to pass you."
Especially if and when you did what Telfair did. He shot too much. He missed a lot. And his Juice All Stars travel team -- with a reigning PSAL champion running the point -- didn't win squat.
Not at the June Rumble in the Bronx up at Fordham. Not at the mid-July Three Stripes Classic over at Hofstra. And not at the adidas Big Time out in Vegas.
His national billing dropped accordingly.
Brick Oettinger of the Prep Stars Recruiter's Handbook had him at No. 2 behind the 6-9 Jefferson, from Prentiss, Miss. even before the summer. And Telep dropped him all the way to No. 13.
"He's as good as any player in the country when he plays like a point guard," one Conference USA assistant said in August. "But when he shoots 25 to 30 times a game, he's just another player."
Just another player whose exposure had reached the point of overexposure.
"But he got that ranking in the first place because he understood his game so well," Telep added. "The old Sebastian Telfair made people better. He won games with his passing and his presence and his poise.
"This summer, though, he did everything but play to his strengths. He didn't used to need 25 shots to let you know that he was the best player on the floor."
Off the floor, there were little signs, too that not only had the hype gotten a little too big, but also that Telfair had started listening a little too much.
Was that Telfair cruising up and down the Strip? In a convertible? With his girlfriend?
How come his ABCD jersey changed from No. 11 to his usual No. 31 a day into the camp?
Did he not play in a city-wide all-star game on July 31 because the event's organizers didn't have No. 31 for him?
"He's a classic case," one ACC assistant said. "He was so good so young that too many people have gotten their claws into him. I think he's gotten a little unfairly judged.
"But he has to understand that with those expectations he can't take a night off -- and I think he took some nights off this summer."
"It's fair," Morton said. "He knows what type of business basketball is. He knows that people are going to expect a lot from him."
Maybe too much?
"No one could've played up to the expectations that were on him this summer," said Steve Keller, a talent scout for the Eastern Recruiting Report. "He's going into his junior year in high school -- he's still a little boy -- and people are telling him he's a pro.
"People put all this overblown hype out there. How can a kid not listen to that? Jesus Christ couldn't avoid those temptations."
Neither could Sebastian Telfair.
Passing into the future
They run the beach from one end of Coney Island to the other. They do calisthenics at a local park -- push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups -- and then work on basketball skills early in the afternoon over at John Jay College.
"This is a speed-up month," Telfair explains. "There's no traveling. There aren't a lot of tournaments. But you've got to get a lot of work done."
Because school starts Sept. 5. And for the first time ever -- at least for the first time since he was in the fifth grade -- the kid from Coney Island isn't considered the top player in his class.
Not after his shaky summer.
"I read one or two things in the paper," he says. But I don't go on the Internet. Well, I go on there to listen to music and stuff, but I don't read anything about myself. It doesn't really matter to me. I know I didn't play up to everybody else's goals."
"No," he adds quickly. "But my personal goals are different. I don't care about nobody else's goals."
Nor should he, really.
And to say, as Jamel did in the Slam story, that his little brother has a chance to be the "best ever" to come out of New York, well, that's more than a bit ambitious.
Lew Alcindor? Connie Hawkins? And … Sebastian Telfair? Hardly. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Just with New York's point guards -- the city's pantheon -- there are plenty of names. Some have "made it" (Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson, Marbury), and some haven't (Pearl Washington, Ed Cota, Omar Cook).
Where might Telfair fit into that group? Who knows right now?
But he does have certain innate gifts. He can do things others can't. He sees things. As Blythe writes in that Men's Journal story of two years ago, "he passes into the future." He leads teammates to spots on the floor -- places they don't even know they're going.
That's what makes Telfair special.
So what's left to do over the course of the next two years? Other than biding time before he heads off to college or (gulp) the NBA?
"I've still got a lot to do in high school," he says. "I want to lead high school in scoring. Not the city. High school. I want to get PSAL Player of the Year. I want two more city championships. And I want state championships.
"That's a lot, right?"
For Sebastian? The Marvel? The special kid from here in C.I.? Remains to be seen.
Michael Kruse writes for Basketball America and BasketballAmerica.com.