A few weeks after Sebastian Telfair was selected in the first round of this year’s NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers and arrived at his high-school graduation in Jay-Z’s $500,000 Mercedes Maybach limousine—the two rites of passage occurred on successive days—Adidas’s newest pinup boy invites me out to Coney Island for the inaugural games of the Sebastian Telfair Invitational Tournament. He wants me to see the next phenom.
“You have to watch my brother Ethan play,” insists Telfair. I have to ask him to repeat himself because his usually crisp diction is lost courtesy of a lip made fat on the NBA summer-league courts of Salt Lake City. The lip, sewn up with medical Super Glue, was the second car-wreck moment in as many games. An errant (or perhaps not) elbow has left an ugly egg-size bruise on Telfair’s Ali-pretty face. “Ethan’s 9, and he’s much better than I was at that age,” says Telfair. “He’s going to be the best player in the family.”
Considering the family, that would be quite a feat. On a cool July Saturday, Telfair’s league debuts on the cracked asphalt of Kaiser Park, about three blocks from the Coney Island projects made famous in Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot, a chronicle of now–New York Knick guard Stephon Marbury’s freshman year at the nearby Abraham Lincoln High School. Telfair is Marbury’s cousin, and depending on whom you talk to, his league is either a complement or a competitor to Marbury’s own summer league.
As the games begin, Telfair lounges by a luxury SUV with his best friend and future Portland housemate, Rasheem “Bubba” Barker. Dressed in baggy shorts, an Adidas shirt, and a Yankees cap studiously askew, he blends in easily with the kids. It’s not surprising: At five foot eleven, Telfair is dwarfed by some of the 14-year-old players. Still, he’s a magnet, moving through the kids with the easy charisma of a child star who long ago grew comfortable with constant adoration. When he thinks no one is looking, Telfair peels off a couple of twenties and gives them to a child, maybe 10 years old. “Happy birthday, shorty. Don’t tell anyone,” whispers Telfair. Sebastian then flashes the electric smile that contributed more than did his point-guard skills to Adidas’s showering him with a multi-million-dollar endorsement contract. The little boy looks as if life has been forever changed.
“The reason Shaq never had a big shoe contract is because kids can’t identify with someone that big,” says Sonny Vaccaro, éminence grise of the shady world of basketball-shoe contracts and a Telfair confidant since Sebastian was 14. “Kids can identify with Sebastian’s size, that smile, and that personality. You can’t fake that.”
Sebastian’s attention turns to the court where Ethan plays. The intensity of the game, played by Cub Scout–age children, says a lot about how Sebastian acquired court wisdom far beyond his years. This isn’t a Chappaqua gym teacher throwing a ball up and watching ten rug rats scramble around the court. Coaches scream out complex defensive schemes. The 30 or so fans ride the kids with a vitriol rarely seen outside of Philadelphia. Adding to the drama is M.C. Pay-Per-View, a dreadlocked man in shorts and Timberlands who provides running commentary from a wireless microphone.
To sell sneakers, you need a cool shoe, a marketable personality, and a credible NBA star. Right now, Telfair is only two for three.
Telfair is right about his little brother: Ethan possesses the same court precocity that brought Sebastian national press at 14. Playing with a ball roughly the size of his torso, Ethan dishes full-court bounce passes and scores 29 points, displaying a remarkably sophisticated game. During time-outs, he drops to one knee and lectures his teammates on their play. “That’s what a leader does,” says Ethan, after Sebastian introduces us. “I’m working on my step-back,” he adds. “I usually play the point, but when the other team plays a box and one, they shift me to the two guard.” The Kodak moment ends abruptly. Fans from two opposing teams start screaming at each other. Within seconds, it escalates and one of the men grabs an aluminum bat. The kids scatter, but not too far: They want to see the action. Eventually, aluminum lands with a sickening thud on the calf of the unarmed coach. The man with the bat continues to scream obscenities. Eventually, Dan Turner, Sebastian’s brother and longtime coach, disarms him.
“Newwww Yorkkkk Citttyyy!” shouts Ethan in an exaggerated Brooklynese. He arches his eyebrows, mugging for a nonexistent camera. “Youse gotta love it.”
Ethan then turns and looks for Sebastian. In the distance, he can see the fading red lights of his brother’s SUV. The man with the crossover dribble and crossover aspirations split the moment things went south. “I’ve learned to stay out of trouble,” he had told me earlier. “You can avoid trouble, but when trouble comes looking for you, you have to walk away.”
Just 19, Sebastian Telfair is equal parts New York City high-school hoops legend, budding marketing phenomenon, and questionable NBA prospect. To his friends back in Coney Island, the Jerusalem of urban hoops, he’s Spike Lee’s Jesus Shuttlesworth come to life. In four years at Lincoln High, Telfair led the Railsplitters to three city championships and shattered Kenny Anderson’s state scoring record. He negotiated his way through the minefields of street agents, prep schools’ courting his best friends, and sporadic come-ons from female teachers. Following in LeBron James’s footsteps, he took his teammates on a surreal ride of stretch Hummers and ESPN appearances. And he didn’t forget his roots: When the team flew out to L.A. for a game, Telfair convinced his coach to let him bring some classmates along for their first airplane ride.
Adidas thinks Bassy, as his friends call him, is the Next Big Thing. Of course, Adidas is biased. It has been investing in Telfair since he was 14. An Adidas ally once hid him from Nike reps who wanted to meet the boy, and Adidas went on to make Telfair the youngest player to play in their storied summer camp. The following year, they funded his high-school coach’s AAU team in another preposterously legal attempt to curry favor. For years, Vaccaro—who made his bones at Nike as the man who gave the world Air Jordans, then moved on to Adidas—worked the phones on Bassy’s behalf, scaring up national press before he entered the ninth grade. In June, Adidas closed the deal, signing the teenager to an estimated $12 million to $15 million shoe contract. The company’s high-stakes bet is that Telfair will become that rarest of commodities: the star who can be all things to all people.
It’s not the craziest theory. You want cuddly? Compare Sebastian with his surly cousin, Stephon Marbury. Marbury, now returned home to lead the Knicks God knows where, is everything the casual fan hates about the NBA. There are the vaguely demonic arched brows, the permanent scowl, and a league rep as a team-killing, press-hating ball hog. Bassy? He has a rising-above-it bio and an angel’s face that makes moms want to carry him around in an adult-size Snugli. On the court, even his critics say, Telfair is a team-playing, pass-first, true point guard.
You want street cred? On Draft Night, Sebastian skipped the Madison Square Garden league event and partied at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club. During his senior year, Telfair’s older brother Sylvester was in Rikers on an attempted-murder charge (he was recently cleared), and he’s served two years in Sing Sing for gun possession. And before the first Telfair fan writes in about perpetuating urban stereotypes by tarring him with the sins of his brother (or his father, who served time on a second-degree-murder charge), au contraire. In an America where one in five young black men will do hard time, Telfair’s family just makes him more touchable, both to inner-city black kids and white wannabes.