The Coney Island Kid

Photo: Robyn Twomey

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.

And make no mistake: Sebastian gets it. At 19, he brings a Timberlake-like shrewdness to his career planning. Much of that is thanks to Vaccaro, a former high-school football star, fruit peddler, and teacher who played the Godfather theme for his wedding dance. The 65-year-old Vaccaro hooked up Telfair with Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan to rap about image before his protégé was old enough to drive. Even before his first NBA game, Telfair was sounding precociously savvy. “I’d like to be like Magic Johnson,” says Telfair. “Someone who has fans who aren’t even basketball fans. I’d like to use basketball like he did to do things for my community.”

Even his friends advance the brand. “Executives saw his credibility with the urban network,” says Bubba, recalling Sebastian’s performance at the 2003 Rucker league in Harlem. “The smile, the way people were drawn to him—that was amazing. That convinced them that Sebastian would have mass appeal.” Bubba then tells me that Telfair was extremely busy this summer. “Tell other reporters that I’m available if they need Sebastian’s story, but Sebastian isn’t available.”

With Sebastian’s high Q rating, it’s no wonder his once-warm relationship with Marbury has gone Cold War. It doesn’t help that Sebastian had a better 2004 than Stephon: a big shoe deal and a Sports Illustrated cover for the younger cousin, a first-round playoff exit and an epic Olympic loss for the elder. When I ask Marbury if he was feuding with Telfair, he answers, “Next question.” When I tell him those were the exact words Telfair had used when asked about him, Marbury responds again with “Next question.” (Knicks fans can only hope he shows such discipline on the court.)

Fans seeking Telfair’s historical analogue need look no further than the Knicks’ corporate offices. Almost a quarter-century ago, a similarly sized and similarly adorable Isiah Thomas emerged from the West Side of Chicago. Alas, Thomas came around at approximately the same time as Jordan. More important, Thomas’s infectious smile turned out to be just infected. By 1992, both Jordan and dream-team coach Chuck Daly, Thomas’s longtime coach with the Pistons, had grown so tired of his scheming ways that they allegedly vetoed his presence on the Olympic team.

Of course, Thomas had one clear advantage over Telfair: He could definitely play in the NBA. Just as many basketball insiders say Sebastian Telfair will never be a starter in the league as believe he will be a bona fide star. Most of the criticism centers on Telfair’s outside shot, which makes Charlie Ward’s look like Rick Barry’s, and whether his slight adolescent frame can take nightly poundings. As the NBA season begins, he is penciled in as the third-string point guard on one of the worst teams in the league (he didn’t play one second in his first game). And yet Adidas signed Sebastian Telfair to the richest shoe contract of any 2004 NBA rookie.

The downside of Telfair’s game can be reduced to this: He’s too small and he can’t shoot.

Can Bassy play in this league? Or is this all a marketing illusion? His three-year, $4 million contract with the Trail Blazers is guaranteed, as is at least $5 million of his Adidas deal. To Telfair’s bank account, anyway, it doesn’t matter.

Over the past five years, the NBA draft has morphed from college graduation to high-school prom. Just nine years ago, Kevin Garnett became the first high-school player to go straight to the pros in almost two decades. Tonight, the Madison Square Garden theater is filled with fans of kids just out of Algebra II, seven of whom will go in the first round. Onstage, NBA commissioner David Stern calls out names, and another teenager strides to the stage wearing a designer suit with the awkwardness with which a 6-year-old boy wears his First Communion garb. He then does the rounds: first Stuart Scott, next ESPN Radio. A pert handler then leads the boy down a hallway for a press availability with the print media. Along the way, he slaps hands with other draftees and exchanges “Can you believe this is happening?” hugs.

All of tomorrow’s stars are present, except one. Which is strange, because that player is the most famous of them all and lives just a 40-minute subway ride away. Instead, Sebastian Telfair watches on television at the Trump International Hotel with his agent, Andy Miller. Why is a matter of debate: The Telfair camp claim they weren’t invited; off the record, NBA officials insisted they were. The fact that Telfair’s invitation was even in question is a bit of a shock. All draftees who the NBA thinks will go in the top ten are automatically invited. When Telfair announced he was going pro, there was talk of him being picked in the top five. But as draft day approached, Telfair’s standing slipped. “He’s quick, but not lightning-fast like a lot of point guards,” said an NBA head coach familiar with Telfair’s pre-draft workouts. “But he has a great court sense. It’s just going to take a few years for that to develop. He’s a talent, but a long-term project.”

For a moment, some draft touts even had him slipping into the second round, where NBA contracts are not guaranteed. But the buzz at the Garden now is that Telfair’s last workouts impressed the Trail Blazers and he was likely to be chosen with one of their two late first-round picks. Instead, the crowd gasps when the Blazers take Telfair at No. 13 with their first pick, at least ten slots higher than anyone expected him to go.

After hearing the news, Telfair headed from Trump’s place to 40/40 to celebrate. The high-school senior and Jay-Z became friends a year earlier when the rapper came to see Telfair play in Harlem’s storied Rucker summer league. The two men began talking often on the phone about Telfair’s coping with fame. They grew close enough that Jay-Z offered his club for a draft-nightparty and his limo for Sebastian’s graduation the following day. After the tension of the previous week, a defiant Sebastian told everyone who would listen, “I told you.” Someone then poured champagne on his head, and later, 18-year-old Sebastian Telfair cried in the arms of his mother.

Telfair’s journey from Surfside Gardens to the NBA rivals the Spike Lee and Darcy Frey tales. It begins with a single-mom family in a poor neighborhood that turns out guards like San Pedro de Macorís turns out shortstops. Erica Telfair raised Sebastian and his nine brothers and sisters on her own. (Sebastian’s father, Otis, was incarcerated on the second-degree murder conviction for much of Sebastian’s childhood.) And it’s not just a blood thing: When Bubba’s mother moved to Atlanta, Erica Telfair had Sebastian’s buddy move in with them. “My mom always said there was food for one more,” says Dan Turner, Sebastian’s brother and coach. “She’d say, ‘Just add a little more water to the pot, and we’ll be fine.’ ”

Telfair’s basketball education had its Tiger Woods–hitting–golf–balls–on–The Mike Douglas Show moments. “My earliest memory of Sebastian was him roller-skating in the park and dribbling a basketball at the same time,” says Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, Telfair’s coach at Lincoln. “Maybe he was 6. I thought it was kind of stupid, but I think it really helped him with his balance and coordination.” Telfair’s brothers Jamel and Dan started drilling him in fundamentals not long after he could walk. Sebastian would be up at 5:30 A.M., running the fifteen flights of stairs at Surfside, then jogging on the beach, followed by 1,000 shots at the gym. And this was just the before-school routine. When Jamel headed off to Providence College, Sebastian and his mom would visit on the weekends. After practice, a 10-year-old Sebastian would scrimmage against God Shammgod, an All–Big East point guard and future NBAer. And he held his own.

Attending a high school other than Lincoln was not an option. “Some of my earliest memories are of watching my cousin Stephon play for Lincoln,” says Sebastian. “When I was 12, I got in a fight with my sister, and my mom wouldn’t let me watch Lincoln play in the city championships. That was the death penalty of punishments. I cried all night long.”

Being Marbury’s cousin and Lincoln’s latest phenom, Telfair began attracting national attention in his early teens, and met Vaccaro in the summer of 2000. A relationship between a fiftysomething sharpie and a 14-year-old black boy would arch eyebrows in most social settings. But in the world of shoes and hoops, it is completely normal. A high-school football star, Vacarro spent much of his adult life drifting through professions from rock-and-roll promoter to schoolteacher to agent for players like George Gervin. In 1977, a 37-year-old Vaccaro approached Nike with the idea of peddling shoes that would be both functional on the court and a style statement off the court. The key was getting college basketball teams to wear them. “But how do we do that?” asked the Nike execs. Easy, said Vaccaro. You pay the coaches.

By 1984, Nike and Vaccaro had dozens of coaches on the payroll, but they still lacked a superstar. Vaccaro then convinced Nike CEO Phil Knight to invest $500,000 a year in a player named Michael Jordan. Jordan’s stardom sent Nike stock soaring and left Adidas and Reebok desperate to catch up. The competition for players became intense, with even NBA benchwarmers picking up six-figure endorsement checks. Vaccaro had a better idea: go after the youth market at the grassroots. He’d give shoe deals to high-school coaches and sponsor summer camps for top teenage players. The benefits would be twofold: Kids would feel loyal to Vaccaro and Nike from an early age, and their coaches could work the camps as consultants and make more dough. When Knight forced Vaccaro out of an increasingly corporate Nike in 1991, Vaccaro took the same concepts to Adidas. Soon, Nike and the German-based company were competing for the top 15-year-olds.

The only difference with Telfair was he was 14. In the summer of 2000, Nike reps came to Coney Island and tried to visit with Sebastian. But Dwayne Morton, soon to be Telfair’s coach at Lincoln, wasn’t having any of it. “The Nike representatives wanted to talk to Sebastian about coming to a Nike camp,” recalls Morton, who has been criticized for parlaying his relationship with Telfair into a lucrative consulting position with Adidas. “I gave them the runaround and kind of hid Sebastian.”

Eventually, Sebastian tagged along with his brother Dan and Morton to the Adidas camp. An eighth-grader had never played at the camp before. Vaccaro changed that. “The kid sat around for three days before I made the decision to let him play,” recalls Vaccaro. “I wanted to make sure he didn’t embarrass himself. And God knows, he didn’t.”

Vaccaro takes a kind of jewel thief’s pride in revealing the secrets of his trade. “I started talking with Sebastian once a week,” he says. “If I wasn’t around, he’d talk to my wife. When I was traveling through New York, I’d visit his mom and bring a box of chocolates.”

Vaccaro further courted Telfair by funding a Morton-run AAU team starring Telfair. In the past decade, AAU traveling summer squads have begun to rival high-school programs for their influence with college recruiters. Building a team around Sebastian was Sonny’s way of conferring status on the boy. Meanwhile, Sonny introduced Sebastian to Jordan and his other basketball clients. He also worked the phones, amping up the hype machine that eventually scored Telfair a Sports Illustrated cover at 18.

Sometimes, the hype went from the divine to the absurd. In 2002, a 17-year-old Telfair posed with scantily clad models for a Dime Magazine profile that opened with the lines “Oozing sexuality, three bikini-clad, drop-dead gorgeous models flock to him… . Like the eye of the hurricane, he sits calmly at the center of the storm. As the craziness of the world swirls wildly around him, the Starchild remains eerily unfazed through it all.”

The story launched a Telfair backlash, but Sebastian’s charm and work ethic quelled the rumblings.

“Sebastian is determined not to be a bust,” says Vaccaro. “He didn’t want to be another New York hyped guy who fails, like Lenny Cook, Omar Cook, or Erick Barkley. That’s an obsession with him.”

In high school, with Jamel now playing overseas, Turner took over his little brother’s training. “We set realistic goals for him,” Turner says between games at Sebastian’s summer league. “We wanted him to win a city championship as a freshman. We did that. And we wanted to break Kenny Anderson’s New York scoring record, and we did that, too.”

In his four years at Lincoln High, Telfair broke Anderson’s record and led his team to three city championships. The team barnstormed the country, traveling in style: being picked up at the airport in a white stretch Hummer on a 2003 trip to Los Angeles. In his senior year, Telfair succeeded LeBron James as the high-schooler of the moment, with ESPN2 featuring his games. Tickets to Telfair’s games were tougher to get than Nets tickets.

The attention didn’t stop at Telfair. His buddy Bubba got a call from a Massachusetts prep school suggesting it would pay his tuition if he could get Telfair to transfer. The calls from colleges and street agents grew so intense that Bubba was changing his cell-phone number every month.

At school, Telfair signed autographs and fended off the ladies. Adult ladies. “Women in their twenties were throwing themselves at him,” says Morton. “Even teachers. He just had that kind of respect and appeal.” And in Coney Island, a blighted community’s hope rode on his every game.

“I’ve been playing before big crowds my whole life,” says Sebastian. “The NBA crowds aren’t going to bother me. You want pressure? Just come back to Coney Island after Lincoln loses a game.”

Conventional wisdom has always been that a small point guard could never go straight from high school to the pros: The quarterbacking of an NBA offense was simply too much for a teenager. Even Stephon did a year’s apprenticeship at Georgia Tech. Vaccaro didn’t agree. On the second day of 2004, Sonny watched Telfair score 37 points against a top L.A. team, at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. After the game, Vaccaro found his young charge on the team bus. “You’re ready to go pro” is all he said.

Sebastian Telfair’s patent-leather black Adidas sneakers shine and sparkle as he moves up and down the court at Salt Lake Community College. To the uninitiated, the shoe, called Game Day Lightning, is ghastly, but the look has a profitable precedent: The Air Jordan 11 featured a patent-leather look and was the best-selling basketball shoe in Nike history. Alas, Telfair isn’t a big enough star to have the shoe to himself. He shares it with NBA journeymen including Nick Van Exel and Chauncey Billups. While Game Day Lightning will be available in every mall, a Telfair-specific shoe, with Bassy written across the toe and in Lincoln’s school colors, will be available only in Sebastian’s Coney Island neighborhood.

Maybe it’s the shoes or maybe it’s the missed twelve-foot jumper, but someone in the sparse crowd screams “Telfair sucks!” early in the game between the Blazers and the Spurs. But Telfair quickly wins over his critic. He drives the lane with a head fake that almost breaks the neck of his defender before kicking it out to an open teammate who promptly launches a brick. “That’s okay, Sebastian. Just keep passing,” shouts Maurice Cheeks, the Blazers head coach and a former all-star point guard. He’s not coaching, just watching from courtside with a big box of popcorn. “Not your problem, they have to make the shot.” Next time down, Telfair dribbles the lane, slams on the brakes, then blows by his befuddled defender for a layup. By now, the small rabble is half-standing, half-whistling. Cheeks smiles.

In the parlance of scouts, Telfair has great court sense, which means he knows where his teammates are at all times and knows where they will move before they know. He does it with such precision that new teammates spend a week peeling basketballs off their foreheads before they learn that Telfair’s pass will arrive the millisecond they break free. Unlike many high-schoolers transitioning to the NBA, he also has a reputation as a hard worker—he doesn’t take plays off or coast through quarters.

The downside of Telfair’s game can be reduced to this: He’s too small, and he can’t shoot. Telfair’s shot has been dissected and criticized more than the Kerry campaign. In the games I watched, Telfair would miss a few jumpers, get discouraged, and resort to making the tricky pass over taking the open shot. In high school, Telfair’s speed and intensity led to hundreds of easy baskets. Those assets won’t be as valuable at the pro level, where most of the players guarding him will be three or four inches taller, and 40 pounds heavier. “He has to develop an in-between shot,” an NBA coach told me. “He’s not big enough to just penetrate at this level. If he doesn’t, he’s going to be one of those point guards who can’t find an open teammate because his defender is sagging off him.” Telfair’s size is a problem on defense, too. Summer-league guards, mostly NBA benchwarmers, repeatedly muscled past the smaller and weaker Telfair. And while he continually popped back up after being decked, whether he can stay healthy for 82 games is unknown.

By the time Sonny Vaccaro told Telfair he was ready to turn pro, Vaccaro had left Adidas. But in Telfair’s fairy-tale life, even that worked to his advantage. Despite jumping to Reebok, Vaccaro maintained his friendship with Telfair. Until Vaccaro’s defection, Adidas was viewed as a lock to sign Sebastian. With Vaccaro ensconced at Reebok, however, many believed Telfair was still in play. When Telfair announced his intentions, Adidas didn’t take any chances: The company immediately offered him a six-year contract estimated to be between $15 million and $20 million. Industry insiders were shocked. Despite Telfair’s fame, he wasn’t viewed as a top shoe prospect. Nike didn’t even bother to make an offer. Even if he succeeds in the NBA, it will be as an assists-dishing playmaker, a much harder sell to kids than a scorer or a dunker.

“Adidas violated the first rule of negotiation and overplayed their hand,” crows Vaccaro. “They were bidding against themselves. There was no way we were going that high. Sebastian’s family called me, and I told them it was a hell of an offer and they should sign it. I mean, what point guard has made big money? Magic doesn’t count—he was six foot nine. I love the kid, but selling a point guard is awfully tough.”

The Adidas contract not only lined Telfair’s pockets, but Vaccaro claims it also ensured Telfair’s being taken at No. 13 by the Blazers. While general manager John Nash lauds Telfair’s skills and insists he wouldn’t have been available at No. 23, Vaccaro has another theory. “Portland is the home of Adidas,” he says. “Figure it out.” When I say I don’t understand what he means, Vaccaro chuckles. “Look, it was already embarrassing that Sebastian slipped that far. There was no way Adidas could afford to have him slip late in the first round.” When I ask Vaccaro to explain what quid pro quo could convince the Blazers to let a shoe company dictate their draft, he demurs, saying, “I want this to be a positive story about Sebastian.”

“I think that’s sour grapes on Sonny’s behalf,” says Travis Gonzolez, an Adidas spokesman, who also says the amount of Telfair’s contract has been greatly inflated (both Adidas and the Blazers deny Vaccaro’s draft claim). “Does it make sense for the league’s richest owner [Portland owner Paul Allen] to turn his draft over to a shoe company? We signed Sebastian for his long-term possibilities and because he has a smile and personality that transcend sports. That’s rare. Among the high-schoolers, he’s the only player you could put on a billboard and people would know who he is.”

Maybe, but even sports fans want a little substance with their sizzle. In August, Gonzolez invited me to Los Angeles to watch Sebastian shooting his first Adidas commercial. However, filming was repeatedly delayed and when the ad was shot, Telfair had to share the spotlight. “We’re going with a spot with a lot of our players in it,” said Gonzolez. “Sebastian is going to have a cameo in it.” In September, Kevin Wulff, head of American sports marketing for Adidas and architect of the Telfair deal, announced he would resign this month amid reports that Adidas’s North American sales had slumped in the first half of 2004.

It’s not that surprising. A top shoe-industry exec told me that selling sneakers is like a three-legged stool: You must have a cool shoe, a marketable personality, and a credible NBA star. Right now, Telfair, who will begin the season as a third-string point guard, behind the Blazers’ Damon Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel, is only two for three.

Toward the end of summer, Sebastian and Bubba arrive at the Sebastian Telfair Invitational Tournament finals in a vehicle a little humbler than a Mercedes Maybach: an Enterprise Rent-a-Van. The two are moving Telfair’s furniture out of a New Jersey apartment Sebastian took after graduation, in anticipation of the pair’s move to Portland. “I’m just going to give him a little bit of home,” says Bubba. “Help him not get lonely.” Telfair will be renting in Portland, and so far, his only major purchases have been a red BMW for himself and an Infiniti for his parents. “I don’t like him driving that car in the city by himself,” says Bubba. “I always try to be with him, or one of our friends. We just don’t want anything to happen to him.” Telfair has offered to move his mother to a safer neighborhood—a cousin of Marbury’s was murdered near Telfair’s housing project in September—but she wants to remain where she has roots.

Rain has forced the championships into a grade-school gym not far from Kaiser Park. There are few seats, so the hundred observers ring the court, giving the steamy gym a claustrophobic feeling. Ethan’s team, named the Family, is clad in blue jerseys that are clownishly oversize. Starting the second half, they trail a squad from the Gowanus projects. Both Sebastian and Dan Turner stalk the sidelines as Ethan makes a series of mistakes, turning the ball over repeatedly. “Ethan, you want to play?” screams Turner. “I’ll sit your ass down if you don’t play right.”

Properly motivated, Ethan starts hitting his shots and zipping Telfair passes to his teammates. As the Family rallies, Sebastian pumps his fist. Then, with the game tied in the last minute, Ethan and an opponent collide while diving for a loose ball. A little dazed, Ethan takes one comically menacing step toward his rival. The ref whistles him for a technical. When he realizes his mistake, the boy’s big brown eyes well with tears. “Be a man,” shouts Sebastian.

Luckily, the technical is missed. There’s less than ten seconds left when Ethan drives for a layup and is fouled. The pressure, for an adult much less a child, is nearly unbearable. At the free-throw line, Ethan stares at the ground. “Ethan,” screams Sebastian. “Up there.” He motions for his brother to focus on the backboard. Ethan takes the ball and shoots: swish. He drops to the floor, not out of bravado but sheer relief. A moment later, the game is over. The Family wins, and Sebastian wraps his brother in a bear hug. An opposing player’s mom grumbles about the tournament benefactor’s screaming at the refs, but Sebastian defuses her with his smile. Trophies larger than the participants are doled out, and Sebastian gives crisp hundred-dollar bills to the winners.

“Games like these are what makes me ready for the NBA,” Sebastian tells me. He signs autographs and poses for pictures as he tries to move toward the exit. “These games made me who I am. I want these kids to know I made it and they can, too.”

Finally, he jumps into the white van. Little boys chase after a waving Sebastian Telfair as he heads out of Coney Island. And then the man-child is gone.

The Coney Island Kid