The sad rise and fall of basketball prince Sebastian Telfair

JAIME C. HARRIS | 8/15/2019, 7:24 p.m.
Fifteen years ago, March 17, 2004, this reporter stood in front of a smiling, round faced teenager in a locker ...
Sabastian Telfair Contributed

Fifteen years ago, March 17, 2004, this reporter stood in front of a smiling, round faced teenager in a locker room at Madison Garden. Sebastian Telfair, 18-years-old, exuded pure joy and confidence. For that one day, he was the king of New York, a celebrated basketball prodigy from Coney Island in Brooklyn.

On Tuesday, Telfair, now 34, joined hundreds of thousands of Black men in this country who are serving time as convicted felons, some former fellow NBA players, names like Javaris Crittenton and Mookie Blaylock.

A cousin of NBA star Stephon Marbury and a national figure in his own right, back in 2004 Telfair led the Lincoln High School Railsplitters to their third consecutive PSAL boys title. Their 74-65 victory over Cardozo High School was in front of an electric crowd of over 12,000, including Jay-Z and NBA scouts, the latter who were certain the 6’0” Telfair would become the first point guard to go straight from high school to professional basketball’s pre-eminent league.

“Just happy man,” is how my notes from that day recorded Telfair’s response to my question, “What’s your emotions right now?” After a sub-par first half, Telfair scored 17 of his game high 25 points in the second half, utilizing his superior ball-handling and blazing quickness to confound Cardozo defenders.

A year earlier, his buddy LeBron James had garnered unprecedented attention and coverage of a high school basketball player from fans and the media. Now, it was Telfair’s turn. “These people came out to see me and Lincoln play today,” he said to reporters, “and we played like champions today.

“…I’m not sad it’s over,” Telfair reflected—Lincoln would lose in the state Class AA final to Mount Vernon High School 11 days later—“because we won and that’s all that matters…If I could play a couple of more years of high school, I’d do it all over again.” He would also take a do-over for the last few years of his life.

A few months after that day in the Garden, we were in the ESPN Zone in Times Square, where a major event was being held to announce Telfair’s multi-million dollar deal with apparel giant Adidas. He had already declared for the NBA draft, in which he would be selected with the 13th pick in the first round by the Portland Trailblazers.

Telfair would go on to play professionally from 2004 to 2017, ending his career in China, where Marbury has become an icon. He last played in the NBA in 2014 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Telfair never became a star in his 12 NBA seasons, instead settling in as a serviceable backup, playing 564 games and starting 193.

On Tuesday, he was in a Brooklyn courtroom, not as a respected and admired former basketball player but an emotionally broken man, at times ranting incoherently as his appearance has gone viral on social media. Despairingly, Telfair was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for weapons charges stemming from 2017 when he was stopped driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck in Brooklyn. Police found an arsenal inside the vehicle. Among the items that were not legally licensed in New York were a submachine gun, three loaded handguns, extended magazines and a ballistic vest.

“Please don’t take me from society right now,” Telfair implored. It’s uncertain why he was carrying weapons that could inflict massive human tragedy. But on the heels of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, an overwhelming majority of the country has little tolerance for gun violence.

Perhaps the police averted Telfair causing harm to others and himself. Maybe he had no intent of using then at all. What is unalterable is his fall has been hard and cautionary. One can only hope and pray the man nicknamed Bassy turns his life around and uses his experiences to positively guide and impact a multitude of youth.