Sebastian Telfair was always going to be two things. Either a brilliant point guard who skipped college, or a cautionary tale, a reason why hype is overrated. Over a 13 year pro career, Telfair played for 8 NBA teams and made north of $19 million. He was a lottery pick one year after LeBron James was a lottery pick. James is still playing. Telfair is going to prison on gun charges. It feels oddly peculiar that New York’s Mr. Basketball had one great night: when he was drafted. After that it was treading water, or drowning.
Telfair had so many expectations lobbied onto him because of where he came from but he delivered little which created huge disappointment and smirks that he was a bust. Sebastian Telfair wasn’t a star. He had a few moments in the league but was overrated and then had to face who he really was. Not Jason Kidd. Not Chris Paul. Truth: all five-star recruits aren’t going to be special.
Telfair entered the league in 2004 as a splashy point guard with little offensive game. It was that flashiness that gave him a name. The cousin of Stephon Marbury, Telfair at six feet didn’t have size but was a phenom in AAU ball and that led the narrative and his lottery pick highlight.
But one of Telfair’s NBA problems was the hype that surrounded hm, the same hype that Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady embraced as part of their narrative, was death by paper cuts for Telfair. He had it worse as a high schooler to the pros player because a point guard has to excel on his own merits and he has to make others better. It’s the hardest position to learn, to get right. You need years and a lot of game action. And even then, every mistake is magnified through a lens of perfection that Telfair could never meet. In Portland, the team that drafted him, he was inconsistent which was expected. But everyone wanted more. The team lacked mentors for the 19 year old. He was replaced in the lineup by veteran Steve Blake who wasn’t as quick and dynamic but he knew how to run a team and he didn’t turn the ball over. If you decide to draft a high schooler and start him at point, you have to be patient and let him fail. Portland gave up after two years.
Then it was Boston’s turn. An arrest soured the Celtics on Telfair. A year later, he was in Minnesota. It was his coming out party. He showed he could play in the league, that he understood the position. His turnovers were way down. He even signed a long term deal but was traded to the Clippers. That began a series of teams that wanted Telfair and then didn’t want him. He wasn’t worth building around, his talent mostly was coming off the bench, he didn’t have the gift to be a NBA starter. And so he was like a lot of NBA-ers who come into the league and hope for a spot on a team that needs something they can do. They circle the league. They meet up in the same city twice. They come off the bench and have isolated performances that matter in a vacuum and then they are gone somewhere else.
In Telfair’s eleventh year, the NBA wasn’t interested and he found himself in a place where veteran careers end without fanfare, or notice, or even mourning. China.
Was his career a failure? If you judge a lottery pick as special and keep waiting for him to be special and he never is, then yes. He failed. For Telfair, the wait to be great was interminable. He just wasn’t good enough. The NBA doesn’t reward not good enough. Off the court, Telfair’s maturity wavered. There was the time he had a gold chain ripped off his neck. It was worth $50,000. It wasn’t his fault being robbed but he was 21 years old which seemed to indicate he didn’t know what he didn’t know. The next year he was arrested after a traffic stop. He had been speeding on a suspended license. A handgun was under the seat. Telfair pled guilty to possession of a weapon and was granted probation. The NBA suspended him for three games but what Adidas did was worse than being punished by his employer. Adidas tore up his contract; it had a morality clause.
Twelve years later, an eerily similar case, as if he didn’t learn anything. A traffic stop. Loaded guns, including an assault weapon, a bullet proof vest, 296 bullets. He was only in town to open basketball courts in his name. He wasn’t 21 anymore but 33. There was a two week trial and Sebastian Telfair was given three and a half years in prison.
Sebastian Telfair played in 564 NBA games. What ruined his career was what ruins most careers. He couldn’t shoot, making 39% of his shots and 31% of his threes. He never averaged 10 points in a season, and only one season did he have 6 dimes. He was average on the court and he was immature off the court. That doesn’t make him unique. But that it all happened to a lottery pick, to Stephon Marbury’s cousin, to a Lincoln High phenom, makes his fall even more dramatic.