Broken Hoop Dreams: Where Did It Go Wrong for Former Phenom Sebastian Telfair?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2017

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Sebastian Telfair (31) dribbles past Brooklyn Nets guard Jarrett Jack (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo/Associated Press

It was about 2:45 in the morning on Sunday, June 11, when officer Christian Valenzuela of the New York Police Department's 77th Precinct noticed the Ford F-150 with Florida plates. The truck was parked illegally, on the concrete median dividing the eastbound and westbound paths of Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, right off Classon Avenue. Two men sat in the front seat.

The car started to move as officer Valenzuela approached. Its headlights were off. According to the incident report, Valenzuela spotted a burning blunt, which gave him probable cause to search inside. He had the two men step out and popped open the truck's center console, where he found two Ziploc bags of marijuana and a loaded .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Alongside it was a magazine holding an additional nine bullets.

Valenzuela made his way to the back of the truck to inspect the flatbed next. There, packed away inside an ottoman and a suitcase, lay more firepower than an individual would ever need: two semi-automatic pistols, one semi-automatic assault rifle, 296 bullets stuffed into seven ammo boxes and two magazines. The truck's driver was wearing a ballistic vest, too.

Both men were cuffed and placed under arrest. The passenger, Jami Thomas, was an 18-year-old kid from Brooklyn with no priors on his record. The driver was Thomas' cousin. When Valenzuela ran his name through the DMV's computer system, he discovered that this wasn't his first gun-related arrest. In 2008, the driver had been convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree. His license to drive in New York state had been suspended as a result.

And so Valenzuela loaded the two men, arrested on multiple weapons charges and for unlawful possession of marijuana, into his cruiser and drove them two miles east to his precinct. There, just 10 miles north of the Coney Island public houses where he grew up and the blue paved outdoor court where he grew famous, the driver, Sebastian Telfair, likely wondered whether his freedom would soon be taken away.

   

SONNY VACCARO CAN still vividly recall the first time he met Sebastian Telfair. He can still picture the movie star smile. He describes it as "infectious" and Telfair as "Mr. Congeniality."

Telfair was "one of the most brilliant high school basketball players I've ever seen," Vaccaro told B/R.

It was 17 years ago, July 10, 2000. Vaccaro was 60 years old, and dozens of the country's top high school basketball prospects, and even more college and NBA coaches and scouts, had descended to the small, drab gym of Teaneck, New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University for Vaccaro's then-annual ABCD Camp. Vaccaro—the former sneaker executive who inked Michael Jordan to his first deal with Nike and over the next 30 years morphed into one of the most powerful men in sports—formed the camp in 1984.

Even before he became a high school basketball star in New York, Sebastian Telfair had impressed college and NBA scouts at Sonny Vaccaro's ABCD Camp.
Even before he became a high school basketball star in New York, Sebastian Telfair had impressed college and NBA scouts at Sonny Vaccaro's ABCD Camp.SUE OGROCKI/Associated Press

That summer, Bobby Hartstein, an assistant coach for Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High School basketball team, was working at the camp. Hartstein had been around the Lincoln Railsplitters for years, coaching local legends like Stephon Marbury, who went on to become an NBA All-Star, and Marbury's cousin, Jamel Thomas, a former Providence College basketball star who moonlighted in the NBA for 12 games from 1999-2001. Over his years at Lincoln, Hartstein coached 13 members of the Telfair/Thomas/Marbury family, and he decided to bring the then-5'9", rail-thin eighth-grader along. He figured Telfair would benefit from meeting Vaccaro, watching the games and studying the players he'd soon be measured against.

But when one of the camp's attendees failed to show, Vaccaro, with his short, receding grey hair and Vegas wise guy face, turned to Hartstein.

"It's up to you," he said.

Hartstein relented. He said he'd be fine with Telfair practicing with a team the first day and seeing how it went. Vaccaro and his wife, Pam, a tall, blonde former model, beckoned Telfair to come down from the bleachers. Pam handed him a white uniform with an Adidas logo and the number one stitched onto the front. Telfair, ecstatic, wrapped both arms around her and planted a kiss on her cheek.

"It was probably the happiest smile I've ever seen in my life," Vaccaro recalls.

That night at practice, Telfair proved that despite his age, he was already one of the best prep players in the country. He spent the week running circles around players bigger and stronger than him. In one game, he even found himself matched up against a 6'6" freshman point guard from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James. Telfair held his own, though, never backing down, never afraid to attack, never doubting that he belonged.

His star was born that summer, and over the next four years, it only rose. There were all-star games and New York City Public School Athletic League championships, national magazine covers, books and documentaries. Lincoln's games became New York City events and drew celebrities like Derek Jeter and Jay-Z. College coaches came calling, then NBA scouts started filling out the bleachers of Lincoln's Ocean Parkway gym.

"And even with all that, basketball was always just a joy to him," says Kenny Pretlow, an assistant coach at Lincoln.

Telfair first committed to play college ball at Louisville but soon after decided to jump straight to the NBA, where, despite his sub-six-foot frame, he was drafted 13th overall in 2004 by the Portland Trail Blazers. That roster spot came with a three-year, $5 million contract, more money than his family, in their Coney Island housing project, had ever seen. But back then, it was common for high school players to leapfrog college for the NBA. It was the six-year, $15 million shoe deal that Vaccaro and Adidas handed him that separated Telfair from the rest.

After committing to Louisville, Telfair opted for the NBA draft, in which he was selected 13th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers.
After committing to Louisville, Telfair opted for the NBA draft, in which he was selected 13th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

To this day, Vaccaro remembers Telfair clutching that ABCD uniform like a Christmas gift, then turning to him, Pam and Hartstein and sharing one final thought.

"I'll never let you guys down."

    

IN BROOKLYN, at the 77th precinct on Utica Avenue, police took down Telfair's statements. He then called his mother, Erica, before being shipped with Thomas off to Brooklyn Criminal Court for arraignment. Erica—who still lives in the same third-floor apartment at Surfside Gardens on West 31st Street where Telfair and his nine siblings were raised—called her oldest son, Daniel Turner, to relay the troubling news.

Daniel lives one floor below Erica, so the two, he says, shared a cab to the courthouse. They were worried, but figured the arrest was a misunderstanding. This was their Sebastian, after all. Just the previous afternoon, he'd been sitting at Erica's kitchen table, telling her about his 12-year-old daughter, Samaya, and 10-year-old son, Sebastian Jr., and how he planned on taking his cousin, Jami Thomas, out shopping for sneakers to celebrate his high school graduation. He had been hoping to catch up with Turner, too. Telfair's annual Coney Island basketball tournament was scheduled for the next month, and Turner, as always, was helping organize the event. Their schedules didn't mesh that day, but they promised they'd see each other soon.

Neither thought it would be that night in a Brooklyn courthouse with a judge reading out the many crimes of which Telfair was accused.

Yet there he stood in a gray sweatsuit and black high-tops, the former basketball star and pride of Brooklyn, looking at all the family and friends that had filed into the courtroom to show their love and support. Erica and Daniel Turner were there, along with Telfair's wife and kids, among others. He locked eyes with all of them, even as many of theirs welled with tears. After being bailed out, he thanked them all for coming down. He was sad and appreciative of the support but also angry.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Turner remembers Telfair saying as they made their way toward the street. He recalls the look of fear and shame on his younger brother's face.

    

BEING SELECTED IN the first round of the NBA draft is supposed to be the beginning of a great career. For Telfair, it turned out to be the high point.

The All-Star Games he was supposed to make—he never played in one. The huge numbers he was supposed to put up—he never managed to average double figures in scoring for a season. Telfair did hang around the NBA for parts of 10 seasons and netted over $19 million in his career. But the brilliance that Vaccaro and so many others foresaw never came to be.

"The NBA wasn't really set up for 19-year-olds at that time," says Nate McMillan, who coached Telfair for a season in Portland.

Surrounded by teammates who weren't interested in mentoring him and struggling to find his rhythm on the court, Telfair was dealt by the Trail Blazers two years after they drafted him.
Surrounded by teammates who weren't interested in mentoring him and struggling to find his rhythm on the court, Telfair was dealt by the Trail Blazers two years after they drafted him.TOM HOOD/Associated Press

Unlike now, per McMillan, when Telfair was drafted, there was no infrastructure to help teenagers acclimate to the league. There were no team-provided meals, no personnel to help kids like Telfair, someone forced to move 3,000 miles from home while his mother stayed back in Brooklyn to care for Telfair's sick dad.

"Also," McMillan adds, "Sebastian was a scoring point guard, and I think he was ahead of his time a bit with that."

This was before the NBA had instituted a set of rules to protect players of Telfair's speed and size.

Making the minefield in Portland even more dangerous was the jealousy festering inside the Blazers' locker room.

"Given all the hype coming in, Sebastian definitely had some teammates who looked at him differently," McMillan says.

A current NBA player who is a longtime friend of Telfair says the two have discussed this issue before.

"The guys on that team weren't good mentors for him," the player says.

As the years went by and his NBA journey became more meandering, Telfair found trouble off the court.

There was the night in October 2006 outside a Manhattan restaurant owned by Sean Combs when a $50,000 chain was snatched off Telfair's neck. That same night, in that same restaurant, the rapper Fabolous was shot in the left thigh. Police later told reporters that Telfair, who by then was a member of the Celtics, was being investigated for his role in the incident, though no charges were ever filed.

The following April, Telfair's name popped up in New York tabloids once again when a cop spotted him driving his Range Rover 32 mph over the speed limit on the Bronx River Parkway. Telfair's Florida license at the time was suspended, and while searching the vehicle, police found a loaded .45-caliber handgun tucked under the passenger seat. Telfair pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon and received three years probation.

Four days later, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck had the nameplate above Telfair's locker removed.

Telfair spent a season with the Celtics but ran afoul of team ownership after a pair of incidents that drew police attention in New York.
Telfair spent a season with the Celtics but ran afoul of team ownership after a pair of incidents that drew police attention in New York.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press

Still, the worst had yet to come. According to a person with knowledge of the situation, the arrest gave Adidas the power to tear up Telfair's deal. A representative from Adidas declined to comment, citing the company's strict policy. But another individual with a strong understanding of Adidas' business said Telfair's deal likely did include a morality clause.

"Every indication would be that that contract had one and that the incident did violate it," this person said. "I'd assume the contract was made null and void."

   

BY 2014, TELFAIR had become just another hyped prospect turned NBA journeyman, with quiet stops in seven different locations over the same amount of years. After spending the 2013 season in China, Telfair was thrilled to be back in the NBA and finally playing for a playoff team in Oklahoma City, Turner says. This, Telfair thought, would be his shot. He got off to a strong start, too, averaging 8.4 points and 2.8 assists while helping fill the void that injured point guard Russell Westbrook had left behind. But 16 games into the season, with Westbrook on his way back, the Thunder elected to let Telfair go.

"That really hurt him," Daniel Turner says. "He was playing well and really excited about being on a playoff team. That was the most down I've seen him."

The decision, according to a former Thunder assistant coach, was basketball-related (OKC was outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions with Telfair on the court, per NBA.com). The Thunder had no issues with Telfair—they just didn't think he was very good. The rest of the league seemed to agree; Telfair hasn't appeared in an NBA game since.

Still, he wasn't ready to give up. He loved spending time with his wife and kids, swimming with them in the backyard pool of his Orlando mansion, cooking them pork chops and taking them shopping at local malls. He'd also started a fashion company, 99 Moves. But he could never escape the game's gravitational pull.

Telfair returned to China in December 2014, then came back to Florida the following summer and started training in Miami's DBC Fitness, a frequent home to athletes like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. To this day, he's kept a YouTube link of highlights from his short stint with the Thunder in the bio of his Twitter account, as if unable to accept that his NBA career has come to an end. 

In May of this year, he texted with an old friend named Andrew Amigo, who had grown up in Brooklyn and played basketball at Lincoln. Amigo had since become a trainer and worked with Telfair's cousin Stephon Marbury and other professional athletes. Over the years, he and Telfair drifted a bit, but every now and then, Telfair would check in. Telfair told him that he was trying to give the NBA one more run and he wanted to know if Amigo would be open to working with him.

"I told him, 'Of course, just let me know,'" Amigo says.

He hasn't heard from him since.

    

TRYING TO PIECE together how Telfair passes the time now is akin to putting together a puzzle with only half its pieces. 

Take 99 Moves for example. You can find the hashtag #99moves plastered all over his Instagram page. Telfair's friend, the current NBA player, says the company is "Sebastian's thing now. It's big." Telfair's brothers, Jamel Thomas and Turner, both mention the fashion line when asked how Telfair currently spends his time.

Thing is: Telfair hasn't linked to the website in two years (interview requests sent to the site's "Contact" section were not answered). The business has no phone number, no Twitter handle, no Instagram page. Do a Google search and the first result you'll find is not his fashion website, but instead a video of Telfair from October 2014. It's produced by a YouTube account belonging to a user named ProTips4U, a company that on its website says it specializes in helping "you become the best athlete, coach or trainer you can be." In the video, Telfair, wearing a white T-shirt with what appears to be a stylized 99 Moves logo on his chest, explains the origin and business goals of his new venture:

"99 Moves is my company for financial education and marketing," he says, later adding, "[At] 99 Moves, our main focus is to get the athletes involved in their finances. Don't be scared about it."

There's no mention of fashion.

A request for comment sent to the email address listed on ProTips4U's website was answered by a man named Mark Leonard. Leonard was told Bleacher Report was working on a story on Sebastian Telfair. He didn't respond to that message, or multiple messages afterward.

Telfair, by all accounts, keeps a tight circle. There's his wife (who responded to Bleacher Report's initial request for an interview, but upon being informed of the story's subject, ceased answering text messages), his family, a few friends, Lincoln coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton and maybe three former teammates.

Leonard might not fall into this group, but he wasn't the only one who was tight-lipped at the mention of Telfair's name. David Alexander, a Miami-based trainer Telfair was working out with as recently as last year, declined comment, even after being told that positive stories or comments about Telfair were welcomed. So did Rasheem "Bubba" Parker, a longtime friend of Telfair, who was delivered the same pitch. One of Telfair's former Lincoln teammates agreed to an interview, only to ignore three follow-up messages. Reached finally on Facebook, he responded that his own family didn't think it was a good idea for him to be interviewed. 

"When it comes to Bassy, things are very sensitive," he wrote.

Morton said, seemingly half-facetiously, that he'd only speak if a contract were drawn up stating that Bleacher Report wouldn't publish any negative anecdotes.

"Tiny understands the media; the media can twist up your words, and that can lead to people reading it the wrong way," Jamel Thomas said when asked why he thought Morton, and others, were so reticent to speak, even after being offered the opportunity to share encouraging thoughts. "You can say something positive about Sebastian, but words can be twisted, and then these guys still live and hang out in Coney Island. You don't want people to look at you and say, 'This guy was saying this or that about Sebastian or Coney Island.'"

So how does a 32-year-old married father of two, a man described by those who know him as both principled and kind, find himself with his teenage cousin in the front seat of an illegally parked car stocked with weapons and weed in the middle of the night?

"That's the question we're all trying to get answers to," Jamel Thomas says.

He says he's still waiting.

   

DANIEL TURNER IS cleaning up last night's poker game when he opens the door of his second-floor apartment. It's a scorching summer day in Coney Island, just four days before the neighborhood welcomes back Joey Chestnut and the rest of the world's top competitive eaters for the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest held every Fourth of July.

Turner, who's wearing long basketball shorts and a fitted black and white workout shirt, takes a seat on his leather couch as his two teenage sons organize the living room. Pictures of his family hang on the wall, as well as a painting of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the doorway stands a brand-new green bike wrapped in white Styrofoam.

"We're raffling that off at the tournament," Turner says. "Next week an iPad. Sebastian always gets stuff to raffle for the kids."

Turner says he's unsure if his brother will attend the event, but he's hopeful. The participating teams are, too, except for one. According to Turner, that one dropped out after news of the arrest.

"I asked one lady from the team, 'Your son's never made a mistake?' I mean, it happens," Turner says. 

He segues into all the great things his little brother has done throughout the years. All the ways he's helped the Coney Island community, all the times he's flown the family out to his Orlando home. He says he still thinks Telfair is one of the best basketball players in the world, but the coaches never let him play his way. He's a scorer, not a distributor, but when you're that young, it's hard to speak up.

"I don't think the problem was ever his game," he says. "I think it was other stuff. People around him, telling him what to do, what he shouldn't do. You know, when you're that young with that much money, it's hard."

He starts shaking his head. Maybe, he says, he should have pushed more. Maybe he should have tried harder to take a lead role in his younger brother's life. It's not that he isn't proud of him, or that he no longer loves him. He is and does. But the thought of Sebastian spending three-and-a-half to 15 years behind bars—what he's facing, per SI.com, if convicted—is just too much. For what it's worth, Telfair's lawyer, Edward Hayes, believes "the legality of the search of the vehicle is very challengeable."

"I'm real worried," Turner says. "We all are. I don't want nothing to happen to him."

He's asked about the guns and drugs. Like Amigo, Jamel Thomas and others interviewed for this story, he says he's never seen Telfair smoke or snort any substance.

"I've never even seen him drink," Turner adds.

The guns? Turner says it's a hobby, like collecting watches, that Telfair has a license and that the weapons are kept locked up and safe, and anyway, the Constitution grants us the right to bear arms, doesn't it? He then points out that Telfair was once robbed (the incident with Fabolous), and he thinks he started carrying guns after that. How they made it to New York, Turner is unsure. He hasn't asked Telfair. Playing detective isn't his job; lending support is. He suspects Telfair just tossed the cases of weapons into his car without thinking.

"He and his wife were going through some marital problems," Turner says. "Say you and your wife are going through it, you throw a whole bunch of stuff in your car and leave."

Telfair and his wife, Samantha, have been together 10 years and married for five. Turner says she's a good woman and even better mother, and that she and Sebastian make a strong couple. As Jamel Thomas points out, upon hearing the news of Telfair's arrest, Samantha immediately hopped on a flight so she could stand by Telfair's side. The issues, both Turner and Jamel Thomas believe, are nothing major, mostly the consequence of Telfair finding himself home and around the house every day for the first time since he was a kid.

Did that send Telfair into some sort of tailspin? Turner doesn't think so. To him, this is all just another example of his baby brother failing to get a break.

"Sebastian doesn't deserve this," he says. "He made some mistakes, he did some messed up things, but I think his good outweighs it."

After about 45 minutes, the conversation comes to an end. The next day, hundreds of kids show up to that same Coney Island street to take part in Telfair's tournament. Turner's there, green bike in hand.

Sebastian never arrives.

   

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.

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