Burned by The Fire: The Story of Sebastian Telfair

Peter BukowskiSenior Analyst IJuly 5, 2008

A year after Lebron James became the "next high school phenom" in the NBA, Sebastian Telfair was drafted 13th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. At just six feet tall, the electric high school point guard from Brooklyn, NY made his mark with his blinding quickness and agility, with And 1 type handles and highlight reel passing ability. Much like King James, Telfair appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in his Abraham Lincoln High School uniform under the title "Watch Me Now" with the subtitle reading "Can a 6 foot high school point guard make the leap to the NBA? Yes he can."

"Bassy" as he was called, averaged an astounding 33.2 points per game at Lincoln and holds the school record for points in a game with 61. However, he was raw as a defender and an underwhelming shooter. Many scouts believed at least a year in college would make him the kind of "great" player his high school career hinted he could be.

NBA fans may forget the kind of prolific scorer Telfair was in high school given that for his career he averages just 7.8 points per game. But NBA fans may also  forget that Telfair grew up in Surfside Gardens, a housing projects in New York City, the same as his cousin Stephon Marburry. The jump to the pro's was done out of necessity for his family.

"I know I can handle living there, but I don't know about my family," Telfair told Sports illustrated in March of 2004. "I've seen more friends killed than I can count. I don't want to put my family through that much longer." So he jumped ship on Rick Pitino and Louisville to whom he committed, and joined the Portland Trail Blazers who, after reaching the Western Conference Finals a few years earlier, had fallen into disarray.

As a rookie, the 18 year old Brooklyn born baller played in 68 games, but started only 26 averaging a paltry 19.6 minutes per game. Every once in a while he would zoom a pass by a defender's head for a lay-up, or blow by three guys on the way to an easy bucket. Things just never got going it seemed. Despite the low number of minutes, Telfair averaged nearly seven points and just over three assists per game; not something to write home about, but nothing to scoff at given his limited playing time.

In Telfair's second season, there was neither a noticeable forward bound nor a sophomore slump in his game. His shot improved more than ten percentage points from deep and his rebounds, steals, assists and points were all up. Telfair was running the team with confidence and precision, again displaying a natural passing knack and sporting an improved jumper. However, after a thumb injury limited the developing lead guard, Steve Blake took his spot in the starting line-up and things seemed to spiral downward from there.

In February of 2006, a loaded gun was found on the Blazers private jet in some of Telfair's things. The gun turned out to be registered to his girlfriend at the time. No charges were filed, but he served a two game suspension for violating the NBA's rule against fire arms while engaging in league business.

In the summer of  2006, prior to his third season, the Trail Blazers traded Telfair along with center Theo Ratliff and a 2008 second-round pick to the Boston Celtics for guard Dan Dickau forward Raef LaFrnetz and Randy Foye who was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Brandon Roy.

While in Boston, Bassy's numbers fell across the board. The season went on without incident, however Telfair never really got on track despite tying a career high by starting 30 games. By season's end, the Celtics were in the market for a point guard and Telfair was in the market for a new team. But it was an inauspicious night in the Bronx that may have signaled the end for Telfair in the Garden.

Telfair was stopped by police on the on the Bronx River Parkway going 77 mph in a 45 mph zone. He was driving with a suspended Florida license and a loaded .45 caliber pistol under his passenger's seat. Shortly there after, Telfair's rookie contract was terminated and the Celtics absorbed the remaining $2.56 million he was owed.

Howard Bloom, a respected writer and the publisher of SportsBusinessNews.com would write about Telfair shortly after the mess with Boston.

"The pressure on Sebastian Telfair growing up in poverty, living around so many failed dreams and dreamers, death visiting his doorstep would be a great deal for anyone to deal with. But having to deal with the expectations of delivering his entire family to 'The Promised Land' is a position an 18-year old should never be subjected too."

The burden has thus far been too great for Telfair whose press clippings include a feature film by ESPN called "Through the Fire," as well as several other print publications. The ESPN documentary chronicled Telfair's life from the projects to the pros, a remarkable story of talent and perseverance. But the movie came out in 2005 and focuses on the way his family dealt with adversity in their lives off the court. Once the movie came out, it was Telfair who continued to struggle on the court.

2007 though, was a remarkably different story. Telfair found a home in Minnesota after leaving the Celtics.

Despite a back court full of first round talent, Bassy started a career high 51 games. He shot over 40% for the first time in his career, and also set career highs in rebounds and assists. In fact at nearly 6 assists per game and just 1.85 turnovers, his 3.2/1 assist to turnover ratio was good enough for 10th in the NBA. Examine those numbers more closely and you'll find the only point guards who started at least 50 games with a better ratio were Chauncy Bullups, Chris Paul, Jose Calderon, and Jason Williams.

For a young man who has endured so much, it appears to be just another step in a long journey to further his "riches" from the "rags" of Brooklyn. Bouncing from one dysfunctional team to the next, Telfair really hasn't gotten a fair shake. From a Blazers team spending more time in the court room than the court to a Celtics team who won just 24 games and finally the Wolves who haven't been relevant really ever.

Now, with his life seemingly back on track, his game appears to be as well. With his impending free agency, Telfair may have played well enough for a team like the Miami Heat (who are rumored to be interested in acquiring the troubled point guard). Having just turned 23, the man known as Bassy appears to have his best basketball in the pro's ahead of him.

Teaming up in the back court with a guy like Dwyane Wade, throwing lobs to Shawn Marion, and feeding Michael Beasley for the Heat would bring his "Through the Fire" story full circle with a warm welcome to the hottest city in the NBA. One thing is for sure, after all he has been through, even the scorching heat in Miami is not compared to what Telfair has been through.

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