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Home schooled

Telfair honed his craft on Coney Island courts and graduated to NBA

CONEY ISLAND, N.Y. -- Leaning against his charcoal-gray Bentley, Sebastian Telfair suggests a ride to the Garden, site of some of his most memorable basketball moments. Telfair slides into the driver's seat, turns right onto Neptune Avenue, and circles until he reaches 31st Street. He pulls into a parking lot beside the housing project where he grew up.

The Garden is straight ahead, just over the dashboard, surrounded by a cluster of identical, 15-story, beige-brick buildings. A couple kids shoot at a basket on the well-worn playground court unofficially named after Madison Square Garden. The scene prompts Telfair to talk about a childhood spent playing pickup games there before starring at Lincoln High School, about watching his cousin, Stephon Marbury, best older competitors, about hearing the bounce of the ball late into the night through his third-floor bedroom window.

``The only thing we have here is basketball courts and schools," said Telfair, waving his hand around his head in a gesture meant to encompass the real Coney Island, the one a world away from the famed amusement park. ``You don't have no pools. We didn't have no money to go do other things. We had what we could walk outside and do for free."

Telfair is an experienced tour guide, leading the way with confidence and a charismatic smile. He knows the narrative and the neighborhood cold, walking and talking and pointing toward the avenues, schools, housing projects, and playground courts that define the section of Coney Island he still considers home. Telfair has told his story more times than he can count, understandable for the most-hyped point guard New York City has ever produced -- the latest in a long tradition of heralded floor generals from Bob Cousy to Lenny Wilkens to Tiny Archibald to Kenny Anderson to Marbury.

``I've been doing this so many times, but I feel like this time is a different experience for me," said Telfair. ``I feel like I'm starting my NBA career right now, going to a new team. With anything new, you start fresh for the good. I just needed a fresh start. I can't even explain how much."

Before a crowd gathers for pickup games at the Garden, he walks around the complex, continuing to recall his upbringing. Telfair stops at the edge of a new court painted Celtic green, a second Garden of sorts, adjacent to the original. This is the court Telfair built when he first earned millions from the NBA and Adidas as the first-round pick (No. 13 overall) of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2004.

As Telfair sits on a sidewalk, the projects, the Bentley, and the Celtic-green court appear in front of him, juxtaposed in a perfect snapshot: Past, present, future. If all goes as he expects in Boston, his past exploits will serve as prelude. Telfair wants to be the player Coney Island remembers, the one who drew crowds with no-look passes, clutch jumpers, smooth crossover dribbles, and speed that left opponents embarrassed.

``[People from Coney Island] are used to seeing me going out and playing how they know I can play, which I will in Boston," said Telfair. ``When they're not seeing that, it's like they're seeing somebody different. That's why they're worried. They're like, `That's not how you got to the NBA.' "

Makings of a star
When the lights surrounding the Garden clicked off during late games, Telfair and his friends sneaked into the nearby housing authority headquarters and turned them back on. No one ever scolded the kids because, as Telfair put it, ``We weren't trying to do no wrong." It was the exact opposite. Telfair was practicing for high school superstardom that would provide him escape from a neighborhood ravaged by violent crime and drugs.

In fourth grade, a scouting magazine named Telfair the top prospect in his class. He proved deserving of the distinction from grade school through high school with jaw-dropping, record-breaking play. Telfair became the first rising ninth-grader invited to compete in the ABCD camp, shared underclassman MVP honors with LeBron James the following summer, and claimed the same prize all for himself in 2002.

He led Lincoln to an unprecedented three straight New York City Public School Athletic League championships and one state title. As a senior, he scored a school-record 61 points against the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology and broke Anderson's New York state high school scoring record with 2,755 career points.

Sneaker companies came calling first, then college coaches. Lengthy profiles and photo spreads soon followed, including a cover shot with James for one magazine and a controversial layout with lingerie models in another. Derek Jeter, Jay-Z, and Spike Lee watched Telfair from courtside seats. The number of NBA scouts increased with every contest, a development chronicled by a documentary film crew and book writer. The documentary, ``Through the Fire," and the book, ``The Jump," cover Telfair throughout his senior season as the pull of the NBA became impossible to ignore.

``You can't be scared to be successful," said Telfair. ``After you get MVP [at the ABCD camp], everybody starts pinpointing things about you and starts wanting to know everything about you.

``I was as prepared as I could have been [for the hype]. A lot of things you're going to have to experience to be able to deal with."

Extreme hype surrounding NBA prospects, the kind that anointed Telfair the next LeBron, makes Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge uneasy. He wonders if the most touted players ``can live up to the unfair expectations" and ``if they believe everything they hear." Trying to separate the hype from reality, Ainge watched Telfair play four times in person, traveling to Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City for high school games.

Ainge walked away from each performance impressed with Telfair's quickness, penetrating ability, and leadership skills. Those qualities helped convince Ainge he should bring Telfair to Boston in a draft day deal this past June. Figuring Telfair would be the right type of point guard for a Celtics team constantly striving to play up-tempo, Ainge traded the No. 7 pick, Raef LaFrentz, Dan Dickau, and cash to the Trail Blazers for Telfair, Theo Ratliff, and a 2008 second-round pick.

``I thought he was a true point guard with a real good feel for the game," said Ainge. ``He had a high basketball I.Q. and great [court] vision. I didn't think he was going to rise quickly to the cream of the crop [in the 2004 draft class]. There was going to be a transition period, which he's had. We're just hoping Sebastian can focus on basketball and live up to expectations now that those expectations are maybe more realistic."

A guiding hand
Telfair officially declared for the 2004 NBA draft during a press conference at the ESPN Zone in Times Square, a 45-minute drive from Coney Island and, appropriately, a 15-minute walk from Madison Avenue. He announced his decision to sign with Adidas for a reported $6 million-$10 million at the same press gathering. Flashing his trademark smile beneath a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, Telfair appeared at ease on the podium, comfortable with his decision.

While the media event ended months of speculation about whether Telfair would honor his commitment to Louisville, it also started intense scrutiny of his game. Basketball pundits from around the country figured Telfair was too small at 5 feet 11 inches, 165 pounds, and his outside shot too inconsistent for a jump straight from high school to the NBA. The precocious talent seemed to suffer from the same overanalysis that often plagues four-year college stars. But it was an especially ironic twist for the Telfair family.

In 1999, the Telfairs eagerly anticipated the selection of Sebastian's older brother, Jamel Thomas. During his senior season at Providence College, Thomas led the Big East in scoring. Many predicted he would be a first-round pick. But Thomas never heard his name called, a devastating blow to the Telfairs, who dreamed of following the Marburys out of the Coney Island projects.

``By Jamel not getting drafted, that made my work ethic," said Telfair. ``We thought my brother was Michael Jordan in college. Every time we'd see him, he was doing great, and then to not get drafted [shocked us]. My brother knows that I looked up to Stephon so much when I was a kid. So he used to say to me, `Don't put yourself in Stephon's shoes. Put yourself in my shoes and you'll be OK.' That's what I did. I stuck to him. I worked hard with him."

Thomas long ago adopted a blessing-in-disguise view of his draft experience. Instead of investing time and energy into an NBA career, Thomas focused on Telfair, overseeing his workouts and imparting life lessons. Thomas guided Telfair through professional-style shooting and dribbling drills, the ones he learned during short stints with Boston, Golden State, and New Jersey. Telfair supplemented the drills with an intense conditioning routine, sprinting along the beach, and running up and down the 15 flights of stairs in his apartment building.

``I don't take any credit," said Thomas. ``Everything's on him. All I did is tell him what to do and he was hungry for that information. I sharpened his game a little bit. Mentally, I was just showing him what's right and what's wrong."

A solid work ethic combined with marketable charm and untapped potential made Telfair an intriguing package for NBA teams. Former Portland general manager John Nash surprised naysayers and made Telfair the shortest high school player ever drafted. Nash felt Telfair possessed greater upside than Delonte West and Jameer Nelson, two prospects from his alma mater, St. Joseph's University, whom he had followed closely. Nash respected Telfair as a player who never hesitated to take the big shot in high school showcase games.

But during two years in Portland, Telfair had little chance to thrill audiences the way he had at Lincoln. He played behind Damon Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel his rookie season, learning all he could from the veteran point guards and spending extra time working on his suspect jumper. Telfair started at point guard his sophomore season until a partially torn right thumb ligament and halfcourt-oriented offense relegated him to the third string. A slower-paced attack meant a quicker exit from Portland.

``The faster the game is, the better he's going to be," said Nash. ``He'll flourish in a fast-break game. He may turn the ball over one too many times, but he'll generate enough excitement and assists that coaches will probably live with that for now."

Hometown hero
At the annual Sebastian Telfair Invitational Tournament, it is all long passes and easy baskets, the kind of endlessly entertaining game Telfair grew up playing. The pint-sized competitors do their best Telfair imitations, speeding fearlessly toward the basket and twisting around defenders for layups on almost every possession. Telfair credits the Coney Island days with instilling in him the importance of toughness and the value of playing with a certain flair.

Sitting at the scorer's table and surveying the action with considerable pride, Telfair looks for the next New York City phenom. Maybe it will be another Coney Island kid. Maybe his 11-year-old brother, Ethan, will follow the neighborhood and family tradition.

Coney Island currently boasts four NBA players: Telfair, Marbury, Golden State forward Chris Taft, and Sacramento rookie guard Quincy Douby. All four grew up within six blocks of each other. The Telfairs filled a five-bedroom unit on the third floor in one of five buildings that make up the Surfside Gardens housing complex. The Marburys occupied the unit above them.

``When Stephon made it, and him being so close -- we literally slept together -- that really opened Coney Island eyes," said Telfair. ``We were like, `We can do it.' When Stephon used to come around, we used to see him [and say], `Man, he's in the NBA.'

``When you're a kid, the NBA is the biggest thing you can think of. Now, when the kids see me, it's like you can really make it. You can really do something that you see on TV or that you read about or dream about."

Between tournament games, kids and adults cluster around Telfair, following him as he moves from court to court -- more Pied Piper than point guard. Everyone wants his attention. Shouts of ``Hey, Bassy" echo around the playground. Taft remembers Telfair being so well-known for his basketball skill that he ``stopped being a regular person in eighth grade" and instinctively accepted his status as rising superstar.

Telfair remains good-natured about his celebrity, joking around and hugging a kid he calls his nephew, though the two first met a week earlier. Telfair later explains that ``everyone in Coney Island is family."

It is a rare perspective for a superstar athlete, but also one that can present problems. When Ainge acquired the point guard, reports surfaced that Telfair traveled with a troublesome entourage. Telfair, his friends and relatives from Coney Island, and the Celtics dismiss such claims. People in the Portland organization who traveled with the team saw no signs of an entourage with Telfair, though there was the bizarre incident last February when he carried a loaded gun onto the team's charter flight to Boston.

``We won't allow for an entourage," said Ainge. ``The research that we did, Sebastian doesn't have an entourage. That's just a myth."

When Telfair settles in suburban Boston for the upcoming season, he will bring his fiancee, Samantha Rodriguez, his 9-month-old daughter Samaya Brooklyn, and best friend Rasheem ``Bubba" Barker. Telfair expects family, friends, and fans from Coney Island to attend games at the TD Banknorth Garden and Madison Square Garden, but there will be no entourage.

``They're going to buy a ticket and come to a game because they support me," said Telfair. ``But will they be with me? Nah. They wouldn't do that. They want the best for me. I didn't have an entourage in high school. I've got friends, but nobody needs to be on top of me. They see me every day [during the offseason]. I don't have any hangers-on. They know if they need anything I'm right here. They don't have to go searching for me. There's no entourage."

Added Barker, ``Players from New York City always have a lot of people with them. But it's not because they're with them. People from New York love the game of basketball and love to see special players. So, every time you see a crowd come out to see a certain player, it doesn't mean they're with them."

Heartfelt move
Telfair vividly recalls the day the Marburys drove a U-Haul into the spot where his Bentley now sits. Telfair happily watched Stephon take his family out of the projects to a new home. Telfair cannot wait for the day he buys a house for his mother, Erica, and moves his family out of the projects. It is coming soon.

Erica spent much of the summer house hunting in suburban New York and New Jersey. According to Sebastian, his mother has a particular house in mind, but she is just ``pinpointing everything" and ``making it a little more difficult than it needs to be." Leaving the Coney Island projects and living a long-held dream is never as easy as it seems. More than once, mother and son learned that lesson.

``We love Coney Island," said Telfair. ``We love being here. We don't have a problem being here. But we want to live the good life."

For Telfair, there is a difference between moving on and moving forward. Even with his mother happily settled in the suburbs, Telfair will often return to the projects. He will still run up and down the 15 flights of stairs. He will still watch kids compete at the Sebastian Telfair Invitational Tournament. He will still mingle with local fans, hoping a successful season will change the talk.

``I've done enough losing for my career," said Telfair. ``I want it to be just how it was at Lincoln when we used to go away and play on TV and we'd come back and they were like, `You all beat that team. You all did good.' "

Marbury sees Telfair as something of a protégé, almost a mirror image on the court. For that reason, the Knicks guard offers free advice to Telfair, even though the cousins now play for Atlantic Division rivals.

``For him, it's all about the mind-set," said Marbury. ``He has to have a total different mind-set than last year. The NBA is a thinking man's game. You've got to play the game in your mind. [He has to be] more focused. Last year, he had some distractions because he wasn't playing."

When Telfair played in high school, he thought about nothing but basketball. Coming back East and retelling his story reminds him of that. The interview over, Telfair slides back into the Bentley and finishes lunch from his favorite Coney Island deli. He looks over the dashboard again at the Garden. The kid who could not wait to enter the NBA is in no rush to leave.

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