January 25, 2005
Ian O’Connor is one of
the nation’s premier sportswriters. A columnist for both USA Today and The
Journal News (Westchester, NY), he has been honored as the best sports
columnist in New York in three of the last four years by the New York AP.
Highly-respected for both his prose and for his integrity, O’Connor recently
completed his first book, “The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes
Business of High School Ball” (Rodale Press,
available on Amazon.com).
“The Jump” tells the
story of why one charismatic teenager chased NBA fame and fortune. It is a
year-long journey with Telfair, a member of the sacred New York City club of
playground point guard phenoms. The sub-six footer with a smile that would
melt your mother’s heart attempts to become the shortest high school player
ever to jump straight from the prep ranks to the pro ranks. Telfair’s
upbringing is wrought with poverty and despair, yet his play on the court is
infectiously cheerful and uplifting.
O’Connor approached our
interview with the same remarkable honesty as he approached the sensitive
subjects in his book. His insight into Sebastian Telfair’s head and the
world he lives in is unparalleled. We discussed O’Connor’s inspiration for
the book, what recruiting Telfair cost Louisville coach Rick Pitino, how the
NBA and college basketball are affected by the influx of high school
players, and what Telfair is like when he’s not in the gym. He even let me
in on the private draft moment when all of Telfair’s dreams were realized
and his family’s salvation was complete.
Adam Stanco: Where did
you come up with the idea to write the book?
After the LeBron phenomenon, I thought it was the perfect time to jump into
the culture of high school sports. I knew nobody in that next class would be
as good as LeBron, but I just thought with that pay per view deal, traveling
around, the humvee, the jersey, with the controversy… it was the perfect
time to take a kid from the next class to see what a high school basketball
star goes through. Even if he wasn’t the best player in the class – that
would have been Dwight Howard – he was the most publicized. He was a New
York City point and that carries its own prestige.
What I saw happen with
LeBron inspired me to take a good look at high school basketball culture.
AS: How long did the
book take to write?
The process started right before LeBron’s draft night – because Sebastian is
good friends with LeBron – and I decided take it to Sebastian’s draft night.
That year, plus another four or five months afterwards. A year and a half
process. The writing, rewriting, all the other stuff, it took about a year
and a half.
AS: How much time did
you spend with Sebastian?
I spent a lot of time with him. I would go out to Coney Island four or five
times a week. They played at the Palestra in Philly. UCLA. Louisville, at a
game promoted by Rick Pitino’s sons… They wanted a game in Louisville for
the fans who were salivating over the idea of him coming. Followed him
through city tournaments. They won the city title at Madison Square Garden
and lost the state championship to Mount Vernon (West Chester)
Then Sebastian went to
the McDonald’s All-American game in Oklahoma City. Then he went to San
Antonio for the Nike Hoops Summit.
After that he started
getting ready for the draft. I attended the one he had with the Clippers
where he went one-on-one with Jameer Nelson for an hour. Elgin Baylor and
Mike Dunleavy and all the Clippers personnel guys were there.
Those workouts are off
limits to the public and media, but I established a couple good working
relationship with the team officials because the Clippers looked like the
team that would be drafting Sebastian. They had a lot of interest in him.
Over the phone and in person, I had gotten in contact with them. They
decided “what’s the harm” and I did thank the Clippers for their
professionalism. Regardless of what’s often written about the team, they
came across to me as being very professional.
AS: Who won the
pre-Draft workout between Telfair and Nelson?
When you consider
everything, Sebastian probably won it. It was a dead heat. Here you had a
college player who was a good four or five years older than Sebastian. Which
one are you interested in taking? If anything Sebastian might have been
given a slight edge, but it was a dead heat.
From what I knew, the
Clippers had no interest in drafting Jameer Nelson. They felt it would be a
good way to measure Sebastian. When they ended up getting so lucky in the
draft [the Clippers received the second pick in the 2004 Draft and traded
down where they selected 6’7” high school point guard Shaun Livingston at
number four], it was clear they couldn’t take a 5’11” high school kid.
If they picked had at eight, they would’ve taken a hard look at Sebastian.
AS: Is there anything
you learned in watching the workouts?
The intensity of the workouts struck me. They are only about 45 or 50
minutes. I was told it was standard. They were encouraged to go after each
other really hard. They did a lot of shooting drills and they were asked to
take NBA three after NBA three. To shoot that much, then go play one-on-one,
it looked tough. I was taken by the intensity of the workout. Clearly two
guys, who are all business, trying to outdo the other with millions of
dollars at stake…
The other interesting
thing was that with all Jameer did at St Joe’s, nothing he did at college
was more important than what he did at these workouts. And there was a lot
of pressure on Sebastian. He had just signed a huge Adidas deal and that was
not based on him being drafted in any position, but he felt the need to
honor that investment in him.
Some people had started to question whether he
was for real. The previous shortest player out of high school selected in
the Draft was DeShawn Stevenson at 6’5”. The shortest lottery high school
player was Kobe Byant at 6’7”. There was a lot of pressure on Sebastian in
these workouts and that was his goal, to get into the lottery at his
AS: I just read an
article in Sports Illustrated that almost implied college coaches have fully
adjusted the recruiting process in terms of early entrants (from high
school) into the draft… Have they? How?
I think what the college coaches are doing is spending more effort on the
B-plus kids, not the A kids. If you can steal a Carmelo Anthony, fine, but
you can’t pour so many resources into a kid who may not play for you. I
think Rick Pitino made a mistake.
If you can get a team of
players who will stay for four or five years, a kid who wasn’t a lottery
pick coming out of high school you may be better off. Look at Gonzaga. It
almost favors a team like them.
I’m stunned a team like
UNC still has all those guys [Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean
May are all highly-publicized juniors].
I disagree with the idea
that college hoops is somehow better. Look at last year’s Final Four. If you
didn’t have the influx you could have had Carmelo Anthony defending his
title against LeBron at Louisville. Telfair and LeBron. There’s no way its
I remember the days of
the Big East tourney. Mullin. Ewing, Pinckney. You just don’t get those
rivalries anymore. Like Mullin and Ewing.
I do think coaches have
adjusted to the altered landscape, but I don’t think college basketball is
the better game right now. I was much more interested when the stars
actually played college basketball.
AS: Since Pitino had so
much recruiting success before high school players started making the jump,
do you think that affected his current views on how to approach top
He did have some big name guys at Kentucky, but back then you saw guys stay
a couple years. In fact, Pitino told Jamal Mashburn to leave early. He told
his mother he should go. He said he had made her a promise during recruiting
that he would tell her son when he was ready. And he told him just that. He
I think that might have
been part of his motivation for recruiting Sebastian, but he knew from the
get-go that he was getting one year max. I think was trying to go the
Boeheim-Carmelo route. Win a championship in one year. But I think he should
have figured Sebastian was coming from New York City, impoverished
background… I don’t think it was a good bet.
As it turns out, Pitino
lost Rajon Rondo. Rondo was gonna go to Louisville. Once he realized he was
a second banana, Kentucky swooped in and got him. By chasing Telfair, he
lost rondo too.
AS: So Pitino really
didn’t think Telfair was going to go to the NBA? He didn’t recruit him just
to have the name “Louisville” written next to every mention of Telfair’s
It’s easy for me to say, but at the beginning of the year, Sebastian’s heart
was on the NBA. I’d be surprised if Rick didn’t know that. In talking to
Pitino, when they played on ESPN2 – they played at Fordham – and Pitino said
he was “95 percent sure” Telfair would play one season at Louisville.
There was some upside. A
lot of publicity came out of it. I just don’t think you pour that much
energy and time into recruiting knowing the kid won’t play a single second.
Interestingly, Bobby Cremins has said that amount of the time he poured into
recruiting Stephon Marbury to Georgia Tech just to have him one year, it
wasn’t worth it. He said the program never fully recovered.
AS: We constantly hear
about high school basketball players being misinformed about their draft
status. They get “bad information,” or so we’re told. Who essentially were
the people who advised Telfair? Were they correct about the pro scouts
thought about him?
Pitino was talking to a lot of NBA friends and GM’s, including Stu Jackson [Senior
Vice President of Basketball Operations for the NBA], about Telfair’s
status and he would convey those thoughts to Telfair. Of course, he may have
had a bit of an agenda.
Andy Miller [Telfair’s
agent] was probably the primary guy. He would find out where Sebastian
was going based upon where Sebastian stood with the GM’s.
Sebastian was on the
Internet checking out where he stood. Sebastian would work the Internet and
check out all the sites that had projected drafts. He was a very media aware
kid. He’d ask me. He’d ask me what I’d hear. It was a funny position and I’d
generally tell him that. He asked me what I thought he should do and I told
him I couldn’t answer him. I told him I was here to observe the news, rather
than influence it.
He’d find out through
Andy Miller and the information he was getting was accurate. Miller had a
good feel where he was going to get drafted. His stock did drop after the
two All-Star games. It was up and down. It wasn’t like he always knew it was
top 15. There was always a feeling that after the Clippers got a high pick,
the attention went to the Blazers. John Nash always liked Sebastian. Adidas,
being in Portland, has a relationship with the Trailblazers. The feeling was
that even if he didn’t go at 13 to the Blazers, he would go with their
second pick. Then the Blazers got three picks in the first round, after the
trade with the Nets [Portland traded Eddie Gill for New Jersey’s first
round pick at 22, which turned out to be Viktor Khryapa]. Miller
definitely thought Sebastian would go there. Miller’s goal was to say he got
a 5’11” high school kid in the lottery.
AS: Is the so-called
“influx” a problem?
The problem is that it hurts college basketball and it hurts the NBA.
Sebastian is going to be in the NBA anyway. You’d like to see him go to the
NBA as an NBA-ready player. In a perfect world, if Sebastian could have been
guaranteed a huge deal from Adidas, after a year or two from Louisville, but
there’s no guarantee. The NBA has a problem because you are using roster
spots to develop this young talent.
Plus the kids miss out
on the free marketing that college basketball provides. The NCAA really
promotes their top players.
The NBA gets hurt
because the quality of play goes down. Spaces are taken for kids and I do
think the quality of play has suffered. On the flip side, some of the game’s
best players are guys who jumped straight from high school. Kobe. Kevin
Garnett. LeBron. Although it did take some of them a number of years to come
into their own. You have others like Al Harrington, Jonathan Bender, Kwame
Brown, and others who have never realized their full potential. Not to say
they won’t, but they haven’t yet. I think the quality of play in both levels
Look at Athens. We’re
not developing because of the quick-jump-money grabs. It’s left us without
some of the fundamentals. You can see it when you measure the NBA players
against their foreign counterparts.
AS: Okay, but how about
the flipside of that argument. The fact that the elite prep players almost
should go straight to the league because they will play against top-notch
competition every day and because in college they only have 20 hours a week
with their coaches.
I think part of the problem with that argument is that there’s no time for
practice in the NBA. Once you get out of first week in training camp,
coaches complain about that all the time. You’re too busy to ever really get
a full practice in once the season starts. With Kobe, Garnett, and LeBron,
those guys are so great it wouldn’t have mattered either way. With the other
guys, if those guys had gone to college, those guys could’ve used that time.
And when you talk about Kobe, Garnett, and LeBron, at the end of the day
they might be 3 of the top 10 players who ever lived.
DeSagana Diop [selected
by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the eighth overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft
and is a career 1.7 ppg scorer] is a bust and his career is almost over.
And he’s 22. Same might be said for Kwame Brown.
AS: Does Sebastian
consider himself to be on par with Kobe, Garnett, and LeBron?
He thought, entering the draft, that he was the best player in the draft.
Pound for pound. He knew he wouldn’t go first. He did outplay Dwight Howard
at the Prime Time Shootout. He has supreme confidence and a whole lot of
belief in himself. At his size it is going to be tough for him to be great,
but I believe he’ll be a real good NBA point guard and make a few All-Star
AS: What was Sebastian
like to work with?
Very good to deal with. Very savvy. A likeable kid. He had so many demands
on him that he couldn’t give me time. I didn’t want to burden him. I didn’t
want to be part of the problem. I tried my best to stay out of his way,
meanwhile staying close enough to get the full story.
We had a good working
relationship. He didn’t let too many people in close. He did let me see a
lot of his life. Difficult background. Father had done time in jail. Very
tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the year I followed him, two
acquaintances were shot dead right outside his apartment door. No one ever
saw him take a drink and no hint of drug use. Very respectful of his
teachers. They all really liked him at Lincoln High School.
I just wondered if given
everything he had been through in his life, if I could have handled it as
gracefully as he did.
AS: Does he have
He’s tight with Jay-Z. He runs the summer league team that Sebastian plays
for. Jay-Z would come to some of his games and Sebastian had his draft night
bash at Jay-Z’s bar and restaurant. Spike Lee is also what you would call an
advisor. He came to some of Telfair’s games and took him to at least one
AS: Take me through the
night of the 2004 Draft …
Draft night I spent with him in the Trump Tower at Central Park. Just to see
him in that setting was something else. There was a little controversy over
whether the NBA would invite him and then they said if he wants to come,
he’s welcome to. But Andy Miller decided it was best if he didn’t. The last
thing he wanted was for the television cameras to show Sebastian crying if
he wasn’t drafted early. They decided to hang out at the Trump Tower. I was
sitting with the room with him as he watched the draft on tv in a David
Beckham tee shirt.
AS: What was his
The phone call came from John Nash to Andy Miller.
“Watch ESPN. It’s about
Miller said, “You’re a
Sebastian said he
wouldn’t believe it until he heard it. Sebastian had his head in his hands.
As David Stern started to say “With the 13th pick, the Portland
Trailblazers select Seb-“, Telfair exploded out of his chair. It was a good
night for him.
AS: Have you spoken to
him since completing the book?
I made a deal with him before the book that after draft night, I won’t hound
him after the book. He has so many people chasing him around for things. I
did see him the other night at MSG and he came over and gave me a hug and we
chatted. I still talk to Andy Miller and send messages through him. As for
the book, I hope he likes it and I hope he thinks it’s fair. I think he’ll
think it’s fair and accurate.