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2005 NBA Draft Coverage

Sebastian Telfair: The Jump

 by Adam Stanco

basketballwriter@cs.com

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).

 

Telfair

“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

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?

 

Ian O’Connor: 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 Jump : Sebastian Telfair and the High-Stakes Business of High School Ball

The Book

IO: 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?

 

IO: 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?

 

IO: 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?

 

IO: 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 height..

 

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?

 

IO: 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 better now.

 

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 recruits?

 

IO: 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 was ready.

 

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 name?

 

IO: 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?

 

IO: 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?

 

IO: 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 has suffered.

 

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.

 

IO: 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?

 

IO: 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 games.

 

AS: What was Sebastian like to work with?

 

IO: 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 celebrity friends?

 

IO: 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 Knicks game.

 

AS: Take me through the night of the 2004 Draft …

 

IO: 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 reaction?

 

IO: The phone call came from John Nash to Andy Miller.

 

“Watch ESPN. It’s about to happen.”

 

Miller said, “You’re a trailblazer.”

 

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?

 

IO: 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.

 

 

 


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