Sebastian Telfair was sitting in the Lincoln bleachers and handicapping the companies that were after his feet. Telfair had worn Adidas, Nike, and Reebok at different points in the season. He said Adidas was in the lead for his services, but that there was still time for the opposing teams to catch up.
We talked about money, and why amateur athletes were denied an opportunity to cash in on their talents. The system was set up so that the only way a high school or college player could profit from his or her skill was to take gifts or cash from people who weren't allowed to give them. It opened a door for me to ask Sebastian about the $250,000 offer he said he'd received as an underclassman from a man who claimed to be representing a major college in the East.
"I was at a game, another school's game, just watching," Telfair said. "It was an alumni, but I brushed it off. Certain schools are dirty, and certain schools are not dirty. Like Rick Pitino. He ain't doing nothing. Rick Pitino is not doing anything illegal. He's not buying you a drink. That's what I like about him."
I inquired about the man who made the alleged offer. "He asked me what school I was going to," Telfair said. "I didn't even know the guy at all. I knew the school he was from.... He said what school he was from. He was like, 'What school are you thinking about going to?' I was like, 'You know, I've got a couple of choices,' but I didn't say any names. He was like, 'If you come to this school, you'll get paid. I'm talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, $250,000.' And I was like, 'Oh yeah?'
"But it ain't worth it. If you do something stupid with a school and then after it happens, you get in trouble for it, you're like, 'Damn, I wish I didn't do that. It wasn't worth it. I didn't get enough out of it for me to get in trouble.' If you've got a chance to be a millionaire in a couple of months or in a year, why take a couple hundred thousand when it's only going to hurt you and your family?
"But then, what if you do get hurt? What if you don't make it? Then you're like, 'Damn, I could've had that.' It's a risky situation, and nothing's guaranteed."
Back to the man who made the alleged $250,000 offer. I asked Telfair for a description, and he said the man was white. I asked if the man was old, young, or middle-age. "Middle," he said. "I don't know the guy's name.... The person that it was, I was in the gym of that school he said he was with."
Telfair wouldn't name the school the man said he represented. A person close to Telfair said the man claimed to represent the interests of Georgia Tech, the school that had landed two previous point-guard greats from New York, Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury.
Paul Hewitt, the Georgia Tech head coach, dismissed the possibility that any alum or fan at a Georgia Tech home game could have approached Telfair with an improper offer. "There's no way Telfair came to a game on our campus and didn't come into our locker room," Hewitt said. "If that happened, one of my assistants would've been fired. If he came to one of our games, it was an Elvis-like appearance. If he was down here, I didn't know it. I think somebody's trying to sex up the story."
Hewitt confirmed that Georgia Tech briefly recruited Telfair during his junior year. His assistant, Willie Reese, tried to convince Hewitt to go to Lincoln to see the point guard. Hewitt had seen Telfair as a sophomore and figured right then and there he would go straight to the NBA. "But I had Willie call Stephon and ask him if he thought Sebastian would go to school," Hewitt said. "We have these buses on campus that take you from one place to another, and we call them the Stinger. Stephon told Willie, 'You really think that kid's going to ride a Stinger bus when he can be driving a Mercedes? There's no way he's going to school."'
Allison George, Georgia Tech's director of sports communications, said that she, too, never saw Telfair at a Georgia Tech game and reminded me that a player of Telfair's profile would have been almost impossible to miss. But Lincoln assistant Danny Turner said his brother did attend a Georgia Tech game, a claim Telfair declined to comment on. "It wasn't an official visit," Turner said. "He was down there for something else and just went to a game."
Bubba Barker, Telfair's best friend, confirmed Turner's account. "Yeah, he went to a Georgia Tech game," Barker said. "It was a brief visit, like in and out of there. He said he liked the people there a lot." Neither Turner nor Barker could recall which game Telfair attended.
Of course, someone could have made a $250,000 offer -- and an empty one at that -- without having any connection to Georgia Tech or its basketball program. Whether the alleged offer to Telfair was real or a hoax, this much was clear: The Lincoln star was forever in position to reject business propositions that could have landed him in trouble.
"I've turned down a lot of things over the years," he said.
"Sebastian's just too classy and too sophisticated to get bought by anyone," said Andy Miller, the agent hoping to represent him.
But Telfair was getting tired of the dance. A job in the NBA would end all that, and he would open February with another huge game to be witnessed by executives and scouts from every pro team.
Telfair would face Dwight Howard, the 6-foot-11 center from Southwest Atlanta Christian, in the Prime Time Shootout. This would be a battle between the most famous high school player in America and the best high school player in America. This would be a chance for Sebastian Telfair to prove that a 5-foot-11 teenager could survive and thrive in the land of the NBA giants.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Prime Time could brag on two straight LeBron James appearances.
Jeff Hewitson, who ran the Prime Time, made sure he landed Dwight Howard the year after he was through with LeBron. The Prime Time would give Howard a chance to secure his position as the number one pick in the June draft.
The top player in the Class of 2004 didn't create half the stir caused by the top player in the Class of 2003 -- LeBron drove a brand-new Hummer, Howard a 1984 Ford Crown Victoria. But Howard was all Cadillac on the court. There wasn't an amateur player in America, maybe in the world, who looked so much like a center and handled the ball so much like a guard.
"There's no way you can take Emeka Okafor ahead of this kid," said one scout from an NBA Central Division team. "He can do everything, and you can tell he's a good kid. No tattoos, clean-cut, his dad's a state trooper, his uncle's a district attorney.
"Dwight's a slam dunk. He's got the whole package."
He also had braces. That's what struck me when I first met him: his youth. Howard was so big, so good, and so sure to be world famous, I'd forgotten that he was an 18-year-old Finding Nemo fan until he smiled and flashed those braces.
Howard had established goals of becoming the first black president of the United States, of convincing the NBA to make the crucifix part of its league logo, and of becoming a better player than LeBron James.
"I think I can surpass him," Howard said. He didn't sound inclined to waste any time trying.
"I always wanted to be the first pick in the draft," Howard said. "I've worked myself up to where I'm at the 5-yard line and David Stern is waving his hands saying, 'Come on in for a touchdown.' So I don't want to drop the ball."
* * * * * * * * * *
Sebastian Telfair hadn't dropped the ball after his Louisville trip; he spent the last 2 weeks of January breaking records and getting even. But Telfair did open that stretch by shooting far too much in an overtime loss at Grady, scoring 11 of his 34 in the extra session and pissing off his teammates in the process.
"This NBA thing is killing us," Nyan Boateng told me. "We understood on the (UCLA) trip that Sebastian had to play for the NBA scouts, but he's got to play team ball in these games in our backyard, when there's no scouts here. That's how we won the state championship last year after he fouled out -- by playing team ball."
The following day, Boateng had to be talked out of quitting the team by his football coach, Shawn O'Connor, who'd had this conversation with his wide receiver many times before. Boateng always seemed to get more love from the football coaches in his life. He said he received two calls on his cell from Greg Toal, coach of national powerhouse Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, New Jersey, asking if he'd be interested in transferring to a school that would give him greater exposure. Those calls would be an obvious breach of high school rules on recruiting.
Toal denied making the calls. "We don't do business like that," he said. 'I never met the kid. I wouldn't even know what he looks like. Where is he, in the Bronx? Brooklyn? That would be a 5-hour commute. Somebody's having fun with this. It sounds like Fantasy Island."
When told of Toal's remarks, Boateng said, "Really? He's bugging. I was with him at an awards dinner, and I know his son. He definitely called me twice. I guess he doesn't want to make a big deal out of it."
At Lincoln, Morton usually didn't want to make a big deal out of Boateng's desire to be a central part of Lincoln's offense. But this time around, Morton was on Boateng's side. He said he ripped into Telfair for playing selfishly and focusing too much on the UCLA and Louisville games.
In the get-even games with Cardozo and Sheepshead Bay high schools, Telfair returned to his playmaking roots to lead Lincoln to victory. It was a temporary adjustment. Aided by Morton's willingness to run up the score on hapless opponents, Telfair set a Lincoln single-game record with 61 points against the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, and then broke Kenny Anderson's New York career scoring record of 2,621 points by dropping 49 on Grand Street Campus, this while Morton put on a full-court press with the Railsplitters holding a 51-point lead.
Telfair was rising on everybody's draft board. Two days before the Prime Time game, the Los Angeles Clippers' director of player personnel, Barry Hecker, and their New York-based scout, Evan Pickman, dropped by Lincoln's practice to watch their potential point guard of the future.
Pickman was Telfair's biggest fan; Hecker was a skeptic who'd been won over at Pauley Pavilion. Telfair was aware of their presence. He acted like a playmaker possessed in the first half of practice, and when he fired a perfect one-handed bounce pass on the break to a streaking teammate, Hecker threw on his black parka and motioned to Pickman that it was time to go.
"He's seen enough," Pickman said through a smile.
The Clippers would see more in Trenton, where Telfair had put on some second-half show the year before against St. Anthony of Jersey City, ripping one of the nation's best teams, Jeff Hewitson recalled, "with a bone shooting out of his foot."
Rick Pitino sent his assistant, Reggie
to monitor the Lincoln-Southwest Atlanta Christian game. Louisville had
its Plan B at the point, Oak Hill's Rajon Rondo, to Kentucky, so the
were hanging on the thinnest hope that Telfair would crap out and
in college. But Theus told me he wouldn't ask the Lincoln star if he
planning on entering the NBA draft.
"Why would I?" he said. "I don't want the kid to lie to me, and that's what he'd have to do."
* * * * * * * * * *
Sebastian Telfair hit Dwight Howard with a first-quarter blitz of hesitation drives and jump shots. "He's quicker than Isiah Thomas," Theus said as he watched behind the baseline. "Quicker than anyone in the NBA?" I asked. "As quick," Theus answered. "It's like he's in fast-forward. You can't teach hesitation like that, dipping your shoulder... Only the man upstairs can take credit for that."
Telfair completed a 3-point play with 34.2 seconds left to give Lincoln a 20-15 lead. Early in the second quarter, Telfair threw a no-look pass to Antonio Pena for a basket, then hit him again with one of his Linda Blairs to put Lincoln up by 8 and to leave the fans and the NBA executives buzzing in expectation of more.
"No way I'd put Jameer Nelson ahead of Telfair; Jameer doesn't have quickness like that," said John Nash, the Portland GM. "I have Telfair way ahead of him. Sebastian's already better than Damon Stoudamire."
"I just saw Jameer Nelson," Randy Pfund, the Miami GM, told another executive, "and he's the best point guard in college and he can't hold a candle to this kid. Sebastian runs the pick and roll better than most point guards in the NBA."
Telfair's quickness and verve would leave Howard appearing dizzy, at least until the Southwest Atlanta Christian center threw him down on a wild and vain left-handed attempt with 2:30 left in the first half. Only 20 seconds later, Telfair struck back with a hanging layup to punctuate a crossover so nasty it caused his defender to fall. With 5.5 seconds left and the entire place expecting Telfair to shoot, the Lincoln point guard used another brilliant hesitation drive to draw the defense and kick out the ball to reserve Jamel Jackson, who drained a 3-pointer to send the Prime Time crowd into a tizzy.
"Watching Sebastian in this game," said Jeff Lenchiner, CEO of InsideHoops.com, "was like watching a character in a video game. He just hit a thrust button and launched himself into warp speed."
Just like in Los Angeles, Telfair needed only one half to dazzle the entire NBA with his explosiveness, creativity, and vision. A year after watching from the front row while his friend, LeBron, dropped 52 on Westchester High, Telfair was planting his flag in the Trenton soil, encouraging the sneaker guys in attendance to drool just as much as the scouts.
"He's the people's player at this tournament," said Nike's George Raveling. "He was sitting in the stands before the game, and the whole section was filled with people trying to get his autograph or to just see what he looks like."
"He has all that drama about him that makes him special," said Reebok's Chris Rivers. "We want him. We can't get any closer on him without living on Coney Island.... But it's a business decision, and Nike gets who they want 95 percent of the time.
"I'd be surprised if he didn't go pro now, and that's going to open up dreams for other guys. There's a smaller eighth- or ninth-grader who's going to say, 'Shit, if he can do it, I can do it."'
Telfair slowed down a touch in the third quarter as Howard moved his team into position to steal the game. With 1:56 left in the third, there was a moment of open-court truth that might have erased any doubt that Howard, and not UConn's Okafor, should be the first pick in the June draft. The Southwest Atlanta Christian center grabbed a rebound and started dribbling upcourt when Telfair came up to meet him inside the midcourt line.
With a simple change of gears and a subtle shift to his right, Howard kept his dribble and blew past the Lincoln point guard as if he weren't even there. The Warriors took their first lead in the fourth quarter, and Howard began to make his mark inside against the game Pena and the rugged reserve, Lawrence Alamilla, who hit their 6-foot-11 foe as much as possible to cover for their inability to see him eye to eye.
"We bodied him and collapsed on him," Alamilla said. "I took some elbows to the back, my face, my neck, and my arms, but I didn't back down. I was talking to him, saying, 'You're not going to the league. Stay here with me. You're not that good.' He didn't say anything, but his facial expression said it all."
As it did on Telfair's bold romp down the lane with 54 seconds to play and Southwest Atlanta Christian up by one. The Lincoln star took his dribble straight at Howard, launched himself into the air, switched the ball from his right hand to his left in a Jordanesque way, and made the acrobatic layup while Howard remained glued to the floor.
An exchange of free throws -- one for Lincoln, two for Southwest Atlanta Christian -- tied the score and set up the dramatic finish. Telfair smiled in anticipation of something he had never before experienced. Despite all the winning basketball he'd played in his life, Telfair's next buzzer-beater to give his team the victory would be his first.
But what about that smile? "It was like a dream," Telfair would say. "I knew a great moment was about to happen."
He was in the right corner, 20 feet from Theus, when that great moment left his hands from beyond the 3-point line with 5 seconds to play. The Southwest Atlanta Christian guards had made the lethal mistake of allowing Telfair to get the ball. Sebastian already had 27 points to go with his 9 assists. He had no time for his 10th assist, plenty of time for his 28th, 29th, and 30th points.
'Those are the moments that make you," Telfair would say. "You can't be scared of those moments."
Telfair hit the 3 and then watched Southwest Atlanta Christian hurry up an inbounds pass and a long and vain prayer. Telfair tilted his head forward, smiled, and gently wiggled his fingers as if telling his teammates to come smother him.
The Railsplitters mobbed Telfair before he went off in search of his mother, Erica, for the kind of postgame hug she hadn't received all season. Lincoln's last regular season game was the first attended by Erica, who felt so burned by the nondraftiing of Jamel Thomas that she refused to take part in the winter-long celebration of her Bassy's ball-playing gifts.
"I didn't even see the shot," Erica said. She was in the bathroom when she heard the building quake. "I came out and asked a lady which team won," Erica said. "She said, 'Lincoln.' And I said, 'Okay.'"
Okay it was. Outside the locker room, Telfair said he knew his shot was good the second he released it. Felled by David's stone, the vanquished Goliath, Dwight Howard, had become a true believer.
"I think he's top 10, top 20 for sure," Howard said of Telfair. "Man, I've seen Sebastian play, but I've never seen him play like that. I was like, 'Wow.'"
The Telfair family was feeling the same vibe in the bowels of the arena, between the court and the loading dock. Telfair, Danny Turner, and their mother huddled with Andy Miller for a 15-minute strategy session.
The Telfairs asked Miller for direction, and the agent-to-be asked for a week or two to come up with a plan. "At first, I thought he was a 3- or 4-year college player," Miller said. 'Now he's talked about as a possible lottery pick. It's amazing what momentum can do."
And what it can't. Erica emerged from this meeting hoping that her son had hit the lottery, but refusing to let herself believe it. The pot of gold had been within reach before, only to be yanked away like a carrot on a string. She wasn't about to get hurt again.
"It's a tough decision," Erica said, "but I believe it would be better for Sebastian to go to Louisville. Give him a chance to grow a little more. But if (the NBA) is the Lord's plan, what can I say?"
What could Theus say to his boss, Pitino, when he delivered the awful news that Telfair was so good at the Prime Time Shootout that there was virtually no chance he'd play for Louisville? Pitino had been talking by phone to his top recruit on a regular basis. He was feeling his own hopes dim with every call.
But the Prime Time performance was the clincher. Those 95-to-5 odds Pitino gave in December, when he was almost smug in his belief that Telfair would be his point guard, had turned all the way against him.
"Sebastian's going pro," Pitino said, "and we're resigned to that. I don't mean to sound corny, but you're in this business to see young people fulfill their dreams. So I still feel very good about Sebastian. He was worth the gamble, because no point guard had ever made the jump.
"We're not holding out hope now; I seriously do wish him the best. But until he has to declare, you never know what's going to happen. A turned ankle, a bad workout, whatever. I told Sebastian, 'Let's hope for the best. Let's hope you go in the lottery, but let's keep all our options open.'"
Copyright © 2005 Ian O'Connor
Reprinted from: The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball by Ian O'Connor © 2005 Ian O'Connor. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.