The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball
Sebastian Telfair, a 5-11 teenager, is now the starting point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers. In this excerpt from his new book, “The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball,” Ian O’Connor details how Telfair received an $18 million guarantee from Adidas before last year’s NBA draft, and how the Brooklyn sensation and Stephon Marbury cousin became the shortest high school player (by six inches) ever taken in the first round.
The document sat in the middle of a round sports bar table, as if it were an order of cheese fries. The cover sheet read “Agreement between Adidas International Marketing BV and S31T, Inc.,” and behind it were two dozen 8 1/2-by-11 pages that were about to make Sebastian Telfair a multimillionaire before he turned 19.
This was in a dimly lit corner of the ESPN Zone on May 4, 2004, after the notebooks and cameras and most of the party’s guests had already packed up and headed out into the Times Square bustle. I sat at the table with Telfair, Andy Miller, the agent, and Kevin Wulff, the director of sports marketing at Adidas. Just four guys talking sports under a dizzying web of monitors showing Telfair highlights and, then, Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser doing their Pardon the Interruption show.
“You’re big, Sebastian,” I told Telfair, pointing at the monitor above his left shoulder. “You’re the first item on PTI.”
He swiveled his head to see his name highlighted above the ESPN show’s lineup of subjects. Again, at 5-foot-11, Telfair had become the largest figure in the prom-to-the-pros debate. He watched Wilbon and Kornheiser do their routine for a bit before fixing his gaze back on that waiting document.
Telfair nodded at Miller, sitting directly across from him. Above Miller’s head hung a stained-glass portrait of a sliding Jackie Robinson. Telfair had entered his big day wearing a white Brooklyn Dodgers cap. By the time he nodded for the pen that would earn him a guaranteed payday of more than $18 million over 6 years, Telfair had already made a trade. He was wearing a red, white and blue Adidas cap that inspired him to see nothing but green.
What a moment. Telfair had arrived at his news conference in a black stretch limo, and walked into a celebration of himself arranged by Ron Berkowitz, Jay-Z’s PR guy. He was wearing the white Brooklyn Dodgers cap, a white sports jacket, a pink dress shirt, baggy blue jeans and white Adidas sneakers. Berkowitz introduced him as “Sebastian Telfair, New York City high school legend.”
The press release had said there would be two announcements, and, priorities being priorities, the sneaker deal was announced first. Telfair’s parents and most of his siblings hadn’t yet arrived when Berkowitz called for lights, cameras and action.
Before rows of reporters and photographers flanked by Telfair relatives, friends, teammates, interested observers and Omar Cook, the cautionary tale himself, Telfair thanked God, his family, his chroniclers, and Adidas. He took off Jackie Robinson’s cap while declaring himself “the newest member of the Adidas team.”
The Adidas cap was two sizes too big for his head, but this was, after all, a larger-than-life affair.
“And now,” Telfair said, “what everyone in here really came to hear. What every reporter asked me, what my decision was going to be. And sorry to hold you all off on the decision; it’s been a long process for me and my family. I think we came together and made a great decision.
“I will be entering the 2004 NBA draft.”
Applause broke out across the room. Telfair would be one of 13 high school players to declare for the draft, and he wasn’t done yet. He had a third announcement to make, an unscheduled confirmation of another poorly kept secret.
“Andy Miller will be my agent,” he said.
As Telfair beamed under his oversize cap, he looked about 12 years old. He said his cousin, Stephon Marbury, and LeBron James had given him support, before he stepped away from the podium to do more interviews and share more hugs.
Jamel Thomas, Sebastian’s adopted big brother, was in the house and wearing a pin in the form of Telfair’s number, 31, on the right lapel of his blue blazer, the pin as shiny as that new BMW Telfair had bought him. Bubba Barker, Sebastian’s best friend, was on hand, too, and he’d remind me that the guest of honor was still a child. In the hours before the press conference, Bubba said, they were watching cartoons in the room Adidas provided them at the W hotel.
“Daffy Duck,” Bubba said, “stuff like that.”
Wulff, the Adidas executive in the blue blazer and yellow power tie, drew a big media crowd. He wore the look of someone who commuted from Greenwich to Madison Avenue, and yet he couldn’t stop talking about the “street cred” Telfair brought to Adidas.
“We feel Sebastian has that extra heartbeat,” Wulff said. “He also brings something only a few can do, such as Kevin Garnett, who we also have. He brings that instant street credibility, street cred, with the real urban ballers, and we’re pretty excited about that, too.”
Wulff said Dwight Howard and Shaun Livingston were not “street cred” guys, and therefore not a good fit at Adidas. Miller joked that Howard’s stated hope of having Jesus Christ’s cross as part of the NBA logo “was a real good way of getting an endorsement deal.”
Now that it had Telfair in the fold, Adidas was hot and heavy for Howard’s summer ball teammate, Josh Smith, the Oak Hill forward. But there was no doubt that Telfair was Adidas’ No. 1 target. At 5-11, he fit neatly inside Adidas’ impossible-is-nothing campaign. “Impossible is a little guy making the big jump,” read the black T-shirts being handed out at the ESPN Zone.
“Everyone wants to emulate the small guy,” Wulff said.
The Adidas executive revealed that Telfair would be used to promote performance and lifestyle products, and that there were opportunities for a signature shoe. Wulff confirmed there were no provisions in the 6-year deal based on draft position, meaning Adidas was gambling, and gambling big, that Telfair wouldn’t fall into the back end of the first round or, worse yet, into the early part of the second.
“We know he’s going to be a great point guard,” Wulff said. “We’ve had great success with Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, and they weren’t in the top five or seven of the draft, either.”
Wulff claimed the Telfair contract figures reported in the media — generally in the $12-15 million range — were “all rumors and innuendo and...exaggerated.” Wulff wouldn’t disclose the terms of the contract, other than to say it was incentive-driven and that the incentives were based on the standard fare — assist totals, point totals, making the All-Rookie team, making the All-Defensive and All-Star teams as a veteran.
Contrary to Sonny Vaccaro’s claim that his former employer was talking dollars with the Lincoln star during the Railsplitters’ season, a claim confirmed by Miller, Telfair and other Team Telfair members, Wulff said Adidas didn’t begin negotiating terms until “after (Sebastian) signed with an agent and indicated he was turning pro.” When I pressed him on his timetable, on when Adidas first floated numbers Telfair’s way, Wulff maintained, “After he really signed with his agent. Then we had conversations with Andy.”
Problem was, Telfair hadn’t yet signed with Miller. The agent was still waiting for his new client to return the unsigned contract he had just given him a day earlier.
“Do you mean you’ve just started negotiating with Sebastian in the last couple of weeks?” I asked.
“Yes,” Wulff said. “In fact, we’re going to sign the deal in about five minutes. Right here. Let’s find a table.”
Wulff was carrying a small satchel that contained Telfair’s life-altering deal. Adidas had invested plenty of time and resources into this transaction. Across from the Adidas side of the table, Miller had invested more time and effort into Telfair’s deal than he had for any he scored for Kevin Garnett, who had just been named league MVP and who had landed a lifetime deal with the shoe giant. Miller started talking to Adidas about his prospective client, Telfair, on a visit to the company’s U.S. headquarters in the summer of 2003.
Miller knew Adidas needed a young endorser it could develop, someone who had enough flair to carry a signature shoe. “I knew I could go into attack mode then,” the agent said. “They wanted a linkage between the modern player and the throwback player, and Sebastian is that.”
With Garnett as his lead client, Miller had a strong working relationship with Adidas. He didn’t trust Sonny Vaccaro, but did call Reebok senior VP Tom Shine to gauge his interest. Shine told Miller he saw Sebastian as a bigger version of T.J. Ford, whom Reebok was paying in the mid-six figures.
“You’ve got to have an understanding of the trend in this business,” Miller said. “For instance, when Tiny (Morton) re-signed with Adidas, Reebok was talking that big stink about how they were going to overpay him. And Reebok came in at 30 cents on the dollar to what Adidas offered. They’re full of shit....So Nike was the only other real player that I believe would’ve stepped up and done something significant. If I put my faith in Sonny, we’d be sitting here today and Sebastian would be without a sneaker deal, and maybe with a different agent, which was obviously the only agenda Sonny truly had.”
Miller’s work brought Telfair to this defining hour. The point guard hadn’t slept a wink the previous night, not with so many thoughts running wind sprints through his head. He rose before dawn for his pre-school workout, attended class, crashed at the W hotel, and then stepped into the ESPN Zone and out of a life of abject poverty.
“I dreamt about this day,” Telfair said. He said he’d buy his mother “something nice” with his first Adidas check, and that, eventually, he wanted to move her out of Surfside Gardens. Telfair didn’t mention that he’d already moved himself into a large Jersey City apartment on the waterfront, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of the Manhattan skyline. He didn’t mention that a car dealer had already let him borrow against his future earnings to buy Jamel his fresh $80,000 set of wheels.
“I’m not worried about money,” Telfair said.
Citing a mutual confidentiality agreement, Adidas and Miller declined to give an exact measurement on Telfair’s deal. Telfair said the contract was worth more than $15 million; an Adidas rep whispered to inquiring minds that the deal only guaranteed the Lincoln star about $6 million, or $1 million per.
Telfair was the most candid party; Adidas was the party terrified of the actual figures being leaked. The shoe company was concerned that Telfair’s deal could cost it money in other negotiations. Burned by harsh critiques of its extravagant investment in a 5-11 teenager, Adidas also feared being embarrassed in the event Telfair fell in the draft.
Neither Miller nor Telfair would confirm the true value of the contract, but a source close to the negotiations said Telfair was guaranteed between $18 million and $19 million, including a $2 million signing bonus. The reachable incentives made the likely payout between $20 million and $25 million. If Sebastian somehow hit the incentives he wasn’t likely to hit, he would earn between $30 million and $40 million. Miller’s take would be 15 percent.
This was the second largest contract ever granted a high school player, smaller than LeBron’s but bigger than Kobe’s and T-Mac’s. This was a deal so staggering that it put Telfair among the top 10 paid shoe endorsers in the NBA before he’d even been drafted. Without the certainty of being a lottery pick, or even a top 20 pick, Telfair was in possession of a better shoe deal than any owned by Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, and a legion of fellow All-Stars that included Telfair’s cousin, Stephon Marbury. Duncan, maybe the best player in the world, was getting a lousy $350,000 per from Adidas.
Only LeBron, McGrady, Kobe, Garnett, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming and Carmelo Anthony were believed to have richer deals than Telfair.
Longtime sneaker war observers were most stunned by the fact Miller made this deal without formal offers from Nike or Reebok. Neither company wanted to compete with Adidas like it had for LeBron; Nike was weighing Telfair against Shaun Livingston when Adidas made it clear it was taking negotiations to a level no competitor would touch.
Nike did have LeBron’s best friend, Maverick Carter, and other reps track Telfair across the Lincoln season. “They wouldn’t have had LeBron’s guy at games if they weren’t interested in signing Sebastian,” said one Adidas official. “And don’t tell me Sonny didn’t want the kid for Reebok when he ran his guys (Arn Tellem and Bill Duffy) through there. Everybody was interested in Sebastian.”
Including the most powerful sneaker man of all.
“I met Phil Knight three times,” Telfair said. “Eventually, I think Nike would’ve come up to $13 million or $14 million. But I knew from the start Reebok wasn’t going to make a big offer. How much more money can you give Sebastian Telfair when you’re only paying Baron Davis $350,000? You’re talking All-Stars. The most they would’ve given me was a million a year.
“Me and Sonny, we’re the best of friends. And Sonny was the first guy who taught me to be a businessman. But at that time, I knew Reebok wasn’t going to be players. I just wish Sonny would’ve stayed with Adidas, because he did so much to help me in my career.”
If Sonny was nowhere to be found at the ESPN Zone, he was surely there in spirit. Sebastian had played Vaccaro (or the specter of Vaccaro) against Adidas and won. With the help of his strong Adidas ties, Miller beat Vaccaro in the battle for Sebastian’s sole. Sonny didn’t believe in Telfair’s talent enough to match Adidas’ offer and, in the end, he wouldn’t have had the juice to push Reebok toward the $3 million per season mark, anyway.
But Sonny would’ve made a formal offer to Sebastian if he felt his company had a fair-and-square chance of signing him. Reebok would’ve offered Telfair $1 million per season, confirmed Vaccaro, who railed against Adidas’ choice to spend so large on a player so small. Vaccaro was still angry at Adidas executives who led him to believe they would provide all the resources he needed in 2003 to sign LeBron.
He carried the blood feud into the spring of 2004, when Adidas’ signing of Telfair served to pour gasoline on his raging fire. “With all the money they’re throwing at Sebastian and Josh Smith and all the AAU coaches they overpaid,” Vaccaro said, “they should’ve given that to me last year and I could’ve signed LeBron. That deal Nike made with LeBron will be the best deal ever made.”
Vaccaro predicted that Telfair would pay Miller for landing the Adidas deal, and then fire him in favor of Tellem. When he wasn’t openly rooting for that divorce, Vaccaro was shredding his former employer over the magnitude of its Telfair investment.
“Phil Knight is laughing now,” he said. “Adidas just grossly overpaid this child, and he doesn’t even have a high-powered agent to get him moved up. I’m not an Andy Miller fan, but I’ll say this: What he did to Adidas is one of the best coups ever done. He really bamboozled my old friends....But Andy doesn’t have the power that Arn Tellem has. That really hurts Sebastian in the draft.”
Rick Pitino wasn’t worried about Miller; the Louisville coach was too busy feeling wronged by the very company he endorsed. Though he publicly rooted for Telfair to cash in, and privately told his top recruit that he should take the guaranteed money and run, Pitino felt Adidas was overzealous in its courtship of Sebastian.
“Pitino called up Wulff,” said Vaccaro, one of Pitino’s closest friends in basketball. “Rick told him, ‘The kid’s falling off the charts. The gameplan was to have the kid go to school if he wasn’t in the lottery. You and Adidas induced the kid to come out.’”
Pitino disputed his friend’s account of that call and said he actually thought Adidas made a wise investment given Telfair’s charisma. “I believe he’ll pan out,” Pitino said. “I only asked Sebastian for one favor: get a good business manager to watch over your money.”
Telfair would disappoint Pitino on this front. He signed with Bret Bearup, the former Kentucky player who had become the most prominent and controversial money manager in sports. Bearup’s detractors accused him of steering players to favored coaches and agents, claims Bearup denied. Pitino became one of those detractors when Bearup spoke publicly about recruiting irregularities inside the Kentucky program.
“I think Andy’s great,” Pitino said of Telfair’s agent, “but I don’t care for Bearup at all. Bearup and I are mortal enemies and will stay that way until the day I die. I don’t think he’s good for the game. Here’s a guy, reputation-wise, who doesn’t do it by the book. He’s one of the biggest hypocrites of all time.”
To which Bearup replied: “Rick is a hothead. I do not care what Rick Pitino thinks. Rick Pitino is irrelevant to me....I think Rick Pitino is a great basketball coach; I always have and always will. But I think as a human being he’s somewhat substandard.”
Beyond a healthy respect for Pitino’s sideline brilliance, Bearup and the Louisville coach had something else in common: “I liked Sebastian from the first time I saw him at ABCD (camp),” the money manager said.
Adidas agreed, and now it was time to express its full appreciation. In that corner of the ESPN Zone, under the TV monitors and the stained-glass portrait of a sliding Jackie Robinson, the one marked April 15, 1947, Miller handed his client his lucky silver pen as Wulff readied a second copy of the contract.
“Initial each page when you’re ready,” Miller said.
“Both of them,” Telfair answered.
“Both of them,” Wulff said. “That way we know we didn’t switch, or whatever, in legal terms.”
Sebastian began racing through the first copy of the 25-page contract, initialing each sheet as if he were checking off a grocery list.
“Sebastian,” Miller said, “you’re not signing trading cards. Enjoy the moment.”
Just then, Renan Ebeid stopped by the table to embrace Telfair and to reintroduce herself to Miller.
“Take care of this kid,” Ebeid said.
“We definitely will,” Miller responded.
Sebastian handed back the original contract. “You didn’t sign everywhere you’re supposed to,” Miller shot back, pointing to the final — and most important — page. “Thank God we’re all here.”
Miller flipped through some papers to find his client’s new Tax ID number; athletes due a considerable income were better off taking the money as a corporation rather than as an individual.
“Did Devin Harris declare for the draft yet?” Miller asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
“What’s the deadline again?” Wulff asked.
“May 10,” I answered.
“When do your tryouts start?” Wulff asked Sebastian, showing a weak handle on the accepted pre-draft dialect.
“Tryouts?” Bassy said with a quizzical look. “Oh, workouts. Sometime between the 17th and 20th.”
“I’ll go to Portland,” Wulff said, “and go to the workout with (Blazers president) Steve Patterson.”
“Yeah,” Miller said. “We’ve got to talk about that.”
Finally, with Telfair’s initials and signature on every relevant contract page, the new multimillionaire rose from his chair and offered hearty handshakes around the table.
“Congratulations,” Wulff said.
“My man,” Telfair said.
At the same table where so many faceless Joe Six-Packs had talked up fantasy deals over Bud Lights and nachos, Sebastian Telfair, Andy Miller and Kevin Wulff had just made one of those fantasy deals come to life. A kid who still didn’t shave had just become filthy rich.
As the last of the celebrants headed for the door, Otis Telfair chewed on a toothpick, peered out from behind his omnipresent dark shades, and declared that nobody in his family was satisfied by the day’s events. “This is only half the dream,” Otis said. “I know Bassy will do a lot for us, for his brothers and sisters and mother, everybody. But after what we went through with Jamel, we’ve got to get Bassy called in the draft. We’ve got to see him go in the first round.”
That was the hard part, of course. Telfair didn’t only have to live up to the hype anymore. He had to live up to the contract, too.
He was officially a paid professional, so there was no turning back. No pulling out of the draft at the last second and scurrying back to Pitinoville.
Telfair would compete against other first-round candidates, and he would do so under the watchful eyes of the NBA executives, coaches and scouts who would determine his draft night fate. First out of the gate were the Los Angeles Clippers, a lottery team in dire need of a point guard.
The Clippers invited Telfair for the morning of Friday, May 21st, and told him they’d made a reservation for two. Joining the Lincoln High star would be Jameer Nelson, only the best college player in the land.
They entered the Spectrum Club in Manhattan Beach side by side, passing row after row of tanned bodies working up a membership lather on their treadmills. Sebastian Telfair of Lincoln High and Jameer Nelson of St. Joseph’s University parted this sweat-stained sea on their way to the fitness club’s basketball court. In his right hand, Telfair was carrying his S31T Adidas specials, his weapons for the day.
They pushed through the glass doors and entered the no-frills, bleachers-free gym with beige padded walls. Telfair and Nelson stretched and jogged and then joined Pape Sow of Cal State Fullerton and T.J. Cummings of UCLA, the two big men hired by the Clippers to fill out the two-on-two games the NBA allows; league rules prohibited teams from putting more than four players on the court for a pre-draft workout.
Telfair and Nelson were complete opposites in more ways than one. Telfair represented the trend of high school stars making the jump; Nelson was a dinosaur, an actual 4-year college player who led tiny St. Joe’s to the brink of the Final Four and who won the John Wooden Award as America’s best player.
Telfair walked into the fitness center with unblemished skin, while Nelson appeared with a Marbury’s stash of tattoos. They both wore blue shorts and white sleeveless shirts bearing the Clippers’ name. If this were a boxing match, Nelson would’ve looked like Joe Frazier and Telfair Sugar Ray Leonard. Built like an ice box, the 5-11 Nelson had more than three years and 20 pounds on Telfair, whose arms and torso looked leaner and meaner than they were a month earlier.
Telfair had been working out at 5:30 every morning in the Lincoln gym, launching hundreds of NBA threes and practicing the standard NBA drills Jamel Thomas had recalled from his own brief experiences in the league. Telfair had been attending morning classes and then driving through Manhattan, over the George Washington Bridge, and onto Route 4 to the Hoop Zone in Englewood, N.J., where he did more of the same.
As Telfair and Nelson started their duel, shooting around-the-horn jumpers at a rapid-fire pace, the Clippers’ braintrust looked on. Elgin Baylor, the GM and former Laker great. Mike Dunleavy, the head coach, former NBA point guard, and son of Brooklyn. Barry Hecker, the director of player personnel and grandson of a man who owned a Brooklyn moving company. Gary Sacks, the young Hecker aide and a rising star in the organization.
Evan Pickman, the New York-based scout who attended Lincoln games and championed Telfair at every turn, didn’t make the cross-country trip, but had Hecker and Sacks promise to call him as soon as the Telfair-Nelson faceoff was done.
A weekend warrior occasionally pressed his face against the gym’s doors for a quick survey of the goings on, only to be waved away. Pre-draft workouts were off-limits to the media and often guarded as if peace in the Middle East were at stake. Team officials lived in fear of information leaking into enemy hands, information that could ruin their draft night hopes. But the Clippers had agreed to let me watch this workout on the condition that I kept my observations in confidence until the post-draft publishing of this book.
The draft lottery was yet to be held, so the Clippers weren’t sure where they would pick. If they ended up in the top 5, Telfair was likely out. If they ended up between 8 and 10, Telfair would have a shot. In either scenario, the Clippers had little interest in drafting Nelson.
Telfair was scheduled to show his skills to the Clippers, then the Trail Blazers, and then the Jazz, before flying back to New York. He didn’t appear nervous at the start of his first NBA workout, though he’d been on the phone with Miller at 6 a.m., asking his agent how to dress, how to act, how to exude the right body language. Whatever Miller told him had worked. Telfair’s weakness — his jumper — was Nelson’s strength, but the high school phenom matched the college all-American shot for shot, this while Hecker noticed a flaw in Nelson’s release.
“Look at Jameer’s eyes,” he said. “He’s looking up and following the arc of the ball when he shoots. That’s bad.”
Two Clippers aides were filming every move Nelson and Telfair made. Hecker suddenly noticed a flaw in Telfair’s release, too. He watched the Lincoln point guard shoot from straight over his head and said he needed to move his hands to the side.
“Sebastian’s a special kid,” Hecker said, “but I want all these kids to go to college. Other than LeBron, who’s a freak, they should all go to school. The system’s all fucked up.”
Hecker had taken an immediate liking to Telfair, in part because the personnel man used to buy 10-cent hot dogs at Nathan’s when visiting his grandfather. Hecker and Sacks had taken Telfair to dinner the night before. “He’s very mature,” Sacks said, “but he’s definitely still a kid.”
Telfair had to play like a man on this morning, as the Clippers were pushing the two point guards at a frantic pace. One drill charged Telfair and Nelson to dribble from halfcourt to a chair positioned above the three-point line, execute a crossover, spin back the other way, and shoot a contested pullup jumper. Nelson remained silent through this exercise. Halfway through, Telfair sounded like Monica Seles at the end of a long rally.
Telfair wasn’t tired as much as he was determined. When Dunleavy started the two-on-two half-court games, Telfair teamed up with Cummings, the son of former NBA star Terry Cummings, and Nelson drew Sow. Telfair christened the competition by nailing a jumper over Nelson for a 1-0 lead; the first team to five would win the game.
A series of misses led to a long Telfair jumper and a 2-0 lead. Nelson found he couldn’t beat his younger opponent off the dribble, and Telfair found his older opponent was so in-your-face rugged, he needed to shoot over him. A Telfair pullup jumper made it 3-1. With Dunleavy serving as the on-court supervisor, but not a referee, Nelson called a foul on Telfair and kept possession. After the players changed ends to play on a surface that wasn’t glazed with their sweat, Telfair made one of his most profound plays of the session.
Nelson was running down a loose ball near half-court when Telfair came flying out of nowhere, diving head-first for the ball, cutting Nelson at his feet and dropping him on his ass. Dunleavy smiled and Baylor nodded. If ever there was a foul worth taking, this was it.
Telfair’s team won that first game, 5-4, on a Cummings jumper. Dunleavy lost track of the score in the second game, a game of picks-and-rolls, and erroneously awarded the victory to Nelson and Cummings (the big men had switched sides), who were actually trailing by a 4-3 count. Telfair and Cummings won the third game, and the fourth game — a full-court run charging the point guards to beat the trap — went to Nelson and Cummings. Telfair made the play of that game, too, hitting the floor hard to steal the ball from Nelson when the St. Joe’s star repeatedly dribbled between his legs.
“He definitely didn’t hurt himself,” Hecker said of Telfair. “If you put these two kids in a gym and didn’t know their names, you’d say it was a draw.”
“Sebastian did very well,” Sacks said. “He’s a very, very good player, and so is Jameer. You’ve got to remember upside, and Jameer’s older than Sebastian. But the hardest thing for a guy his size to do in our league is finish around the basket. If Sebastian were 6-2 or 6-3, it would make such a difference.”
Dunleavy refused to tip his hand. He acknowledged that the Clippers needed a point guard, but said he was more concerned about spending a lottery pick on a player who was sure to become a star.
Baylor, the man in charge of making the Clippers’ pick, was willing to say a little more. “Sebastian is very competitive, a leader, a guy with a great upside,” Baylor said. “He’s got very good quickness and handles the ball well. They keep talking about his size, and I think if you have the talent that sort of compensates for a lot of things.”
Unlike Baylor, who was there for Telfair’s 37-point game at UCLA, Nelson had never before seen the kid play. Even though public praise of Telfair could’ve hurt his own cause, Nelson was generous in his assessment.
“I believe Sebastian is ready,” he said. “I think he made the right decision coming out....Obviously, I weigh more than him and I’m stronger. But he’s just as quick and just as good.”
Telfair came off the Spectrum Club floor confused over why the workout lasted a little less than an hour. Jamel Thomas had tricked him into thinking the average NBA workout was a 2 1/2-hour marathon, this in the hope that Telfair would be extra fresh for a 50-minute session.
“I think I can work out again right now,” Sebastian said. “(Nelson) is strong, but I thought he was going to be a lot stronger.”
Telfair and Nelson exited the gym together, walked back past the procession of treadmill warriors, and entered a locker room full of bald and pot-bellied businessmen. At his stall, Telfair showed Nelson a fresh inch-and-a-half-long scar running down his left index finger. “I had a knife,” he told Nelson, “and I was opening a DVD. My girl said something and I got distracted, and the blood flew over the counter.”
I asked Telfair if he’d brought his girlfriend on this West Coast workout swing.
“Girlfriend?” he said. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Company?”
“This is business, man,” Nelson interrupted. “We’re trying to eat.”
Baylor and Dunleavy took Telfair to lunch, and the Clippers started finalizing plans to bring in Livingston, Wisconsin’s Devin Harris and UConn’s Ben Gordon for their own point guard auditions.
Hecker, meanwhile, left a prank message on Pickman’s answering machine saying that Nelson had kicked Telfair’s ass and that Pickman hadn’t been right about a prospect in 18 years. When the scout reached Sacks, Pickman asked him, “Did the workout look like a real good high school player versus a real good college player?” Sacks answered, “Absolutely not.”
Pickman was fired up. The kid he’d been selling to the Clippers all along hadn’t let him down. “If we’re at seven or eight,” Pickman said, “it might come down to Telfair or Devin Harris.”
An hour later, Telfair and Nelson were exchanging cell phone numbers in the lobby of the Sheraton Gateway near LAX. Telfair invited me up to his room to talk about his first playing experience in an NBA setting.
Telfair sat on his king-sized bed, pulled a frayed Bible from a new gym bag (“I carry that Bible with me everywhere,” he said), and started digging into a small bag of trail mix. His mind was going a mile a minute, and his mouth wanted to keep up. So Telfair started talking about life, about money, about cars, about everything. Mostly, he talked about his wide-eyed NBA dream.
“Man, I want to get picked high,” he said. “People ask my why I chose the NBA over college, and it’s simple: It’s the opportunity I’ve dreamed about my whole life. I’m like, how can you turn it down? I still would’ve declared for the draft even if I didn’t get the sneaker deal....I really didn’t want to go to school. I want to make my family happy and let them live a good life, but it’s more than that.
“I want to play in the NBA so bad. I put so much into this. I mean, I really can’t wait to get there.”
The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball can be bought online.