Sebastian Telfair fooled me. Seven years later, maybe he still does fool me.
Because even after Telfair apparently lost his job with the Boston Celtics after another gun incident this week, I'm not ready to throw him onto the same pile of hopelessly loser athletes with J.R. Rider, Todd Marinovich and Pacman Jones.
|Alleged gun incidents served as bookends to Sebastian Telfair's time in Boston. (Getty Images)|
Go back with me to 2000. Maybe he'll fool you, too.
In July 2000, Telfair has just turned 15, but he looks younger. Fresh out of eighth grade, he shows up at the Adidas ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., to play against the country's top high school juniors -- guards like T.J. Ford, Julius Hodge and Anthony Roberson. They look like young men. Telfair looks like a little boy. Until he gets the ball.
Telfair is thrilling to watch -- handles it like a yo-yo, darts to the rim whenever he wants, sees passes nobody else sees -- but that's not where he's going to fool you. The hype said Telfair was special. And so he is. No surprise there.
The surprise comes off the court.
Telfair is younger than everyone here, but off the court he seems older. Before each day's first game, while the other campers are goofing off with circus dunks and NBA 3-pointers, Telfair is off to the side. He brought a personal trainer with him, and the trainer is putting him through agility drills.
Again, picture this. Everyone else, including future NBA players like Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown, is on the court acting like a teenager. Telfair is off the court acting like a pro. He has a rubber band around his ankles and he's sliding back and forth. He's working with a medicine ball. He's doing cone drills.
This kid's going to make it.
Between their games, campers sit in the bleachers and people-watch -- checking out the competing campers who are now on the court, and checking out the Division-I basketball coaches watching from the other side of the gym. The players are trying so hard to look cool. Not Telfair. He's behind the bleachers, down a hallway, doing sit-ups and push-ups.
This kid's going to make it. And he's going to make it big.
After games, players meet the media. These kids are 17 or 18. This is their first exposure, and it shows. They say goofy stuff. They look not at the reporter but at the reporter's notepad, amazed that my words are being copied onto paper. Verbally they get led wherever reporters want them to go, announcing their list of interested schools and talking about the positives of this school or that school. They are sheep.
Not Telfair. He's the shepherd. The media tries, but nobody is going to lead Telfair where he doesn't want to go.
He doesn't want to discuss potential schools, so he doesn't answer those questions. Not in a rude way, not in a way that makes you dislike the punk, but polished and smooth, as if you're interviewing a charming, agenda-shaping spokesman. Telfair looks every reporter in the eye. He's running this interview, and he's 15.
This kid is so going to make it. And big. Bigger than any guard to come out of New York.
That was the hype since Telfair was in elementary school. He was the cousin of NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, and he was going to be better. Marbury said so, and so did the recruiting gurus (the recruiting gurus who pay attention to fifth-graders, anyway).
The only knock on Telfair was his size. He was tiny, physically immature. But mentally, emotionally, he was ahead of the game. Until he entered the NBA Draft in 2004, nobody his size had skipped college and gone straight to the NBA. Nobody that small was thought to be ready. Telfair was ready.
Maybe he wasn't. Apparently -- obviously? -- he wasn't. Since being taken No. 13 overall by Portland in 2004, Telfair has averaged 7.4 points and 2.8 assists in 214 NBA games, shooting poorly and failing to grab Boston's point guard job after being traded there before this season.
Off the court, shockingly -- shocking to me, anyway -- he has struggled even more.
Three times in the past 14 months, Telfair has been linked to incidents involving handguns. The first came in February 2006 when he tried to take a loaded gun onto Portland's team plane (he said the gun, which was found in a pillowcase, was his girlfriend's and wasn't supposed to have been brought on the trip). In October, Telfair had a $50,000 chain jerked from his neck outside a New York City club. Later that night rapper Fabolous was shot outside the same club; police investigated Telfair's possible involvement in the shooting but brought no charges.
This week Telfair was pulled over for speeding, and police found a suspended Florida driver's license ... and a loaded .45 handgun peeking out from under the passenger seat.
Two or three gun incidents in 14 months? That's bad. But you know something? I still can't give up on Telfair. If there's a rational explanation for two or three gun incidents in 14 months, here you go:
Something has scared Telfair so badly that he constantly feels the need to arm himself. To me, this is plausible. He has been famous since he was 10. In New York City. The greatest, grossest, happiest, scariest city in the world.
Maybe something in his background, something beyond his control, has made him fear for his life. Maybe someday he'll tell us. I hope so, because I believed in Sebastian Telfair. I still do.
But if the day comes when I have to abandon that belief, Telfair will become one more reason not to believe in any athlete ... ever again.