By Jon Campbell
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Long before the exclamation point, Sebastian Telfair was gone. Darting around Grady players as if they were folding chairs, the Lincoln High School point guard ended a blurry sojourn that began at the top of the key by picking up his dribble in the lane, bunny-hopping through traffic, and kissing a layup off the glass.
"Nice move, man," Lincoln coach Dwayne Morton told his freshman sensation after the game, "but that wasn't the play."
Morton's sideline shriek called for Telfair to run a play in which he and his mates crisscross positions, rotate the ball in a half-court set, and look for an open cutter. But in the closing minutes of a tight game against Lincoln's arch-rival, and with playoff seedings and the city's bragging rights on the line, Telfair was threading this weave solo.
"I did weave," a smiling Telfair told his coach after Lincoln had pulled away late to knock off Grady, 81-67. "I weaved right around them guys."
At 15, the 5-10 Telfair, all 135 pounds of him, knows he has an awful lot of weaving left to do to get to where he's trying to go. For the Brooklyn native, who is averaging 18 points and five assists per game, the first stop is the city's Public School Athletic League playoffs, which start this week with Lincoln (17-6) seeded fourth among the 32 schools that qualified. Grady, at 21-3, is seeded second, with Paul Robeson (21-1) first and Boys & Girls (21-3) third.
"Two NBA coaches at the Adidas Camp last year told me that Sebastian has what it takes, that he's NBA material."
Projected by many hoopologists as the next great point guard to roll off the New York City assembly line, Telfair is just beginning to learn, both on and off the court, how to plot and navigate his course for stardom. "I talk to my cousin all the time about making it there," he said. "We talk about more than just basketball; we talk about life."
Telfair's cousin just happens to be Stephon Marbury, and there happens to be the National Basketball Association. Marbury, a former Lincoln star who led the Rail Splitters to the city championship as a senior in 1995, landed in the Big Show in 1996 after weaving his way out of the Coney Island projects in Brooklyn, through Lincoln and then Georgia Tech, where he played for just one season. From Atlanta, he headed to the Timberwolves in Minnesota, where his major-league career took flight.
"Sebastian comes to a lot of my games to watch me play, and then later, we usually talk," says Marbury, who has since come homesort ofto star for the New Jersey Nets. "He's a smart kid, smart enough to surround himself with the people who can help him most."
One of those people is Coach Morton, himself a former standout at Lincoln, who went on to star at Seton Hall. Still shaking his head after the weave business, he allows a sneaky smile to shatter his poker face: "The kid just went; I guess that's the freshman in him."
But when the conversation turns to more serious matters, like Telfair's future, the coach wraps an arm around his young, lean dream-weaver, bringing him big-brother close, and the poker face returns. "At this point in his life, Sebastian needs to be worried about just two things, school and basketball," Morton says. "Everything else will fall into place."
Asked if Telfair indeed has the NBA goods, Morton doesn't bat an eyelash.
"Yep," he says.
"And I'm not the only one who thinks so," he continues. "Two NBA coaches at the Adidas Camp last year told me that Sebastian has what it takes, that he's NBA material."
With so many similarities to cousin Stephon, it's easy to see why NBA scouts might be licking their chops over Telfair, three full years before he gets measured for his prom tux. Like Marbury, Telfair has more moves than an old U-Haul. Possessing an explosive first step, he handles the rock like a magician and always, always wants it in crunch time. Despite a few careless turnovers against Grady that day, the coach says Telfair's overall court vision is 20/20 and getting better. And on a team that often attacks opponents from the perimeter, he's not bashful about pulling up from the parking lot on occasion and letting it fly.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing, and working hard on the things I need to improve on," says Telfair. "I have enough good basketball people around me to get some sound advice from."
That's a titanic understatement. Telfair lives in the same Coney Island housing complex, Surfside Gardens, where Marbury and four of his brothers once lived. Each of the Marbury boys played NCAA Division I basketball, and the youngest, Zach, is currently a junior playing at Rhode Island. Telfair's older brother, Jamel Thomas, a former standout at Providence, is now with Idaho of the Continental Basketball Associationhe was the 2000 CBA Rookie of the Yearand trying to work his way onto an NBA roster. One other Marbury, Stephon's 11-year-old nephew Don Jr., and Sebastian's kid brother, Ethan, 6, are fast becoming a part of Brooklyn's first basketball family.
"People ask me if it's in the genes," says Telfair. "I tell them it must be; how else can you explain it?"
But despite all that rich basketball blood, the fact remains that only one member of the family is earning an NBA paycheck. "Sebastian knows how difficult it is to get to this level," says Marbury in the Nets locker room. "So when he asks me about my approach to the game, I tell him that every night before I step onto the court, I say to myself, 'Who am I going to be tonight? Am I going to be the best player I can possibly be? Damn right.'
"If not," older cousin warns, "you'll end up one of those should-have, could-have, would-have-been guys, and that would be a shame."
While most talented players and coaches, especially at the high school level, hate to have labels and expectations pinned to their tank tops, Telfair says boldly, "Bring it on."
"I never look at it like I can't meet anyone's expectations of me," he says. "I just think, 'Hey, you think that much of me, you think I'm supposed to be that good? Well, I like that challenge; I want to be as good as you say I can be.' "
Much like his weave routine, the kid in him seemed to be getting the best of Telfair, who will surely find out that living up to expectations, especially in a sports-crazed town like New York, can at times be a frustrating and humbling experience.
Just ask Felipe Lopez, the most ballyhooed prep school baller in history, who came out of Harlem's Rice High School. Lopez was the subject of a feature in The New Yorker(complete with a full-page Richard Avedon photo) before his senior year was complete, and his mug landed on the cover of Sports Illustratedbefore he played in a single college game.
Lopez, who never lived up to his potential as a great college player while at St. John's, still did enough to impress NBA scouts, and after a few long winters spent honing his skills in Vancouverthe NBA's version of Siberiahe has, ironically enough, landed a starting job with Jordan's Wizards.
"I've heard of Sebastian, and every time I hear people talk about him, I think about what I went through," says Lopez. "My best advice for him would be to concentrate on his goals, stay away from the wrong crowd, and let the rest fall into place.
"He needs to keep believing in his potential, but not get too overconfident," adds Lopez. "For me, I had a good support system, and that helped me deal with all of the criticism. Sebastian has to know that all great players coming up are going to be compared to great players before them, and he has to learn to deal with that."
He's trying. But sometimes, when people want to know if Telfair really is the second coming of Stephon Marbury, the 15-year-old in him emerges again and does all the talking.
"I'm not the second coming of Stephon Marbury or anyone else," he says. "I'm the first coming of Sebastian Telfair."