It’s 8 a.m. and already 90 degrees when Sebastian Telfair emerges from his Coney Island high-rise one August morning. Since the start of the month, the basketball world’s boy wonder has joined his older brother, Jamel Thomas, for a grueling, five-day-a-week workout regimen.
Last year, Telfair averaged 27 points per game and led Abraham Lincoln High School to a city championship. He was the only sophomore named to USA Today‘s All-American squad. Tagged as one of New York’s 50 greatest players, the kid Coney Islanders call “Bassy” will be the best guard the city has ever produced, according to some hoop gurus.
Bassy isn’t dodging the spotlight either. A recent Dime magazine fashion spread featured eight pages of Bassy modeling the latest FUBU and Timberland gear. The models groping him in the spread were bodacious, and his diamond accessories were off the hook. But today, he’ll need a different kind of ice. “The sun’s already out. It’s gonna be a killer,” Bassy says to his sidekicks Isaiah, 14, and Lance, 11.
Jamel usually drags Bassy out of bed. Since starring at Providence in the ’90s, Thomas has bounced between NBA stints and the professional farm leagues. He wants a permanent NBA spot, and he doesn’t mess around. But today he’s late. “He’s gonna blame it on us, watch,” says Bassy, who diplomatically is wearing a Nike T-shirt and Adidas shorts.
Both Nike and Adidas have been hitting on Bassy since he was touted as the nation’s best sixth-grader. Each July, the companies sponsor their own elite camps, which they use to “get in” with the players. They shower them with gear, hoping the kids will someday endorse their products.
In 2001, Bassy was the darling of the Adidas camp. He scored 29 points in the all-star game and was named MVP. Last June, he appeared on the cover of Slam, the urban basketball bible.
At this year’s camp, Bassy couldn’t find his stroke, and every point guard he faced sniffed blood. Stories noting his inconsistent play appeared everywhere. (A New York Times article carried the headline “A Brooklyn Star Fails to Impress.”) The stories didn’t mention his brilliant passes that led teammates to layups all week—just his streaky shooting. “It didn’t get me upset,” Bassy says of the negative press. “They’re gonna love you when you’re good, and they’re gonna hate you when you’re bad. I’m not gonna flip.”
At 8:40, Jamel arrives. Bassy reminds his older brother how it usually goes down: “No, we ain’t washin’ our face or brushin’ our teeth. We’re just puttin’ on our shoes and going.”
They reach the boardwalk’s western end, where they begin a two-mile run in the sand. Jamel leads the way. “Ain’t nothin’ easy,” Bassy says, when he emerges from the beach. “If it’s easy, we don’t want it.”
Dripping with sweat, the four cross Surf Avenue and walk by a court on 31st Street—the court that spawned Bassy’s famous cousin Stephon Marbury, the court where Bassy developed his flashy handle at age nine. Now they’re starting even younger in Coney. “Ethan is unbelievable,” Bassy says of his seven-year-old brother. “We’re gonna try to get him to the NBA out of eighth grade. I’m serious!”
For now, Bassy is the one who has to answer questions about going pro. His patience with the subject is wearing thin. “It’s a stupid question, to tell you the truth,” Bassy said. “I hate the question, because I don’t have an answer.”
No point guard has ever gone from high school to the NBA. At six feet and 170 pounds, Bassy will need to bulk up if he’s going to be the first. Experts, including Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, say he has enough game to make the jump, but he advises against it. Karl saw him play at Adidas.
“There’s no question we’d draft guys like that, but I’m not a fan of it,” Karl said. “We gotta get two or three years and go through a lot of pain to get them to be good NBA players.”
Walking through the projects, Bassy is not thinking about his future, just his thirst. “We need some water, son,” Bassy yells to his friend Akeem, who pops his head out of a window. A few seconds later, Akeem drops four water bottles into a courtyard. Bassy tosses bottles to Lance, Jamel, and Isaiah. Then, Jamel and Lance go inside Bassy’s building and run up 16 flights. Bassy and Isaiah run the stairs six times. “It smells like piss in there,” Jamel says. “You wanna get out fast.”
As they complete the drill, Bassy’s and Jamel’s father shows up. A thin man with sunken jowls, Otis Telfair greets the group. He was a sergeant with the 1st Infantry in Vietnam, leading reconnaissance missions during 1968 and 1969. Until a decade ago, when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, Otis Telfair drove a truck. Now he collects full disability. He takes each day as it comes. His sons’ accomplishments get him through the hard ones.
“You know [Jamel] is a workaholic,” Otis Telfair tells Lance. “Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into, son?”
Otis Telfair laughs and says, “You’ll know tonight.” Then he tells the group that Bassy’s and Jamel’s mom, Erica, is preparing breakfast: fish and grits.
Finished with their circuits, Bassy, Jamel, Zeke, and Lance sit on a bench. “Hey, pretty girl,” Bassy says to a toddler making her way to the nearby swings. After a short riff on Jay-Z and cell phones, he heads upstairs for breakfast. Then, it’s on to business.
Professional and college players have known about the John Jay summer run for years. Monday through Thursday, players gather at the midtown gym for drills and scrimmaging. Arnie Jacobs, a fiftysomething gym rat, leads the workouts, as ex-Knick Mark Jackson and Kenny Satterfield of the Denver Nuggets practice shooting with Amal McCaskill of the Portland Trailblazers.
Soon the scrimmage starts, and Bassy takes the floor. He’s facing Smush Parker, a former Fordham star currently in camp with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bassy quickly starts to work on Parker. First, he creates space with his crossover and drains a 20-footer.
On the next possession, Bassy gets the ball at the top of the key. With Parker guarding him closely, he fakes a pass to Jackson and then flicks a no-look pass to McCaskill, who finishes with a dunk. A few minutes later, he nails a three-pointer in Parker’s face. (“He’s a special player,” Jackson says later.)
Less than a minute goes by before Bassy drops another crossover on Parker, double pumps, and hits a layup.
Parker averaged 16 points a game in the Atlantic 10, but Bassy is dismantling his game piece by piece. If the pundits at ABCD saw Sebastian Telfair today, they’d rechristen his pedestal with bottles of Kristal.
After another three-pointer, Bassy takes a seat. He’s torched Parker for 10 points in 10 minutes. “He’s one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen,” Jacobs says. “He keeps destroying my gifted people.”