BOSTON -- Sebastian Telfair was a bigger star in high school than he is today. And yet he is a better player now than he ever was back then. The paradox makes sense to him at last.
He is 27 years old and coming off the bench for the Raptors, his seventh team in nine NBA seasons. His point of view today is both surprising and encouraging. Telfair, the sensational AAU point guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., had been the subject of a documentary, a book and a Sports Illustrated cover story while he was in high school. He signed a sneaker contract with Adidas, which he now says was worth about $10 million over five years, before he was picked No. 13 in the 2004 draft by Portland. As he looks back now, it was the shoe money that made him feel as if he'd made it -- long before he knew the first thing about actually making it.
"If I could change one thing, I would take that sneaker deal back," says Telfair, a cousin of Stephon Marbury's. "It put you in some kind of comfort."
On Wednesday, Telfair was back in Boston, where he played in 2006-07. He had been traded after two seasons with the Trail Blazers, who had wanted him to be their franchise leader before dealing him to Boston for the first-round pick that would become Brandon Roy. It was the season before the Celtics won the championship, though at that time the imminent trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were impossible to predict. The young Celtics lost 18 games in a row and appeared -- as Telfair saw it, at least -- to be focused on landing Kevin Durant or Greg Oden in the upcoming draft.
"They were trying to get that pick," Telfair says. "I was just playing basketball. I wasn't thinking about another contract, I wasn't thinking about any of that stuff. And I think I should have been, as far as the game being a business."
If he had been focused on the business of the game, then his career might have followed a different path.
"Certain mistakes I made, I wouldn't have made because I would have been thinking about ruining the goals I would have set for myself -- such as getting another contract, being a starter, becoming an All-Star, all that kind of stuff," Telfair says. "Some of the other guys were thinking that way."
The other young Celtics included Al Jefferson and Tony Allen. Telfair was competing at point guard against rookie Rajon Rondo and Delonte West, who was in his third year.
"I had my Adidas deal, which kind of put me out of the box of the young guys," he says of Rondo and West. "What I have is what they're trying to get.
"Boston was a tough year for me. That year I was just all over the place. I'm running around, trying to get my mom a house. I'm in the streets doing too much, rather than just sitting back, just trying to take it in. That's what I do now. I just take it in, understand what I got going good for myself, cherish it, versus worrying about what you don't have or things like that.
"I can't even recall what a 19-year-old does. I was playing on the edge a little bit as far as running around on the streets. I just know at that time I should have been thinking different than what I was."
In 2006, the Blazers fined Telfair after he left a loaded gun on the team's plane. One year later, at the end of his season with the Celtics, he was arrested on a gun possession charge in the early morning after he was pulled over for speeding on a suspended license. Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics' managing partner, removed Telfair's nameplate from his locker and all but promised that the team would cut ties with him. Telfair admits that he couldn't begin to understand the mistake he had made.
"I was stupid," he says. "I was thinking, I'm not trying to hurt nobody, I'm not going to kill nobody, rob no bank ... you don't understand what you're doing wrong, and as a basketball player, certain things are just not accepted. Certain things society is not going to accept from a basketball player. So if you can't take that, you can't be a pro. I really haven't had any trouble with the law, and then I got in that situation. And it put me in a bad situation. It took a lot for me to dig myself out of that."
Why did he have the gun?
"For no particular reason or particular situation," he says. "Just having it, being dumb. ... If I was thinking about, I want to make sure I'm getting a contract and be an All-Star, [then] for no reason would I have a weapon, at no point in time."
Did the arrest have a meaningful impact on his life?
"I learned a lot from it, but I could have done without it," he says. "I didn't get much out of that, other than playing for a lot less money than I should have, and ending up not getting in better situations as far as teams that would want you.
"It follows me around. I kind of ruined my career with that. It was a bad move all around. But I don't beat myself up about it too much. If I was beating myself up about it too much, I wouldn't be sitting here right now."
At the same time, the alternative universe is impossible to ignore.
"I look at situations like that," Telfair says as he thinks about not having the gun, and not behaving as if he'd achieved success already. "And maybe it's Rondo that goes in that trade instead of me. And I would have had a chance to play with Paul [Pierce], Ray Allen, and KG. I look at situations like that also."
Three months after the arrest, he was traded to Minnesota in the package that brought Garnett to the Celtics. From there, Telfair was moved to the Clippers, then on to the Cavaliers and back to Minnesota. It was as if he was running in place. All the while he watched Rondo win a championship with the Celtics and then lead them to another NBA Finals, becoming an All-Star and establishing himself as one of the best young players in the league. Rondo became everything Telfair was supposed to be.
Sebastian Telfair credits Doc Rivers with putting him on the right track.
"You have to have trust with the guys on your team and they have to know that you're being professional," he says. "They know you're a guy that, off the court, is not taking care of himself. They're looking at you like that. You have to carry yourself the right way off the court. I wasn't doing that, and having all the young guys and we're all trying to make it, they're letting another guy hang himself while they aren't saying anything. Especially because I had that Adidas money. That's how they were looking at it, [like] I already had the car they wanted."
It is startling to hear Telfair acknowledge his "personal failures," as he refers to them, in a way that reverses the stereotype of the AAU star who thinks he has all the answers before he has heard the questions. He has averaged a scant 13.2 minutes in five games since being traded to the Raptors at the deadline last month, but Telfair hopes to re-sign with them as a free agent this summer, regardless of whether he would start or come off the bench. He wants to be part of a young, rising team that can put him in the playoffs for the first time. He wants to be part of something bigger than himself.
"He's been super with us," Toronto coach Dwane Casey says. "He knows his niche in the NBA is probably going to be as a big-time backup. He sees the floor and knows the game, and a big-time quality he has is on the defensive end. He really defends, he's got toughness, he's a pro's pro. He's been everything we look for in that backup position."
Telfair laughs when complimented for his defense. "That definitely wasn't part of my rep," he says, and he wonders how his career might have played out if he could have been introduced to a winning team of experienced players at the beginning of his career. Instead, he went to Portland, which hoped to rebuild around his potential.
"When you're on a veteran team, it's not about you," he says. "It's about being a good teammate, winning games. When you're on a young team, you tend to lose games, so you tend to be a little more selfish and try to get what's yours, and the pressure is just different."
He lost his swagger while playing off the end of the bench in his rookie year.
"It changed my mindset a little bit, versus coming in and playing with confidence and having a little edge to yourself, being a little cocky, which is what you have to be in this league if you want to be competitive at a high level," Telfair says. "People were saying, Oh, maybe he's not as good as we said, and all that kind of stuff. That plays a role in how you think, the mental part of the game."
Back then, he was unable to realize how much he didn't know.
"I had to learn the game," he says. "When I started, I didn't know how to play the game, meaning coming from New York and Lincoln High School. They really don't teach you how to play basketball, especially in a public school. When I got to Portland, I was playing with Zach Randolph. It was a big man's league and I didn't understand how to play with those guys, as far as getting those guys the ball, and that other guys can do what you can do. I'm from New York where point guards -- we dominate the game, and I [thought I] was the only one who could do that. It took me some years to understand."
Now that he has adapted by learning how to complement the big men -- "He's an old-school point guard," Casey says -- the league has shifted its priorities. "It's a point guard league now," says Telfair, laughing. "It switched over."
Throughout his career it has been as if he was playing off the wrong foot -- too young to be the star he was supposed to be. At 6 feet, he needed to become a better shooter, and over these last three seasons he has converted a respectable 34.3 percent of his three-pointers.
"I wanted to get a simple situation where I'm a part of a team, I'm helping them win every night," he says. "I just wanted to be part of a team that achieves something."
That's why he signed with the Suns to be Steve Nash's backup for $1.5 million last season.
"Getting an opportunity to be around him, seeing how he prepares for the games, seeing how serious you have to take it -- I think last year for the first time I was being consistent on how I prepare for the games," Telfair says. "My approach changed last season. Last year was my first time in the NBA when I wasn't on a rebuilding team or a young team."
Telfair was ejected in the third quarter Wednesday after earning two technicals in the Raptors' 112-88 loss to his former team.
"It's hard to win in this league," he says. "I've taken a lot of losses; I'm not accustomed to losing. I still get mad when we lose. My main thing right now, I just want to play for the gold."
He was referring to the medal as opposed to the money. Telfair clings to advice he took from Boston coach Doc Rivers.
"One of the reasons why I'm still in this league today is that he said, 'Don't make excuses. Stop making excuses,' " Telfair says. "I did stop making excuses for myself, and I continued working."
Rivers remembers the conversation. "I was on him hard," he says. "I told him he's too talented to make excuses. Just own up to everything and play. I told him he should have a long, long career. He may not be a star, but you can have a long career in this league, and it's good to see that he's doing it."
Rivers was reminded of Telfair's rival when they were the top national stars in high school.
"You think about Sebastian and -- what's the guy's name? -- Darius Washington [Jr.]," Rivers says. "When they were seniors in high school, they were celebrated like superstars. I think that's hard for kids. And then you go to be pros, and you're looking at yourself as you want to be a superstar. And what you're probably going to be is a role player. But it's hard for you to buy into -- everybody's telling you you're a role player. So I think it takes years for that."
Washington turned pro after two college years at Memphis. He went undrafted in 2006 and has spent his career in Europe.
Telfair hasn't given up on becoming a star. Chauncey Billups languished for years.
"Chris Paul is one of my favorite players," he says. "I like his feistiness, and I would say he's at the top of the point guard list. There's nothing that he can do that I can't do."
The dream hasn't ended, even as the false promises have been killed off. From this point forth, Telfair is going to earn everything he receives. It's more inspiring this way.
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