With his 19th birthday still more than a month away, Sebastian Telfair called a press conference in downtown New York City to announce a pair of highly publicized decisions.
This was back in May 2004, when Telfair’s popularity was rapidly rising. He was yet to graduate high school, but in basketball circles, he was on his way to becoming a household name.
Already known as one of the best prospects to ever come out of Coney Island, Telfair’s hoops journey would soon be chronicled on a highly acclaimed documentary titled “Through the Fire.”
The film went behind the scenes of his senior season at Lincoln High School, trailing Telfair and his family as he wrestled with the decision to go to college at Louisville or turn pro.
And the film crew was there on that May night in NYC, when Telfair officially announced both his intention to enter the NBA Draft and his recently signed multi-million dollar shoe deal with Adidas. Two months later, Telfair was drafted 13th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. The documentary ends as he and his family emotionally celebrate a bright basketball future.
But ever since, things haven’t exactly gone to plan for Telfair. The undersized point guard struggled with the physical adjustment, quickly falling out of the rotation in Portland. Then, over the next nine seasons, Telfair switched teams eight times, unable to find a stable role and never playing for a contender. He is still yet to appear in a playoff game.
“I’m definitely unsatisfied,” Telfair said of his career. “I’m a hooper, I’m a player, I like to play a lot. I just didn’t get as many opportunities as I would have liked.”
Because of the attention and hype heaped upon him at such a young age, Telfair, maybe unfairly, has been labeled a bust. He was drafted behind Luke Jackson, Rafael Araujo and Robert Swift, players who have long been out of the league after unsuccessful careers.
But Sebastian Telfair is a well-known name. And his relatively disappointing career arc has its followers. So when he signed with a Chinese team last offseason, it seemed like the latest low point, a year in basketball exile for a 29-year-old who many expected to be a star at this point in life.
But, as Telfair tells it, the year abroad was exactly what he needed. A career rejuvenation.
Telfair is no stranger to international basketball. He once visited his brother in Greece, where he played professionally. And Telfair’s cousin, former NBA star Stephon Marbury, has been tearing up the Chinese league for a few years now. Marbury even had a bronze statue erected in Beijing after leading his team to a title.
So Telfair went overseas with an open mind. He embraced the new culture and said it helped him grow as a person.
“I was the different one,” Telfair said. “Instead of being from the states and being from New York City, more of a common person, you’re in China where you stick out like a sore thumb. You gotta start over, learn new things, eat new food. It was great for me. I’m so happy I went over there.”
And it helped his game, too. For the first time since high school, Telfair had the freedom to show off his creative playmaking skills. He averaged a league-best 26 points and six assists per game, rediscovering his confidence along the way.
“I was able to prove things to myself, getting an opportunity to play 30-something minutes a night, just go out there and hoop,” Telfair said. “Your team expects you to be a guy who scores 30 points a night for you to win. That was a big part of me going down there. Just to get that opportunity to get my legs back up under me.”
And now he returns to the NBA a more grounded individual. He turned down a two-year, $7 million deal in China for a $1.3 million veteran’s minimum deal with the Thunder. He’s behind Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson on the point guard depth chart, knowing a feature role doesn’t await.
But he brings a grateful mentality to a locker room full of young guys who have only experienced success.
He’s been on losing teams. He’s been forced overseas. He’s been through the professional fire. Now he just craves a minor role on a title contender.
“At this point, I’m putting that all behind me,” Telfair said of his NBA struggles. “I got a new lease right now with OKC and I’m just working hard. That’s the most important thing.”