Fifteen Brooklyn summers before he wept inside a courtroom – before he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on gun charges, before one last impassioned plea of innocence – Sebastian Telfair might as well have been Coney Island’s king.
He was a phenom in every sense of the word, a phenomenal hooper with phenomenal hype. A three-time city champ and Sports Illustrated coverboy, the subject of a documentary and book, the reason gyms erupted and overflowed, teeming with cameras. Jay-Z sauntered into his locker room. NBA execs lurked at his practices. When it came time to announce that he’d forgo college and enter the 2004 draft, an emcee introduced him as “Sebastian Telfair, New York City high school legend.”
“He was,” famed sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro tells Yahoo Sports, “the annointed child.”
Just as notably, according to Vaccaro, he was “bubbly. He had this effervescent smile.” He was, says a person familiar with Lincoln High School basketball at the time, “an absolutely wonderful kid. And all of his teachers would tell you the same thing.”
Telfair’s charisma won over locals and outsiders, many of whom flocked to Coney Island for autographs or just a glimpse. It helped win over Adidas, which signed him to a multi-million-dollar shoe contract out of high school, and the Portland Trail Blazers, who selected him with their 13th overall pick.
“His ebullient personality, his handsomeness,” Vaccaro raves. “He was everything lovable, all the things were positive.
“Except,” he now realizes, “the end result.”
From high school to the NBA
On the court, hype outpaced talent. At least at the NBA level. There’s a reason Telfair was the first diminutive lead guard to make the prep-to-pro jump. He was a 6-foot scorer with an inconsistent jumper. He’d ultimately end his career with a 3-point percentage below 32. For all his ability and charm, he was an inconvenient fit for the mid-2000s league he entered.
That inconvenience extended away from the hardwood as well. Fifteen years ago, franchises didn’t allocate sufficient resources to aiding teenage pros. "The NBA wasn't really set up for 19-year-olds at that time," Telfair’s second full-time coach in Portland, Nate McMillan, told Bleacher Report in 2017.
Plus, McMillan added: "Given all the hype coming in, Sebastian definitely had some teammates who looked at him differently."
After two years, the Trail Blazers shipped him to Boston. A year after that – and after Telfair was arrested on a gun possession charge – the Celtics sent him to Minnesota. Two summers later, he was off to the Clippers in another trade, then headed to Cleveland at the deadline in a three-team deal, then part of a third trade in 12 months the following offseason. He spent more time in Minnesota, then in Phoenix, then Toronto, then Oklahoma City – in between stints in China. He never averaged more than 10 points per game. He never saw a playoff floor.
Yet he hung around the league for a decade – longer than two of the three players drafted immediately ahead of him. He made tens of millions of dollars. “He was up and down,” Vacarro says. “But he played, he played nine years in the league, he was good!
“It wasn’t like he had this negative attitude. I never heard bad things in the league, other than that he got hurt a couple times, and he wasn’t big enough to guard somebody. He stayed a long time. He was a legitimate NBA player.”
Somewhere along the way, though, life seemingly led him astray.
The official, on-record, jury-stamped version of the story goes like this: With night having long since fallen on Brooklyn and 3 a.m. approaching on the morning of June 11, 2017, Sebastian Telfair and his teenage cousin were stopped by police. They were asked to step out of Telfair’s royal blue Ford F-150. Officers searched it, claiming a marijuana blunt was their probable cause. They found three semi-automatic pistols; a semi-automatic rifle; a ballistic vest; hundreds of additional bullets; and weed.
It wasn’t the first time Telfair had been arrested. Over a decade earlier, a little before 4 a.m. on April 20, 2007 – around 30 hours after he scored two points in 20 minutes in a Game 82 Celtics loss – he was pulled over for going 77 miles per hour on a 45. Officers found a loaded handgun in the car, and that Telfair was driving with a suspended license. He pled guilty to a weapon charge and got three years probation.
The 2017 incident also wasn’t the last of Telfair’s troubles. His marriage deteriorated. In January of 2018, TMZ reported that his wife, Samantha, obtained an emergency restraining order against Telfair after alleging that the ex-NBAer had gone on what TMZ described as a “violent window-smashing rampage at their home.” Samantha, according to the report, claimed that Telfair had "become increasingly hostile, unstable and violent."
The dots – from the violence, crime and hardship of Coney Island projects, where Telfair grew up, to his adulthood arrests – were easy to connect. A logical narrative formed. Other past incidents, plus an allegedly unpaid credit card bill for which Telfair was sued last year, accentuated it. All of this was brought up in a messy April trial. Telfair was convicted and faced between three-and-a-half and 15 years behind bars. On Monday, he got the minimum, but nonetheless broke down in anguish.
“He’s quite the bawler,” read the first line of the New York Post’s story.
“Former NBA star Sebastian Telfair hit with 3½ years in the slammer,” read the Daily News’ headline.
New York hoopheads wondered where it had all gone wrong for one of their favorite sons.
That’s one version of the Sebastian Telfair story.
The other side of the story
At 2:19 a.m. ET Tuesday, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as Labell Chacon, a friend of Telfair’s who’d received my inquiry. And it became clear there was another version.
“I’m just now getting a chance to sit down and read some of the articles, and that’s why I had to call you immediately,” Chacon said. “They’re completely attacking him. And it’s sad.”
Telfair’s team, she said, has “what we believe is substantial evidence that the arresting officer perjured his testimony.” She questioned the events that led to the car search. She claimed that the guns were licensed (in Florida); that Telfair, who’d had belongings shipped back home to New York, was unaware they were in the car; and that “he got ambushed,” figuratively, by the prosecution.
“He’s not this person they portray him to be,” Chacon said. “He’s a good guy.”
The split with his wife, Chacon said, had been “emotionally rough” for Telfair. The result was “turmoil.” But she painted a picture of a man whose life hadn’t completely fallen apart.
Telfair founded a company, 99 Moves, under which he launched a clothing line and a hip-hop album. The album title, “Take 2,” was a reference to what Chacon calls his focus on “establishing a Take 2 of his life.”
“Of course he loved basketball,” she said. “But he also loves music. He also loves other things. He was trying to explore those ventures.” He wanted to bring in promising artists. “He’s always been about helping other people come up. He wanted to do that so bad with music. … Actually, to use his words: ‘I want to bring music back to Coney Island.’ ”
Telfair, she said, “was thinking about starting some music programs” back in his hometown. “Because before, they used to go out and play basketball,” she explains. “And now he goes to the courts and he sees nobody. And I think that sense of community has been lost. And he was trying to regain that. … One of his ideas was to do a music center. Where kids can come and experience music, and rap, and write, and perform. Kinda like a gym, but for music.”
Chacon sent a résumé of sorts that listed Telfair’s community contributions over the years, an attempt to paint him in a different light. She said Telfair, now 34, is financially stable. She even said she thought he intended to return to basketball prior to the arrest.
When asked why Telfair owned the guns, Chacon said: “I mean, he’s an American. He’s in Florida, he’s licensed, he of course wants to protect his family just like any other American. It's his Second Amendment right, isn't it?”
But the explanation goes beyond that. “If he liked nice cars, he would want to get four – let’s put it in that sense,” Chacon said. “The same applied to everything else, even the licensed guns. There was no ill will. He was just a collector.”
With New York clocks having ticked past 3 a.m., Chacon vowed that she and Telfair’s team would keep fighting.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sylvester Telfair, Sebastian’s oldest brother, wanted to broach another topic.
“Here’s the thing that corporate America, white America, established America, whatever, this is what they need to understand,” he said over the phone. He delved into the history of New York gun laws. He mentioned the NCAA’s recent ‘Rich Paul Rule.’ And then he got to the point: “This is all synonymous [with] institutionalized racism.”
Multiple Telfair siblings feel it applies to this case. And they want that on record. “Yes. Quote me,” Sylvester said, his voice rising. “Something extreme need to happen.”
“For you to not see that Sebastian Telfair was innocent, for you to not see that these police was lying, for you to not see that the judge was being malic[ious], you are an American Notsee,” he continued. “And when I say ‘Notsee,’ don’t say Nazi like Nazi Germany, put the N-O-T and S-E-E. American Notsee.
“If Sebastian Telfair’s name was Jerry Seinfeld, Sebastian Telfair would be home right now.
“This,” he concluded with force, “is a victimless crime!”
‘That wasn’t the child I knew’
So did Sebastian Telfair’s life fall apart before Monday’s sentencing? Or did the trial, which Telfair’s team believes was unfair, force it apart?
Either way, fair or not, prison beckons. Telfair, as Vaccaro says, “battled through Coney Island. He got out. He got out on a chariot. He was the king.”
Fifteen years later, he’s headed somewhere a disproportionate amount of underprivileged kids from disenfranchised communities get sent.
As an 18-year-old, he was exceptional. He’s now no exception.
“I mean, he went from heaven to hell,” Vaccaro says, referencing the sentence.
The famed shoe exec retired in 2007, and fell out of touch with Telfair when the former Lincoln star entered the league. But as court proceedings played out this year, and when the news came down Monday, friends texted him updates.
“I read these things,” Vaccaro said. “That wasn’t the child I knew.
“Sebastian would’ve been the most unlikely kid in my life that I thought would end up like this.”
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