Friday, April 27, 2007

Darkness on the edge of Sebastian Telfair’s life

Imagine being 18-years old, they’ve made a movie about your life, there has been a book written about your life, you’ve been featured on the cover of several national magazines, you’ve appeared on national television, you carry the hopes and dreams of 17 people, and in the apartment building you live in two people are murdered during the filming of the award winning documentary. Such is the life Sebastian Telfair led and managed to live through as a high school basketball player. Not just any high school basketball player, arguably the greatest player in the illustrious history of New York City high school basketball. As a high school sophomore, junior and senior Telfair became the first high school basketball player to ever lead his high school basketball team to three consecutive New York City high school basketball championships. But as is so often the case, the legend that is Sebastian Telfair appears to be crumbling, the life and future of a 21-year old hanging in the balance.

Telfair was the 13th overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers out of Lincoln High School. At 6' (many believe he’s no taller than 5’10), he is the shortest high school player ever to be drafted by an NBA franchise. He had committed to the University of Louisville and coach Rick Pitino during his senior year, but decided to turn professional instead. Telfair is the cousin of New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury, and the half-brother of former NBA player Jamel Thomas.

On February 15, 2006, a loaded handgun was found in Telfair's pillowcase on the Blazers' private jet at Boston's Logan International Airport. Telfair told authorities the gun belonged to his girlfriend and that he inadvertently grabbed the wrong bag when leaving for the team's road trip. The gun was registered to Samantha Q. Rodriguez, Telfair's girlfriend of five years.

On February 21, the Massachusetts State Police announced that no charges would be filed against Telfair in the incident (Massachusetts has very strict gun laws, the violation of which can lead to a prison sentence). On February 23, the NBA front office announced that Telfair would receive a 2-game suspension for breaking the league's collective bargaining agreement, which prohibits NBA players from carrying firearms while on league business.

On October 16, 2006, Telfair had a chain reported to be worth $50,000 taken from him while he was outside P-Diddy's restaurant, Justin's. The following night, Telfair left a preseason basketball game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to attend a police lineup, where he did not make any identification.

A rumor began to circulate that he was seen making a phone call roughly an hour before rapper Fabolous was shot outside of the same club. Telfair voluntarily surrendered his cell phone records to police, and is not under investigation for any involvement, despite rumors to the contrary. It was later found that the chain belonged to Geonne Telfair, Telfair's younger sibling, and Telfair was reimbursed for the stolen property.

Telfair and a friend, Al Eden Fuentes, were arrested early on April 20 2007 and charged with felony possession of a weapon, after a traffic stop. The traffic stop was prompted when Telfair was spotted driving his 2006 Range Rover 77 mph on the Bronx River Parkway, a 45 mph zone. Telfair was driving under a suspended Florida license. When the police searched Telfair's vehicle, a loaded .45 caliber handgun was found under the passenger's seat. Both Telfair and Eden claimed to not have any knowledge of the handgun. Police have yet to determine the registration status of the handgun.

While the police have yet to determine how they’re going to handle the gun charge the Boston Celtics have made a decision regarding Telfair’s future with the Celtics. Traded from the Trail Blazers to the Celtics on June 28, 2006, the Trail Blazers traded Telfair along with center Theo Ratliff and a 2008 second-round pick to the Boston Celtics for guard Dan Dickau, center Raef LaFrentz, and the 7th overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, Randy Foye, who was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 6th overall pick, Brandon Roy. On April 24, 2007 Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck announced that Telfair's nameplate on his Celtics locker had been removed and did not expect him back for the 2007-08 season.

"I wanted to let you know that we have removed Sebastian's nameplate from his locker in Waltham," wrote Grousbeck in an email to the Boston Globe. "The facts and circumstances of his case have not been determined but he does not have a Celtics locker and we do not anticipate that he will."

Have the Boston Celtics overreacted or has Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck made himself judge and jury? Telfair has one year remaining on the $7.591 four year rookie contract he signed with the Blazers. NBA contracts are guaranteed and the Celtics will be responsible for the $2.56 million owed to Telfair. The Celtics can try and trade Telfair or attempt to challenge Telfair’s contract in the courts, but at the end of the day Grousbeck acting as judge, jury and in this case executioner has placed the Celtics in an un-winnable position. Telfair has had his share of legal “issues” but as a matter of record he has yet to be convicted of anything accept bad judgment.

"It is fair to say that if the charges were true, it wouldn't make me too proud to have somebody I know who was speeding without a license and with a gun in the trunk," said NBA commissioner David Stern to reporters during halftime of the New Jersey-Toronto playoff game Tuesday night according to a report in the Boston Globe. "I don't know what the ultimate disposition of that is going to be but our players do have an obligation to conduct themselves in a way that demonstrates the appropriate respect for the game."

Sports Business New spoke with Travis L. Gonzolez, Head of Global Basketball Public Relations for adidas Thursday afternoon. Even before he was drafted by the Trail Blazers adidas signed Telfair to a reported endorsement contract worth between $6 million and $10 million. The role adidas played in Telfair decision to enter the NBA draft after high school is featured prominently in the ESPN award winning film “Through the Fire”, which followed Telfair’s last year of high school through the moment he fulfilled his lifetime dream of being drafted by an NBA team.

Gonzolez, who has known Telfair since he was in eighth grade, told SBN the NBA’s official outfitter has yet to decide if adidas will continue their relationship with Telfair. The standard morality clause which allows a company to end their contractual obligations if they believe that person has done damage or harm to the reputation of their product through their actions (and no the same set of rules do not apply to the Celtics) will consider all of their options before making a decision.
“At the very least we owe Sebastian the benefit of the doubt and the time to investigate fully what did or didn’t take place,” Gonzolez told SBN. “We’re not jumping to any conclusions but at the end of the day we will do what’s best for adidas.”

“I’ve known Sebastian for a long time and in my heart of hearts I know he’s a good person who cares deeply about others and what people think of him. Not many people know this, but Sebastian is personally responsible for the welfare of 17 people, that’s a great deal of pressure for anyone, let alone a 21-year old.”

Telfair's attorney, Ed Hayes spoke with The Boston Globe about the Celtics actions and doesn’t seem impressed by the organizations decision.

"I just think that what [the Celtics] did was with the season over they saw a chance to take a public relations shot and they did," said Hayes. "He doesn't do drugs. He doesn't smoke. He takes good care of his family. He's never been involved in any of those deals with beating girlfriends or causing trouble in nightclubs. He is not a guy who embarrasses you. He's a nice young guy. He's had a tough year.

"Why do that [make a public statement about removing the nameplate]? Why not say, 'Give it a little time. We'll see what happened.' They should show more restraint after they told him not to cooperate with police against a group of hoodlums [in the Fabolous case] who have been terrorizing athletes and celebrities across the country."

The real question that needs to be answered isn’t what the Celtics did and what adidas might or might not do, but how did a 21-year old with at least $12 million end up making so many questionable decisions? SBN spoke with John F Murray, PhD, clinical and sport performance psychologist based in Palm Beach, Florida (one of the best in the business) about Telfair. Telfair grew up in a series of tenement buildings located in the shadow of Cooney Island, the dilapidated Brooklyn amusement park.

One of the stories told in “Through the Fire” relates to Sebastian’s older cousin Stephon Marbury. Marbury left Georgia Tech after his freshman year facing the same challenges Telfair listening to a consistent message from everyone around him – your skills as a basketball player is expected to deliver our family from poverty into the lap of luxury. Towards the end of “Through the Fire” one of Telfair’s older brothers is seen driving a Bentley Sebastian has bought him and Sebastian’s mother is excited she’ll never have to cook again. Her meal ticket is about to sign a multi-million shoe contact and join the NBA. How much is Sebastian Telfair a product of the environment he grew up in?

“I think it's a huge factor. So much of behavior is learned and if a person learns to cope with problems in a certain way they will tend to repeat that in the future. Much of this comes from parents, the neighborhood we are brought up in and the groups we gravitate toward. Some kind of positive role model is always helpful in a child's background to encourage smart choices and knowing the consequences of behavior is crucial. Give this, there is still free-will and all citizens are responsible for their actions regardless of upbringing as that is the only way society could survive.” Murray told SBN.

Still John Murray made it clear that is no excuse for the poor decisions Sebastian Telfair seems to be making.

“I think it depends on who that person chooses in his mind as role models. If a person decides that gangs and gang behavior provide the answer, and that crime will pay, it can lead to disaster. If, on the other hand, a teacher, religious leader or parent has greater influence, that person might go in a totally different direction. Coming from a rough background does not necessarily lead to criminal behavior. Great leaders often come from nothing and rich nurtured children can end up in the gutter or addicted to drugs. It comes down to positive influences and the right choices, and learning that cheating or crime is not the right answer to the problem of survival.”

USA Today columnist Ian O’Connor wrote “The Jump” which looked at the life and times of Sebastian Telfair and how he was handling the biggest decisions of his life and those around him as a 17 and 18-year old. Telfair’s appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was the subject of an award winning documentary and during his senior year at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School appeared on ESPN at least three times. In every sense of the word Telfair was a child protégé, however in his case he was put on a pedestal without a support system around him that could have helped provide some guidance.

“Knowing limits is important. As talented as a 13-year-old might be, if he learns that his talent alone is the ticket to unlimited success and glory, and that the rules do not apply to him, and that the media will always love him for his ability to place a ball through a hoop, he is severely missing the lesson that life is hard, and that discipline and proper choices is what leads to true success and well being,” Murray told SBN.

As for a teenager being showcased on ESPN, Murray offered this, “How is anyone supposed to deal with that? The only answer is maturity, which is kind of hard for a young person who expects to live forever. This is why it is so important to have programs and mentors in place to hammer home the message that true success will only come from a certain degree of humility and a strong dose of self-esteem as a person independent of a person's athletic prowess. It can all end with injury. There are no guarantees that it will always continue. People need to expand their awareness about life and find other avenues to identify with besides only sport or there could be a huge crash when the sport ends either by retirement or early for any number of other reasons. Success is always temporary and players need to understand that very well.”

“He needed to hear the message that everything that goes up must eventually come down and that money or fame is never the answer to all your problems. Many of the clients I see are less happy with tremendous wealth than when they are fighting to make it in their sports. What does that tell you? Figure it out. Happiness is not a function of fame and wealth. Inner peace and self-esteem is far more valuable even if it does not always pay all the bills.”

The pressure on Sebastian Telfair growing up in poverty, living around so many failed dreams and dreamers, death visiting his doorstep would be a great deal for anyone to deal with. But having to deal with the expectations of delivering his entire family to “The Promised Land” is a position an 18-year old should never be subjected too.

“Let's face it ... It's very unnatural to come from nothing financially and then to have a huge windfall as a result of athletic talent. Who can teach coping with this if nobody has experienced it in this person's social network? It has to come from the outside. Those who win the lottery often find their lives a wreck after they get paid off because they have not been educated to prepare for wealth. Everyone then wants a piece of their wealth
and relationships change completely. There is a need to teach restraint and to educate those who receive windfalls overnight - especially among those who are from lower income families and totally unprepared for the stress. The pressure of that can be almost more devastating that having no money.” Murray told SBN.
“It is highly unnatural. That is why good sport psychologists are so important actually in the NBA and all sports. You are talking about a stress actually - and no matter if the stress is good stress or bad stress it is still stress and it needs to be coped with religiously. Stress management programs and individual counseling can avert many problems before they occur. You might not be able to change 17 years of upbringing, but you can learn to anticipate problems and find solutions that have better consequences than carrying a loaded weapon around and getting tossed off a team.”

At 21 Sebastian Telfair has a long life to lead and one that will hopefully include many years where his ability to thrill basketball fans will be appreciated by an NBA team and its fans. That team may not be the Boston Celtics, but given the challenges Telfair and the Celtics have faced in recent years another chance may be what Telfair needs. More important than basketball (regardless of if Telfair ever plays basketball again he still has millions of dollars to his name) is what Sebastian Telfair does with his life and what he can learn from the challenges he’s currently facing.

“Where do we begin? I would first of all try to get him to commit to a certain number of sessions and then we would spend a long time talking about his well being, happiness, what makes him tick, what he wants out of life, etc.... And then we could devise a plan of action to help him become more well adjusted. His life has been very unusual, and he probably needs a lot of mental coaching or mentoring, whatever you want to call it.” Murray said.

And what of the Celtics, Murray shared some interesting thoughts on where the Celtics responsibility falls in regard to Telfair’s NBA future.

“I applaud the fact that teams are starting to get smart and tough! He still has a lot of money coming to him. He needs to now use some of that money for serious mental coaching. He will be a much happier person when he does. Hopefully he will get another great chance, but reversing this kind of behavior is going to take a lot of work.”
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Boston Globe.

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