The second fire

When it’s all said and done, when Sebastian Telfair hangs up his uniform and his shoes after walking off the basketball court one last time, his 2005-06 season with the Portland Trail Blazers will be looked upon as his defining year.

And while the tagline to “Through the Fire” (the moving and inspired ESPN documentary based on Telfair’s senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School) would have you believe otherwise, Telfair knows which one has been harder. Which one has tested his will more. Which one has made him question everything. Himself. His game. His role. Even his ability to do it and do it well in the NBA.

“It’s been an up-and-down year. And I really didn’t expect to have an up-and-down year,” Telfair confessed.

He looks straight ahead when he says it. He puts down the protein shake that was in his hands, takes a deep breath, focuses and then continues.

“Coming in, I thought I was going to have a great year. Thought I was going to be starting,” he said.

His voice sounds slightly bitter, burned. But then, the new Telfair steps in. The Telfair who has now been through the fire of an NBA season twice and has come out wiser, smarter, more mature.

“But, in a way, it’s a good thing. It comes down to what I take from it,” Telfair said. “This year, I learned a lot. I learned that everyone here knows I’m talented, that I can go out there and do certain things on the court. But there’s a lot of things that I’ve learned this year as a person. And on being a better player. I’ve learned how to win. Things that I probably would have learned in college, as Juan Dixon would say.”

He breaks into an easy laugh with the last statement. But just as quickly, he falls back into the groove, explaining himself and where’s he at now as a player and as a person.

“This will be my defining year,” Telfair said. “What I’m going to take from this year is going to be so important for me and for my career. I think that I’ve responded pretty well to the downs, and that’s the main thing. Like my mom said, ‘whatever you’re going through, son, you’ve just got to get out of it.'”

With 20 games remaining in the Blazers’ 2005-06 season, Telfair’s already been through a lot. In fact, the second-year guard’s rollercoaster-like year has in many ways paralleled the Blazers’. But to understand just how rough this one has been for Telfair, you’ve first got to go back to last year.

The Maurice Cheeks era in Portland had come to a crashing end. With 27 games left in the season, interim head coach Kevin Pritchard stepped in. The playoffs were completely out of sight. Attendance at the Rose Garden continued to dwindle, having gone out of fashion when Rasheed Wallace left. And so, word comes down from the front office to “develop young players.”

Telfair shined.

As a rookie, he led Portland in assists 12 different times, easing into the starting lineup like a polished veteran. Telfair took control of an inexperienced, though explosive, young team. He seemed destined to fulfill the promise that the Blazers saw in him when he was selected as the team’s first-round pick (13th overall) in the 2004 draft.

Telfair finished his first season in the NBA averaging 6.8 points and 3.3 assists per game.

Decent first year numbers. But, when it’s taken into consideration that he was drafted straight out of high school – thrust into the starting lineup at the same time that most rookies are just starting to get up off the bench, Telfair’s star looked bright.

Now, cut to October of ’05.

With prized new head coach Nate McMillan at the helm, the Blazers are mired in uncertainty. Highly paid veteran guards Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel and Derek Anderson have been cut loose. Portland has gone young. Critics are predicting “20 wins, at the most.” Even the most devout of Blazers fans are already waiting for 2007. Perhaps the only sure thing, the only certainty, is that Sebastian Telfair will be the starting point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers – for the entire season.

It starts that way, at least.

As the Blazers adapt to the changes that McMillan brings, Portland surprises many by beginning the year well. The team jumps out to a 3-3 record, prompting McMillan to state, “Most people thought we’d go 0-82, so we’re doing something right.”

Then, six games into the season, the joyride ends.

The Blazers hit the wall. Winning only three of its next 16 games, Portland plummets to the bottom of the Northwest Division. Then to the bottom of the Western Conference. Then to the bottom of the NBA.

As the losses mount, McMillan begins to make changes. Tinkering away like a Los Alamos scientist, McMillan adds and subtracts from his starting lineup like there’s no tomorrow.

The first noticeable casualty: Sebastian Telfair.

“It was hard. It’s all been hard,” Telfair said.

The “Telfair smile”- charismatic, normally shining like a bright, white light – is nowhere to be seen.

“And then I had the injury – I’ve never had an injury like that. I had to realize that there are going to be stepping stones. It was rough though, because I had put so much work in over the summer, that I was like, ‘I’m gonna come in and I’m gonna be ready. I’m gonna be that person.’ I worked on my 3-ball. I was ready. And then I got hurt. That injury, it was the first bump in the road. And then it was all downhill from there.”

His voice trails off. He collects his thoughts. But he knows he’s right. It was all downhill from there.

Following the injury, Telfair had what can only be described as a “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment. While a flight crew was doing a luggage check of the Blazers’ private team plane in Boston, a loaded pistol was found hidden in a pillowcase. The weapon belonged to Telfair.

In Telfair’s defense, it was a complicated situation. He claimed that he had mistakenly found the gun in an overnight Louis Vuitton bag. (Telfair usually has one in his possession nearly every time he leaves the Rose Garden.) The bag was his wife’s. The gun was registered in her name.

But to Blazers fans, the scene looked all too familiar. Criminal charges and Blazers’ players had become synonymous, and having Telfair’s name attached to a police report felt like a betrayal. Eventually suspended for two games by the NBA, Telfair’s career had hit the wall for the first time.

“I still feel bad about that,” Telfair said. “I was innocent. It wasn’t on purpose. But that wasn’t me. That’s not who I am.”

Moreover, Portland’s record had continued to slide. In fact, when the gun was discovered, the Blazers were in the middle of a horrendous three-game skid, having been blown out by the Pacers, Celtics and Raptors by a total of 67 points.

Bringing the problems home, Telfair began to question himself openly in the press. He was lost. He wasn’t playing his game. He wasn’t playing like Sebastian Telfair.

“Saying those things, that was just me being – immature. I was trying to find myself, to push myself, but I should have kept quiet,” he said.

So how did Telfair pull it back together? How did he get back to being Bassy?

“I talked to my family. My mom and my brothers and my girlfriend,” Telfair said, with pride. “I talk to them every day. And I have a child now. So that helps. It allows me to go home and just forget about basketball for a while and relax.”

The turning point in Telfair’s season came in Portland on March 9. The Blazers were behind by 20 points to the Dallas Mavericks. McMillan, sensing that the game was already a wash, put in his reserves.

Telfair exploded.

Scoring 12 points and dishing out eight assists in only 18 minutes of play, Telfair took control of the game. Using a brilliant mixture of penetrating drives – many of which had the Mavericks’ starters looking around like they’d just lost their keys – and Houdini-like no-look passes, Telfair looked like the Sebastian of old. The playground Telfair.

Yet, even with the noticeable improvement in his play, Telfair’s minutes haven’t increased. Rookie guard Jarrett Jack has become McMillan’s go-to guy off of the bench, leaving Telfair to watch. And wait.

“I’m ready. I’m always ready,” Telfair said, his eyes lighting up. “I know I can play in this league. I know how good I can be. And I’ve shown it when I’m out there. But coach’s just got his thing going right now and I’m trying to do what’s best for the team.”

He continued, “It’s all been a reality check. But it’s also showed me how much I really do love the game. It’s like, I’m good friends with Chauney Billups. I worked out with him last summer. And he was telling me that it took him seven years to get to be the player that he is now. So, for me, I’m just going out there and playing like myself now. I’m being aggressive, on defense and on offense. And when I’m aggressive, it’s a lot easier. I’m going to the basket; I’m playing like how I play. Using my speed – I feel like it opens everything up for me. That’s my game.”

For Sebastian Telfair, his game, and his drive, are back.