Monday, July 7, 2003 Updated: July 14, 8:24 PM ET
The new Next Big Thing
By Ralph Wiley Page 2 columnist
A crop gets harvested every year.
From the high schools, for the threshing machine of D-1 basketball.
OK, we already knew that.
Telfair is ready to follow in the footsteps of cousin Stephon Marbury.
But now we have a different kind of cash crop: it is versatile, it can save an NBA franchise from being scuttled, reinvigorate a league, and cause 5,000 tickets to be sold over a July weekend off mere speculation it might appear in a Summer League game in Orlando; it can almost single-handedly cause a 26.7 percent increase in national viewership of the teleconference known as the NBA draft; it can generate some $100 mil in future marketing deals, and sign for the minimum three-year $12.96 deal to actually play in the NBA.
You know who I'm talking about. I don't have to say it. The Shazam has you in its spell. You may say you don't follow LeBron James, you don't care about LeBron James. But you know who he is; therefore, yes you do.
LeBron James is a one-of-a-kind player. This is about more than that. This is a different kind of crop; we've invented a hybrid strain, a new kind of crop. To paraphrase the immortal words of villainous Ronny Cox in "RoboCop," "We have contracts for the next 10 years ... who cares if it works or not?"
Hype don't care, that's for sure.
Call this crop "Instant Superstar." A mutated strain of "Superstar."
Now ... who's got next?
There will be a next. Believe it. There will be a next in the hype sense. There won't be another LeBron James, not in the sense of an 18-year-old high school kid with an NBA-ready body at 6-8, 240 pounds, not only with that size but carrying it as if he were 6-1 -- perfectly at ease in his body, perfectly flexbile, perfectly fit, skill level off all charts. A perfect playing machine.
There won't be another one of those for a long while, unless somebody like a James Cameron thinks him up and puts Pixar on it.
But the commercial demand for "The Next LeBron James" must be satisfied. The Monster must be fed, the commercial eating machine that is all of us put together. We either complement the growing and harvesting of the crop, or feed off it, or are entertained, at our leisure, by those who feed of it.
Sebastian Telfair, you're elected.
You got next, whether you want it or not.
But what's not to want? It's a heightened state of existence, to be LeBron James right now, and it will be that for The Next LeBron James. On one level, once you're put on that track, "Who cares if it (you) works or not?"
Only the exact same model is not going to work.
Well, let's go along for a brief look at the Next LeBron James, the Next Big Thing, the best young basketball player hype can invent and money can buy.
Let's go to Coney Island. Land of the Ballers.
Dog here. Running with my man Earl today. Earl knows Brooklyn and he knows ball, and the first thing he tells me is the most key thing -- he tells me because he figures I'm going to see it myself anyway, no sense going on and on about the rest of it, the wonderful magical ballhandling magic and all the creativity in Bassy's game, without mentioning the drawback.
"Only one thing," says Earl. "He's got skinny marink pipestem legs. From the knees down ..." Earl motions like a man sliding his hand down a pole.
Size. Right off the bat, you can see Sebastian Telfair can't be The Next LeBron James, because he's half a foot shorter, and 100 pounds lighter. LeBron is 6-8 (OK, 6-7, if you like), 240 pounds. Sebastian is 5-11, 135, 18 years old.
He can't be LeBron James.
But, he can be Sebastian Telfair.
"Super quick," says Earl. "Super quick."
Telfair is the latest product of the N.Y. hoop machine.
Bassy got here by hooping night and day at O'Dwyer. Ran up and down the steps of the Mermaid Houses and Surfside Garden apartment buildings to make skinny legs harder, to be like older brother Jamel Thomas, who went to Providence College to hoop. Bassy can run with a basketball faster than he runs without one; he busted his cousin Stephon Marbury on the outdoor courts, so goes the urban legend. Probably, it was just one hoop, or two, maybe three, accomplished while it looked like Stef had pulled his pants up and was serious. That's all. In the right set of mouths, that's enough.
The Lincoln High Railsplitters walk out for the tip. There's Sebastian, being swallowed whole by his uniform. Everybody else has on black adidas. His are a silvery white. Wait, what's that? Somebody's handing him something. A cell phone? You mean to tell me somebody's calling him just before tipoff of a game between the Railsplitters and their appointed vics of the day?
He takes the call.
The Railsplitters played all over the country, from Trenton to Orlando to L.A.; and playing AAU, you can in add Vegas, Hawaii. The high school's A.D. is a woman, you notice that about her right away. She says she's busy making out a schedule for 2003-04, Bassy's senior year, sifting through offers, basically. Bassy's coach, Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, who also went to Lincoln, and played at LIU, seems like he's about 5-8. He just said that Bassy could "run any D-1 club, right now." Another astute assessment. Don't let Tiny's size throw you aout his relation to the game. Tiny was tough himself, once. I've seen guys 5-6, 5-8, guys you never heard of, but who could just kill you at the high school and college level. They are much more rare in the NBA. Tiny makes no mention of the NBA. Yet.
"Physically, Bassy ain't ready," Earl says. "But he can play with them guys, skill-wise. Put him in a game for few minutes, he'll hold his own. He's got to work on his D, but he can run. Put him with the right team ..."
Bassy tells whoever it is he can't talk right now. "I got a game," he says.
He leads the Railsplitters to victory while seeming somehow magnanimous about it. Later, he'll drop 32 on rival Grady, and Lincoln will win 102-73. He plays calm, he has enough handle to beat any pressure D, drops a creative dime, is a fair shooter. "Fair?!" Earl protested. "He'll pull up just inside halfcourt and do nothing else but that, some games."
Anyway, a baller, particularly from New York, will always take the layup over the J; he can always become a better shooter. Like Earl said, it's not like he can't shoot. Shooting with Kobe Bryant in your grille as 17,000 people scream at you and a national TV audience judges you is entirely different.
Here at Lincoln, there are much taller, much more powerful players among the very good ballers from Coney Island, the city, even Africa and Russia, that Tiny Morton has assembled. And Tiny says he thinks it would be great if ESPN televised a couple of their games. Sebastian is the sell, but it also looks to me as if all of them, everybody on the team, could get a ride.
"Well, they will if they could get the SAT test scores," says Earl.
In a way, Sebastian already is the sequel, and a hydra-headed one at that.
Ditto The Marburys. Sequel to "He Got Game." The Next LeBron James.
Bassy has played against other Next LeBron James candidates, from Darius Washington at Orlando's Edgewater High, to Shaun Livingston from Peoria. Washington took it kind of personal, bought the hype, before Lincoln played in Orlando. By game time, he snarled, "Who made New York the capital of basketball?" By game's end, Darius' bravado had sagged. He'd scored 21. Bassy hit 28, went for an off-balance, falling-into-the-cheerleaders game-winner with 2.4 seconds left. Too strong. Edgewater won the game, at the Bright Futures Shootout, televised on the Sunshine Network, at the University of Central Florida's gym -- any local high school gym was too small.
"Heir to LeBron James may be 1 of these 2," is how The Orlando Sentinel had put it in one headline. To legitimize themselves, all the backers of the other would-be Next LeBron Jameses -- like Washington and Livingston -- will be saying, "Well, he did thus and so against Sebastian Telfair, so ..."
Sebastian has already been profiled by The New York Times and the Daily News, had photo shoots with lingerie models serving as the background. "Sixteen, 17 years old, walking in the projects with women in bikinis," Earl marveled. Partied in Cali with LeBron, been talked to by Stef, has his pretty La-La-like girlfriend turn his jersey into a dress she wears to the games.
Bassy has been positioned. One way or another, he's going to be a story.
Telfair continues to amaze at the ABCD camp.
How will it play out?
There are a hundred possibilities.
By the end of his senior year, barring catastrophe, he will have seen, been offered and done things that we might not be able to even imagine.
So the game is really on now.
Does the NBA and the multi-level marketing machine called Sports in America chew up and spit out Sebastian? Look at it from a basketball standpoint. It's not a question of if he can have the same oncourt impact as LeBron or not right now. No, he can't. Then again, at the same time, T.J. Ford was the eighth pick in the draft, and he's even smaller than Sebastian!
So what does Bassy do? Does he go "run point for any D-1 program in the country, and star at it," as Stef did for a year at Georgia Tech, go for being the best thing in college basketball, as 'Melo Anthony did last year, knowing that there's no guarantee he can deliver? (Remember, though, Melo was also 6-8.)
Or, does he go for his turn at being The Next LeBron James, knowing it's virtually impossible that he can deliver on the court what LeBron can, knowing right now he's years away from running point in the NBA?
What would you do?
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."