The NBA draft process has always been a hustle. Teams pick on what they think they see – perception – but the dollars they bestow are very real.
This week, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn played the game to perfection. Tuesday, Sebastian Telfair stood before a giant adidas banner at the Times Square ESPN Zone, flashed his million-dollar smile and declared himself a pro. Telfair's announcement was the culmination of a five-year legend-making process that may or may not sway NBA scouts, but which already has convinced one shoe company to hand over an unlikely endorsement contract.
"I am the newest member of the adidas team," Telfair said.
And indeed he is, to the tune of a whopping $15 million (about half guaranteed, half incentive based) over six years. It is the second-richest shoe contract ever given to a player directly out of high school – more than Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant earned at the same juncture.
It falls well short of LeBron James' $102 million (all guaranteed) deal from Nike last spring, but LeBron was the sure-bet top pick in the draft and considered the best high school player ever. He had three companies (Reebok and adidas also) bidding for him.
Sebastian Telfair? The 5-foot-11-inch point isn't the best high schooler in this draft. He isn't even the best high school point guard. After two poor performances in all-star games and with a suspect jump shot, many scouts see him dropping to the Miami Heat at No. 19 overall. Maybe into the 20s.
For comparison's sake, last year a high school player, Travis Outlaw, went 23rd overall to Portland. He scored eight points this season. Not an average of eight points. Eight points total.
Adidas paid millions for this?
"Adidas just bought a lottery ticket on someone who won't be in the lottery," quipped a Nike executive.
This isn't to rain on Telfair's parade – he is a good player, a hard worker and a great story. There is no question he has charisma. Here's hoping he becomes a mega-star.
And it's not like he has anything to apologize for. If a multinational corporation wants to make a poor kid rich because it believes, as adidas' Kevin Wulf said, "He gives us instant street credibility," then God bless America.
But know this. The only people smiling and laughing more about this deal than the Telfair family were executives at Nike, Reebok and And One, none of whom even bothered to bid on Telfair.
"There is no way I could have recommended to Reebok to bid this high," said Reebok's Sonny Vaccaro, who has known Telfair since he was in eighth grade.
Vaccaro claims Telfair is in the draft (and not headed for Louisville) because of adidas. By convincing one company he was worth $15 million, Telfair eliminated all risk of failure.
"The only thing that got him [in the draft] right now is the shoe contract," Vaccaro said. "The number is too big. The money is there. He has to go pro."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who is sponsored by adidas, just lost his best recruit because adidas sponsored him.
The entire draft process has always been a smoke-and-mirrors game. Telfair, the cousin of Stephon Marbury and the half-brother of Jamel Thomas, a pro player overseas, figured out how to win it.
He was held back a year in school, in part to mature physically. As an eighth grader he begged Vaccaro to let him play in the ABCD All-America Camp (it is usually ninth grade and up). When Vaccaro relented, Telfair's legend was born.
He rarely turned down a media opportunity and usually presented himself perfectly. He got himself on the cover of Slam with LeBron, in Dime with a bunch of scantily clad (and publicity-making) models and is the subject of a pending full-length documentary and a season-inside book. In February he made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
It was two days after SI hit the streets that adidas sent a four-man contingent to the W Hotel in Manhattan to meet with Telfair and his people about the endorsement deal.
But Telfair struggled against top competition, and right now there isn't an NBA team that would take him in the lottery. Scouts don't think he'll become an endorsement-level superstar.
Shaun Livingston, a 6-foot-7-inch high schooler from Peoria, Ill., is the point guard they agree will have a much better career.
But Telfair has the adidas contract. Guaranteed money from a system where nothing is guaranteed.
That's called playing the hustle.
Whether he actually can play basketball isn't important. Yet.