Stephon Marbury is one of the more unlikely people one might expect to see in Pocatello, Idaho. That is, until this winter.
The former NBA All-Star point guard rose to stardom in the 1990s first for his prodigious basketball skills in Brooklyn and Coney Island, the latest in a long line of flashy, ball-dominant point guards that the Big Apple seems to turn into folk heroes.
Marbury averaged more than 19 points and eight assists per game during his 15 NBA seasons, attaining stardom alongside Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and maintain it during three seasons with the New Jersey Nets and five more with his hometown New York Knicks. The former top-5 draft pick’s career was highlighted by explosive showmanship and hindered by questions of his integrity within the fabric of a team.
Starbury has sat behind the Idaho State bench at Holt Arena in Pocatello on at least two different occasions this season, watching as ISU took on each Montana and Montana State. He’s been accompanied by his cousin, Sebastian Telfair, like Marbury a first-round draft pick, like Marbury a Coney Island legend and like Marbury, a polarizing basketball icon.
Each slick, street point guard probably could not have imagined a scenario that found them in Pocatello either. The same could probably be said about Ethan Telfair, the man who holds the keys to Idaho State’s surprising Big Sky Conference tournament championships.
Ethan Telfair is Sebastian’s younger brother, nine years his junior. The 5-foot-10 point guard has an explosive first step, an unmistakable swagger and an appetite for the big moment, all characteristics similar to his famous family. He’s put his array of skills on full display this season at Idaho State.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” said Telfair, who’s Bengals take on surging North Dakota in the 2:35 p.m. PST quarterfinal game of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno on Thursday. “I’m just here enjoying myself. There’s no pressure on the court where I come from. This is a big opportunity and a blessing to be here. It’s far from pressure. I knew I wanted to add to my family legacy and that’s the pressure I’m putting on myself and the motivation I’ve been using. I guess you can call that pressure. But it’s really just about my family legacy and leaving my mark here at Idaho State.”
Ethan Telfair’s path to Idaho State has been long and winding, nothing close to the meteoric rises experienced by his brother or his cousin. Marbury was a McDonald’s prep All-American and one of the top recruits in the country. He signed with Georgia Tech and led the Yellowjackets to the Sweet 16 as a freshman, declaring for the NBA Draft after one season.
Sebastian Telfair was the top-rated high school player in the country, a cultural phenomenon who had his prep contests appear on ESPN while leading Abraham Lincoln High to national recognition. Sebastian originally committed to Rick Pitino before declaring for the draft. He was the No. 13 pick in the 2004 draft, becoming the second point guard ever drafted without attending college. Shaun Livingston was the No. 4 draft pick that same year.
Ethan Telfair’s path has been filled with speed bumps. As a 16-year-old, he was arrested and charged with three felony charges stemming from illegal weapons possessions and trying to bribe a police officer. The charges have haunted him ever since, likely costing him a chance to play in a major conference and follow in his family’s footsteps.
Before his senior year, Telfair wanted to escape the infamous O’Dwyer Gardens housing projects of his youth, a rough area famously chronicled in Spike Lee’s 1998 film “He Got Game,”, a cult classic starring Denzel Washington and future NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen glorifying the Lincoln’s basketball team.
Telfair left the Big Apple and transferred to Quest Prep in Las Vegas but lasted only a few months. The courses Telfair was taking were not NCAA approved so he relocated to Oklahoma to play at Redlands College for former OU Sooner standout Bryatt Vann. Sebastian spent last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, easing the transition.
Last season at Redlands, Telfair played well enough to earn interest from Wichita State, UCLA, Oklahoma, Baylor, UNLV and Loyola Marymount. But coaches understood he came with baggage, from an occasional entourage to the Mercedes he drives to the occasional presence of his brother and cousin when he performs.
Telfair eventually made the unlikeliest of choices, signing with Idaho State. Adjusting to life in Pocatello has been a stark transition.
“I don’t want to call it boring because that would be calling myself a boring person,” Telfair said. “I don’t do much. I just get in the gym and try to get better. It’s slow. That’s the correct answer. But boredom isn’t the word. Because boredom is a state of mind. You are supposed to repel boredom with work and that’s what we do when we are out here in Pocatello: work hard.
“When I got here, I knew this was the place I wanted to be,” Telfair said. “I feel blessed to have this chance.”
Telfair has taken full advantage of his second chance at ISU. Telfair surpassed 30 points in four of Idaho State’s final five games and eight times this season during one of the best turnarounds in school history. ISU’s 16-14 record is the sixth-best start since the 1976-77 season and its 11-7 conference record is the best conference winning percentage (.611) since the 2000-01.
Telfair averaged 23.9 points and 5.7 assists during conference play, each league-leading totals, to become the first ISU player to earn first-team All-Big Sky player since 2009 and earningthe Big Sky Newcomer of the Year award.
“He is one of the two best players in the league,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said days after his Bobcats lost 76-69 in Pocatello thanks in large part to Telfair’s 31 points. “I can’t tell you what he’s going to do. He’s a guy who had 31 points in both games last weekend. One game, he did it from the free throw line, one game he did it with jumpers. He still got to the same number but he got there two different ways. That to me is a really good player.”
Idaho State won four league games last season. The Bengals were picked to finish in last place in the Big Sky before this season. Instead, ISU earned a first-round bye and is three wins away from the NCAA Tournament.
“He can get his own shot, he’s extremely quick and he plays with a ton of freedom, which I’m all for,” said Eastern Washington head coach Jim Hayford, who’s team gave up 31 Telfair points in a 75-71 ISU win. “When you let a player play and their mindset is to go make plays and not make mistakes, it takes them to another level and it gives you confidence. He’s a great example of somebody who is playing to the best of his abilities and has the freedom to be his best.
“If you look at his history, he is supposed to have been playing in the Big XII or the ACC but for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out. The thing for him is he gets to be around Bill Evans. That’s someone that I would want my son coached by. I think it’s making him a better player, a better person all the way around.”
Telfair has been a key to Evans’ success. The veteran head coach earned Big Sky Coach of the Year honors earlier this season. But Evans’ gruff, disciplinary style has been a key to Telfair’s ability to prove himself at the Division I level as well.
“He’s old-school and he’s a hard-nosed coach but he’s easy to talk to,” Telfair said. “He’s a player’s coach. He cares about all of his players. He wants what is best for us off the court and he wants us to give him our all on the court. I’ve been enjoying playing for him and learning from him. They’ve been doing a great job of working overtime on scouts and preparing us for every game.”
During his first four seasons at ISU, Evans employed a slow-paced offense and his trademark matchup zone defense. The Bengals wanted 62-60 games every night out. This season, Evans has had to adjust his style and his principles to adjust to his versatile ball handlers.
“I think good coaching is allowing guys to do things they can do and not do things they can’t do,” Evans said. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. He is better in a full court situation. My assistants talked me into playing a little bit faster.
“Early on, it was really hard. I wasn’t able to understand playing fast and shot selection. I think our shot selection early in the year was horrible. I was trying to understand how you could shoot such bad shots and think you are doing something positive. That’s one thing we’ve gotten corrected: our shot selection has really improved.”
Telfair has already helped Idaho State rise to new heights. His Coney Island crossover into a game-winning buzzer beater helped Idaho State defeat Weber State. His overall scoring average of 20.8 points per game ranks among the top 20 in NCAA Division I. Now the precocious point guard has ISU on the brink. A win against North Dakota would bring Idaho State one step closer to its first Big Sky Tournament title since 1987.
“Since I got here, I’ve been telling my teammates we have the opportunity to be a good team, we just had to work for it hard every day and believe,” Telfair said. “Everything starts with believing.”