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The Last Scions of New York’s Basketball Family

To carve out their own paths, Eric Marbury (Stephon’s nephew) and Ethan Telfair (Sebastian’s brother) have traveled far from the NYC courts where their families made their names. But the burden of living up to that legacy still weighs on them thousands of miles away from Coney Island.

Chris Post for Lehighvalleylive/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the night the Portland Trail Blazers selected Sebastian Telfair with the 13th pick in the 2004 NBA draft, the then-19-year-old guard sat in a suite at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in midtown Manhattan. The NBA was concerned that the Coney Island native wouldn’t be selected in the draft lottery, according to Ian O’Connor’s book, The Jump, so it didn’t invite Telfair to Madison Square Garden’s greenroom. Instead, Telfair donned a black Armani suit and a white Adidas headband and went to the 40/40 Club, where he would celebrate with family and friends.

Several miles away, Eric Marbury, Telfair’s younger cousin and the nephew of NBA veteran Stephon Marbury, sat with his family and watched the draft, rapt in the moment. Bassy, as everyone in the family calls Sebastian, used to drive Eric around their neighborhood, showing off the same Maybach—borrowed from Jay-Z—that he would use on the spring day he graduated Lincoln High School and jumped straight to the pros. So as David Stern read Telfair’s name that June night, Eric, only 8 years old at the time, already understood the significance: How many others could claim two relatives selected in the NBA draft lottery less than a decade apart? “It was a great point for the family in the city and a blessing,” he says. “It made the dream of going to the NBA feel so realistic.”

Long after the draft ended that night, Ethan Telfair, Bassy’s younger brother, stopped by the Marbury apartment, located one floor above Telfair’s. Ethan and Eric had been best friends since birth. When Bassy played at the Garden, the legendary playground court located right outside Eric’s apartment window, Ebo and King, as the two are known, were on the sidelines trying to duplicate his moves. Though he was just 9 years old, Ethan had been at 40/40, crying while hugging his older brother amid the dozens of people that crowded the space. Now, both he and Eric soaked up the joy and promise that filled the fourth-floor apartment. “Everyone was crying,” Eric says, “but it was happy crying.”

Jonathan Hock had been filming Bassy for a year, and the resulting 2005 documentary, Through the Fire, showcased the guard’s rise from high school to the NBA. Ethan may not have had many scenes, but his emotional outpouring at 40/40 helped deliver the film’s emotional core. “Somehow on this deep generational level, Ethan was expressing this fantastic joy and overwhelming emotion, even if he really didn’t understand the moment the way everyone else in the room did,” Hock says. “Because he has a little piece of a lot of other people in him, he was more self-possessed and self-confident than a typical 9-year-old.”

The Marburys and Telfairs have been synonymous with basketball in the Big Apple for five decades, with each member of the family bearing a nickname given to them on the New York streets. There was Eric “Sky Dog” (also known as “Spoon”), who made it the furthest, trying out for the San Diego Clippers in the early 1980s. Then came Donnie “Sky Pup” and Norman “Jou-Jou,” who shined on Brooklyn’s playground circuit after flaming out after college. Then Stephon “Starbury” gave way to Zach Marbury, who ground out a respectable career overseas. One apartment over was Jamel Thomas, Ethan’s older brother and the first member of the Telfair branch of the family tree to break through on the court. Thomas starred at Providence before enduring an endless array of NBA call-ups and overseas contracts. His turn in the limelight was followed by Bassy, Steph’s heir apparent whose NBA career lasted 10 seasons but never took off. (Sebastian, who last played in 2014-15, is currently facing felony charges of weapons possession and recently had an emergency restraining order filed against him by his estranged wife.) “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Norman, who is Eric’s father and Stephon’s brother. “We’ve been in the newspaper for 50-something years. People are familiar with us all over the place.”

Eric, 21, and Ethan, 23, may represent the final generation of New York basketball royalty. “Both understand their legacy—what that means and what they need to do to represent that,” says Earnest Crumbley, who coached both at Redlands Community College, located outside of Oklahoma City. “That name isn’t as popular as it once used to be, but it still rings out in basketball circles.”

While Eric wasn’t shown in Through the Fire, Ethan is in the doc’s final scene, the lens lingering on the adolescent as he trains with Thomas. The message is clear: “The family is pushing the same dream on Ethan, and this kid is standing under a very big shadow,” Hock says. But the dream Eric and Ethan shared wasn’t the usual hoop dream, because the Marburys and Telfairs aren’t a regular family.

“We don’t talk about it like we are the last,” Ethan says. “We talk about it like we are up next, so what are we going to do with that responsibility?

“Now there is this pressure, because I have nieces and nephews that are watching me. When I was 16, I thought I would play in the NBA—I’ve seen Through the Fire—but I didn’t know I would have go from Lincoln High School to prep school to junior college to finally Division I. I didn’t see any of this happening. I’ve always had to build myself back up. Stephon or Bassy didn’t have to think about that, but since my journey has been so much more winding than anyone in my family’s path, I think about how I don’t want my nephews or my son to go through that. I have to build my brand that will continue my legacy.”

Eric is more blunt than his cousin, and he becomes emotional when asked about his place within the family’s tradition: “I talk to Ethan all the time about it, and sometimes we break down and start crying. I don’t want to ask for help, but y’all did it this way and y’all should be pushing us forward. We are the upcoming class, and we have to take care of certain people. They had the blueprint, but sometimes they forget that we are here.”

When Eric was born, his uncle Stephon was still paving his way in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their relationship blossomed when Steph returned to New York in 2004 to play for the Knicks. “He was more than my uncle—it was like father and son,” Eric says. “He’d pick me up after school and take me anywhere I wanted to go.”

That included trips to the MSG locker rooms after games or his uncle’s house in Greenburgh, where Steph had relocated to be close to the Knicks’ practice facility. With a nudge from Steph—who declined comment through a representative—Eric would meet and sometimes eat dinner with players like Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion. When Eric would go to school the following day, he says he’d “go crazy,” running to tell his friends which ones he had met.

But it wasn’t all glamorous. “That family’s standard for basketball is very, very high,” Hock says. “If you were going to play basketball, you were expected to not just be good, but also to work at it in a certain way.” But, he adds, “It’s difficult for a child to flower in that space.”

Just as Steph’s older brothers taught him the benefits of running flight upon flight of Coney Island project stairwells, he would impart that wisdom upon Eric, taking the 10-year-old for grueling runs up Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles along with Zach and Ethan. “Some people think they need a trainer to work out,” Ethan would tell Eric. “Our family taught us everything we need—a court, some steps, and a weight room.”

Given the option, Eric would have stayed in his family’s apartment on West 31st Street in Brooklyn his entire life. But around the time he entered middle school, his family decamped to northeast Pennsylvania, fleeing the violence of his old neighborhood. Free from Coney Island’s pressure-cooker environment, Eric was able to be himself. “I wanted Eric to go his own way, and create his own legacy,” Norman says. “There are a million other things that you can do in life to be successful.” If he didn’t want to play basketball, he didn’t have to. Eric focused more on a budding football career, and eased up on the stress that sometimes accompanied the sport he felt his family members were “all born to play.”

Though he came to be known more for his athletic skill set and accomplishments on the football field, Eric felt more of a connection to basketball. He was regarded as an intriguing basketball prospect, albeit one far removed from high-trafficked recruiting locales of Brooklyn or Philadelphia. He dreamed of transferring to Lincoln High School, the longtime hub for all Marburys and Telfairs located near the heart of Coney Island, but his parents squashed that idea for the same reason they left in the first place.

“I just wanted to go to Lincoln for one year, and feel that atmosphere of being from Brooklyn and playing against the city’s best,” he says.

His family had gotten out of Coney Island. There was no longer a struggle just to put food on the table. But he, like Ethan, still grappled with living up to expectations set by his predecessors.

After Eric had a short postgrad stint at a prep school in Arizona, Ethan put in a recommendation for him at Redlands. “Ethan was more polished, because he had already played a year of juco ball,” Crumbley says. “But Eric is more versatile than you would think. He’s a tough, rugged player who can get into the paint and score it.”

Eric scored nearly 10 points a game as as freshman at Redlands, but then Crumbley and Redlands parted ways following the 2017 season. “[I] spiraled out of control,” Eric says. “He was teaching me the ropes and how to become a better point guard. I needed Coach Crum more than he needed me.” Eric transferred back to a school in Pennsylvania, to improve his academic standing. He’s currently sitting out the season at Northampton Community College. He says he misses practicing with a team every day, but he knows he needs to focus on school.

“You’re told just to deal with it,” he says. “Our elders aren’t going to force us, but what are we going to do? We don’t know any other way. We left to try to figure it out on our own.”

Ethan Telfair was always supposed to follow Sebastian. The older brother even dubbed Ethan “the best player in the family” in a New York magazine profile following the 2004 draft. “Bassy was always saying that Ethan was the one,” Hock says. “I don’t know how much of that was false modesty, or just being a good big brother the way his relatives had been good to him, building up his ego and self-confidence.”

But Ethan says he wasn’t afforded the playing time he needed at Lincoln to prove his brother’s proclamation. According to Thomas, his older brother and trainer, that’s because Ethan was a late bloomer. “He didn’t take basketball as seriously as Bassy when he was a child,” says Thomas, who would always tell Ethan to never compare himself to his brother. “You’re supposed be better than me and Bassy! That’s how it works—the generations get better.” Ethan could ball, utilizing a natural bounce to get past defenders. He just didn’t have the transcendent athleticism or visionary passing skills of his brother. And he struggled to get out from under his brother’s shadow. “I thought I needed to be as good as Bassy or Steph. I had to score 50 points. Or get a triple-double,” Ethan says. “Just do something that hadn’t been done by either of them yet.”

Following a gun possession charge in 2011—which he attributes to hanging around “fake people”; Thomas called it “getting caught up in the neighborhood’s sweet stuff”—the then-16-year-old realized that he had to leave Brooklyn. As he explains, “Leaving NYC gave me the chance to become Ethan Telfair, and step out of my brother’s shadow, or my cousins’ shadows.”

Ethan’s first stop was at an unaccredited basketball factory in Las Vegas. Following Thomas’s advice, he left after several weeks for a recently launched prep school near Oklahoma City, where he lived with a family friend. On the dusty plains dotted with strip malls, he felt like he had finally found a place of his own. “It wasn’t like I was trying to get away from anything in New York,” he says. “But I’m focused on building my legacy, and not just my family’s.”

Ethan then landed at Redlands. After a two-year stint there, he bypassed schools like Fresno State and Utah State and committed to Idaho State—a team that hadn’t eclipsed .500 in more than a decade—in the spring of 2015. By the time he was 21 years old, Ethan had traveled from Brooklyn to Las Vegas to Oklahoma to Pocatello, Idaho—2,200-plus miles from Coney Island. Winding paths are common in basketball, but Telfair embraces the bumps along the way: “My family named me King Osiris, and I grew up knowing that I had much expected from me in life.

“People assume they know me because they know my family, but no one else graduated college, or went to juco, or battled the things that I have battled.”

Ethan declared for the 2016 draft after earning All-Big Sky honors in his junior season, more with the hope of gaining NBA feedback than getting selected. He worked out for several teams, including the Utah Jazz, and was told to fine-tune his jump shot and become more of a facilitator.

He returned for his senior season, but it didn’t turn out how he expected, both in terms of his individual statistics and his team’s wins and losses. Any talk of Ethan sneaking into the latter half of the draft became moot. Ethan is still planning for a future that includes basketball—he just doesn’t know in what form. There was talk, in late summer 2017, of opening a basketball academy in Oklahoma, or training to stay in top playing shape. “Everything I’ve gone through have just been stepping stones,” he says. “Stephon and Bassy weren’t thinking about having their own AAU team, or of opening up an academy.

“People compare me all the time to Bassy, but I can care less about what people think of me. We are different people, and now that I’m out of school and in the world, I am a grown man. I know I am going to do good things, even if it is not related to basketball. I am not a fake.”

Every morning at dawn, Eric Marbury drives five minutes from his parents’ house in northeast Pennsylvania to run three miles on a 400-meter track. Then he goes to a local high school gym to make at least 500 jump shots. The task used to take hours to complete, but now is accomplished quickly and efficiently. “I get in and I get out,” Marbury says. He then caps off his day playing pickup at the LA Fitness in Allentown, the closest big city. The competition isn’t that bad, he says. “Guys will battle you to the last point.”

Eric’s current plan is to become academically eligible and then transfer following the 2018 season, potentially to St. Petersburg College in Florida, where Crumbley is an assistant coach. “If it doesn’t work out, I gave my best shot. I can live with giving my best shot,” he says. “I didn’t have to try, but I did, so after all these years, why give up now?”

Across the country, Ethan Telfair follows a similar morning workout routine. A year removed from college, he’s still honing his game in Arizona for the moment that he believes will come. “My road isn’t over,” he says. “My prime won’t be for five more years, so I have a lot of work to do until I am in my prime.”

The struggle isn’t as palpable as it was for prior Marburys and Telfairs, yet Eric and Ethan feel they need to create a path, whatever it may be. Leaving NYC, traversing the shady world of prep schools, and ultimately competing against players who assumed their scholarships were awarded on silver platters had a lasting effect. According to Crumbley, the two don’t have to be saviors—they can just enjoy the game.

“All the struggle and the poverty, that’s over with,” Crumbley says. “The whole family isn’t counting on them to make it. They’ve overcome that, and now they can be regular and be normal.”

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