'Through the Fire': Sebastian Telfair's NBA Tale

Director Jonathan Hock talks about his new documentary Through the Fire, which traces the rags-to-riches story of Portland Trailblazer Sebastian Telfair.

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ED GORDON, host:

The new documentary Through the Fire traces basketball whiz, Sebastian Telfair's rags to riches career. The film follows Telfair from his days as a gifted leader of his championship high school team to a slot in the NBA. He fights a number of battles on his way to the top, but for filmmaker Jonathan Hock, the real draw of Telfair's story was not the young star's battles; it was Telfair's family.

Mr. JONATHAN HOCK (Filmmaker): In particular, his oldest brother Jamel, who was a great player. He went to Providence College for four years, led the Big East in scoring, and, you know, was supposed to be a top first round draft pick in the NBA; even took is his mom to see the house he was going to buy her, and the whole dream was going to come true. And the family all sat around watching the NBA draft, and his name never got called. Now, here you have Sebastian Telfair, who is this phenom with the responsibility of putting his family's broken heart back together; and that's what made it a movie.

(Soundbite of movie Through the Fire)

Mr. SEBASTIAN TELFAIR (Basketball player): My mother helped keep me level-headed. She would smile about it, but she was like, you know, it's really not nothing until you make it. Because she seen what happened to my brother. My brother had one foot inside the door, then they snatched his dream from him. My brother, you know--being a poor family--my brother had the chance to go into the NBA. So she was excited about that, you know. And then when it didn't happen, it shattered a lot of dreams within my household.

GORDON: But Sebastian as a young man truly took the idea that I'm going to make it for the family on. How much pressure did it put on him?

Mr. HOCK: Well, I think it was a tremendous amount of pressure. When he was in the sixth grade, he was written up in a magazine as the best 10-year old basketball player in the country. But what he's seeing in his head the whole time is Jamel and the draft night when you don't get picked. And as the fear of that repeating itself built, with the expectations of the family and the community building, there's just an extraordinary amount of pressure.

Mr. HOCK: How does that fit into your motivation?

Mr. Telfair: That was big right there. The sad thing where my mother--to change that day around, that draft day for her, which wasn't good, for me to come a put a smile on my mother face, and we're going to do it too.

GORDON: Here's a kid, as you suggested, that was branded, can't miss; been on the cover of Sports Illustrated; highly touted; colleges wanted him; shoemakers after him to give big contracts; the push and pull between college and going pro. It's also interesting to see how his family circled the wagons to make sure that all of this didn't overtake him.

Mr. HOCK: That's the most inspiring thing about the movie to me. They way Jamel and their older brother Dan did everything in their power to make sure that everything went right. It was a tremendous amount of selflessness in the family and strength. You know, as a documentary filmmaker, you go into the hood like Coney Island, not only do you rarely get a happy ending, but you rarely get a happy ending that is brought about by the strength of the family itself. Here you have three young black men taking their destiny in their own hands.

GORDON: As a filmmaker, it must have been nice to pick a subject that really comes from central casting to a great degree. He's charismatic, he's telegenic, he's all of what you would hope for I would think?

Mr. HOCK: One of the neighborhood guys says at the beginning of the film, he's intelligent, he's marketable, he's got a great smile, he's got everything got everything a superstar needs--and that's certainly true. When you have a documentary film and you're just shooting reality as it is, you know, you can't create a character like Sebastian Telfair. He's just a--he's a remarkable young person in so many ways.

And one of the ways where he's one of a kind is just how charismatic he is and how magnetic he is. When we spent our first day together, what we did was we just walked up and down Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, about 20 blocks up and back, and it was like walking with royalty. There was this magnetism around him, and everyone in the neighborhood just lit up when Sebastian came by. And he was such a regular guy in a way, the common touch, if you will. He's just one of these young broke men walking around, but he was a star and they knew it.

GORDON: What most surprised you while producing the film?

Mr. HOCK: The intensity of the basketball--and this is not like the high school basketball I knew in the suburbs. This was life and death. And the intensity with which with the kids go after was alarming at first to me, because they're kids, and you hate to see kids faced with such high stakes when they're still children. But as sad as it may be, this is life and death to these kids.

(Soundbite of movie Through the Fire)

GORDON: And the jury is still out on him in terms of his professional career, thought there's been growth. He has not set the league on fire. And I'm curious what you thought about--and the difference today than the old days is they make so much money upfront that he's got to be set for life to a great degree. But just ego wise, I was curious what you thought in terms of if he doesn't become the superstar he certainly expects to become in the NBA?

Mr. HOCK: Well, here's a young man who has achieved everything he's ever set his mind to, and you know, his first two years in the NBA, there has been streaks when he's been great; and things have not come so easily. And I don't think he expected it to come easily. However, once he's in the league four or five years, if he's not an All-star, I'm not sure how he'll deal with that. I mean, no one has ever seen him not achieve what he's sought to achieve.

GORDON: Well, the movie is Through the Fire, and I would recommend it, particularly, for those who have young men who are in the same boat. As I said, there's many, quote, basketball phenoms across the country, those who, as you so aptly show and put it Jonathan, from elementary school on are told they are the best thing since sliced bread, and it doesn't always work out; and you show both sides of this in very human terms in this movie.

And we thank you for joining us today.

Mr. HOCK: Thank you very much for having me.

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us.

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