You have to read this book and you have to read it now. Why?
First thing's first. Who are you? You are more than a basketball fan; you are an NBA fan. Fans of European or even college basketball who care little about the NBA may find passing moments of interest in The Jump but there are other books they would probably prefer to read first.
As an NBA fan, you care about talent. You care about the draft. You're interested in how backroom deals get made and how stars emerge. You grew up hearing how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team and now you are watching high school players go straight to the pros. How does a team discover how to win together? How does a coach coax chemistry? Perhaps most importantly, how will certain players affect your team?
This book is not the perfect book for you. The perfect book has not yet been written. But this is a book that you will want to read, and, like bread, it needs to be read while fresh. The Jump is not like wine; most of its contents will not age well. Sebastian Telfair will go on to achieve many new professional records and landmark; few people would read a book about Michael Jordan's or Magic Johnson's high school career today. There are too many questions of potential that are by necessity and time left unanswered in such books. They don't give closure anymore once time passes.
Right now, however, it is fresh, hot, and intriguing, and not just for Portland or New York or Telfair fans. Fans following the game will notice familiar names such as Robert Swift, Al Jefferson, and Shaun Livingston, and learn part of the history of why the 2004 draft went the way it did. You'll learn even about other point guards who early on seemed to have some victories over Sebastian Telfair, such as Darius Washington, now at Memphis. Could he be a one-and-done? If so, would he be lottery-bound like Telfair was? If you are interested in learning how general managers evaluated talent and why some players went pro while others didn't, and how it will affect your franchise, you must read this book, and you must read it in the next few months.
But if you just read it blindly, you may not enjoy it. I will give you some advice on how to read it to maximize your pleasure.
The problem is that the book is too many things to too many people. As Salieri complained about Mozart: "Too many notes."
O'Connor has done a remarkable job piecing together what at times appears to be an overwhelming amount of detail and loose ends. There are points in which you feel the book was researched by the fictional obsessive compulsive detective Adrian Monk of the TV show. You wish the book was written with hyperlinks so that if you wanted to find out more about, say, the prosecutor in an age-old case involving Telfair's father, you could. But if you wanted to get on with the story, you could do that too.
The reason the book feels that way is because O'Connor needs to do three separate and times conflicting things. He needs to catalogue the events of Telfair's senior year in high school, he needs to explain the history and the meaning of the important characters around him, and he needs to elicit drama from what is really a fairly benign story: a talented and charismatic young ball player from a bad neighborhood goes pro.
He accomplishes each of his tasks but they sometimes interfere with each other. One of the most dramatic parts of the story comes when O'Connor does a masterful job introducing Telfair's teammates and you can almost hear the Rocky theme music playing in the background as this rag-tag bunch of role players with specific skills become a team behind Telfair's winning smile and contagious unselfishness. But then the book quickly turns to shoe deals and various run-ins with the law; O'Connor has almost no choice but to follow each thread as it develops. Truth is his cage.
The way to read it, then, is simple: skip what doesn't grab you. The book is written as three interwoven stories for three distinct audiences: journalists looking for evidence of money changing hands in a questionable fashion, fans looking to relive Telfair's pivotal year, and Telfair's family and friends.
There are plenty of quotes and stories about possible improprieties on the parts of various unnamed college coaches, as well as insinuations of impropriety on the part of various sneaker companies. Some journalists would love to scoop a story that just includes a single such anecdote; O'Connor's book has at least a dozen.
There are plenty of details about Telfair's workouts for pro teams, his victorious All-Star appearances, and his struggle to play great when his high school games were being broadcast on national TV and live in front of scouts and GMs, while playing through injuries he could never suggest were nagging. The conflicts run deep: gallons of money vs. the drips and dregs of living in the projects; the requirement to embarrass his opponents while remaining friends with them; the need for his school to win vs. the need for Telfair to show critics he was not a shoot-first point guard. It is fascinating reading and if O'Connor had concentrated on this aspect, it would have been a far more enjoyable book to me, because I care only about the basketball, the talent evaluation, and the drama.
But he seems to have had other goals as well. Parts of the book read as if written directly to the friends and family quoted therein. It's as if this is in part a tremendous family journal and scrapbook, and though you feel honored to be part of something so special to a family, there comes a time when it's exactly like looking at someone's family album: you just can't politely stifle the yawn anymore.
With these three at times conflicting goals, it's a wonder O'Connor was able to pull off as smooth a job as he did. When done right, all three elements work together to give a real feel for the events. Like crashing waves that can either cancel each other out or make one big wave, these three elements ebb and flow at their own speeds. The draft night chapter is one of those pure moments of excellence when everything comes together.
What you don't get from the book, unfortunately, is a real sense of Sebastian Telfair the person. Part of that may be that he's a nice kid and everyone says all the right things, including him. Basketball publicity is partly a phony game, where players must constantly declare their love for their team of the moment, an attitude which is intended to continue to endear them to fans but which also simultaneously creates distance the way any empty statement does. Perhaps because Telfair and others felt O'Connor was an outsider, there is never a sense of intimacy with him like there would be in a fictional accounting. We never get inside Sebastian's head, with the one beautiful exception being his behavior in the few minutes before he was finally picked in the draft.
If you are interested in the big game of money and power in basketball, you will find The Jump makes a terrific libertarian case for lifting amateur restrictions and letting even high school players participate in the beauty of capitalism. Interspersed will be touching family moments and dramatic highlight plays.
If you are interested in a biography of the first six-footer to go pro straight out of high school, you will find The Jump offers a detailed look at the people who have shaped Sebastian Telfair, and how he handles himself in pressure situations. Interspersed will be editorial comments about the nature of the game and descriptions of his play that help to highlight his character.
If you are interested in a dramatic retelling of Telfair's final high school year, you will find The Jump gives a roller-coaster ride through the highs and lows of the final season. Interspersed will be his family's backstory and vivid reminders of the off-court pressures that high school stars face.
In any event, read it like you would listen to three guys try to tell you an exciting story all at the same time: just follow the one you're most interested in.
And read this book now.
The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball by Ian O'Connor, published by Rodale Books, February 19, 2005