Sebastian Telfair descended the stairs, puffing up his chest, muttering, "I told you" to no one in particular. "I told you," Telfair said, with the same inflection in his voice that underdog fighters use when they knock out champions.
He told us, all right. The Brooklyn schoolboy legend of the moment, who turned 19 two weeks ago, told us that college is not only a monumental waste of time when it comes to pursuing the NBA dream; it may be downright harmful to your career.
Telfair, the first high school point guard to declare himself eligible for the NBA draft, was taken No. 13 Thursday night by the Portland Trail Blazers. Along with No. 1 pick Dwight Howard, he was the eighth high school player selected before Jameer Nelson, of whom you may have heard.
Nelson, the consensus national college player of the year, the stout, little man who spun Saint Joseph's on his fingertips all winter and took Philadelphians on an implausible ride until they fell just short of the Final Four, sat there at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, half-smiling, half-disillusioned, holding his young son.
He waited. And waited. And waited.
"Maybe it was the height," the 5-foot-11 college senior said.
No, it was the height. Telfair also stands about 5-11, but his Lincoln High School reel was dynamic enough for Adidas to invest $15 million in him months ago. Nelson? Everything about his game had been dissected for four years. How much better could he be? This is the myopic thought process of most NBA war rooms on draft day, when players who stay in school are given up on by general managers whose new NBA motto should be, "Just Don't Go."
The Denver Nuggets finally plucked Nelson at No. 20, and a raucous applause filled the building. All was right and fair again in this little world. Dick Vitale stepped down off his soap box on national television. Within minutes, the Orlando Magic bartered for him. Some irony, huh: The No. 1 player in college basketball would team with the draft's No. 1 pick, Howard, who was 14 when Nelson enrolled at Saint Joe's.
You wanted the father of Jameer Nelson to buy into the plot, to discredit the warped system that allowed all those uppity young kids to make more money than his mature son. But Floyd Nelson would not go there.
All he could talk about was the little boy who used to shoot hoops in his underwear in the family living room, shooting into some makeshift Nerf hoop until his father told him to go to bed.
"I could knock the kid who got all that money for a shoe deal, all the other players taken ahead of Jameer, but what's the point?" Floyd said. "My boy got drafted today. This is the greatest moment in my life."
Jameer's father was drafted once, too, about 35 years ago. The U.S. Marine Corps needed his help in Vietnam, so he went.
He served in the Marines' Second Division, "Ecko 29 -- hell in a helmet, that was us," Floyd Nelson said. "I was shot in the leg."
"I never had no parade when I came back," he said. "So, tonight, this is my parade. Seeing my boy drafted is my parade."
You listen to the old Marine speak, and you remember when the NBA draft used to serve as affirmation of a great college career.
Chris Webber, Shaquille O'Neal and Larry Johnson -- the No. 1 picks from 1991 to 1993 -- were celluloid stars before they turned pro. In 1994, not one high school player was taken. But the floodgates opened in 1995 when Kevin Garnett was plucked fifth by Minnesota. Kwame Brown in 2001, LeBron James last year, Howard on Thursday night. The kiddie corps grows. Three of the last four seasons, the top pick needed help learning to tie a tie. Really. Satch Sanders, the former Celtic now with the league's player development office, was helping some of the draftees in the men's restroom Thursday night.
And the same righteous NBA people who decried that street agents shuttling kids around like cattle were ruining the game were suddenly dispatching their own scouts to grade-school playgrounds, feeding the beast.
Gone was the allure of turning on the television in the middle of December to watch Ralph Sampson's Virginia Cavaliers against Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas. The most profitable marketing machine the NBA has ever known -- college basketball on network TV -- is now reduced to something called bracketology for a few weeks in March and one in April. The people who used to celebrate the college game have been overrun with those calibrating it.
Today, the NBA should be underwriting the only publications that actually heard of the draftees three months ago: Slam Magazine and Hoop Scoop, which begins ranking players in -- honest -- fourth grade.
Fourth grade! Imagine that detailed scouting report:
"Billy goes to his left better than John Kerry, but bad eating habits persist. Must wean himself off Happy Meals or face expulsion from Hoop Scoop All-Fifth-Grade."
The general managers always get a pass, too, telling their fans to wait patiently before they fully judge their youthful indiscretions on draft night. Season ticket buyers shell out money for the following season, having no clue that the management of their respective franchise is not actually interested in bettering the team next fall. Fall of 2007? Maybe.
Floyd Nelson could have bought into the outrage, could have been as vocal as Dick Vitale, yammering on about "injustice." The old Marine had the right to be upset at this system.
But his young son was on his way to the NBA Thursday night, and all he could be was proud.
"You could say 'Why take a player who might not be anything in three years over a player who could give you a good three years right now?' " Floyd said. "But I can't look at it like that. Jameer got in the house last night, that's all that matters. Now, I know it's my opinion, but I've never seen a player like Jameer in my life," Floyd added. "I've seen Magic, Bird, Jordan, I've seen 'em all. I've never seen anyone do what Jameer does."
Thursday night at the skip-school draft, Jameer Nelson's father did not show half the bias those general managers did.