When the Heat and Pacers resume the Eastern Conference Finals tonight, a new, emerging super star will be sharing the court with the two guys who were supposed to be their team’s best respective players – Miami’s LeBron James and Indiana’s Paul George.
But based on his performance in the regular season and in this year’s playoffs, Lance Stephenson might be challenging his teammate for the title of Indiana’s most valuable, and important player.
This year has been Stephenson’s official coming-out party as far as the NBA is concerned, as he’s having the best and most productive season of his four-year career.
He set a new franchise record in April with his league-leading fifth triple-double of the year, when he collected 17 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in Indy’s 102-97 win against Oklahoma City. It was a victory that put the Pacers within one game of cementing the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It’s one thing to put up hollow numbers in meaningless games, but quite another to perform at that elite level against supreme competition in the quest for a championship. Paul George was Indy’s revelation during last year’s Conference Finals against the Heat.
This year, the mercurial force that has seized the spotlight has been Stephenson.
Contrary to what his nickname “Born Ready” might suggest, Lance’s ascension has been anything but smooth. In fact, it’s been bumpier than a Braille book.
But for long-time observers in the New York City basketball sub-culture, the possibility of him reaching this crescendo was very real. But possibility and actuality are two very disparate ends of a spectrum. The stories of young phenoms bathed in hype at adolescence are more ripe with profound failure than they are with victorious narratives.
For every LeBron James, there are an abundance of train wrecks like Lenny Cooke – guys who were promised stardom before they passed 6th grade Social Studies, players whose minds and thought-process were warped by street agents, sneaker reps, the mindless and exploitative Hoop Scoop elementary school player rankings, players without a realistic support structure who believed the hype, who assumed the world would acquiesce to their whims, who got lazy and were eventually bypassed by others and discarded onto the mounting trash heap of premature has-beens.
Blessed with a silky jump shot and the advanced, explosive footwork of James Brown in a cold sweat, Lance was showered, early and often, in adulation and lofty expectations.
“Lance has to navigate a terrible minefield of people telling him that he is great,” the legendary scout Tom Konchalski told the New York Daily News in 2005, when Lance was still in junior high school. “And there is a great deal of media hype around him. If he can rise above this, he has the potential to be a great player. But he must get through all the people telling him he is great, and that’s going to be tough. If Michael Jordan grew up in New York, he wouldn’t have been a great player.”
Back in elementary school, Lance was ranked as the top sixth-grader in the nation, already being compared to NBA stud Tracy McGrady because of his ability to impact a game in many different ways. His game was always powered, beyond his immense talent, with a fiery competitiveness. At times, it’s proven to be his greatest strength. At others, his most vulnerable weakness.
Stephenson’s father, Lance Sr., who is also known by his teenage nickname, “Stretch”, was a star player at Lafayette High School during his prep days. Lafayette was once home to New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, journalist Larry King, sportswriter and boxing analyst Larry Merchant and baseball legend Sandy Koufax. But that was long before Lance Sr. navigated its hallways, which had become increasingly volatile since the school’s heydays in the early to mid 1900’s.
Stretch’s father was also named Lance. He was an armed forces veteran who struggled when he returned home from the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s. When walking down a Brooklyn street in 1969, Stretch remembers a car backfiring, and his father screaming as he dove to the pavement.
Stretch decided to name his own son Lance, not after him, but in remembrance of his own father.
“I just wanted to honor my father,” Stretch told NBA.com’s Mark Montieth. “When he came back from the war, he had a tough time adjusting. Everything was different and he got sort of a bad rap. I wanted to remind everyone that he was a good person, he just had some bad times.”
Stretch played some college ball at UC Santa Barbara for two years in the late ‘80s. When he returned to Coney Island in 1990, he re-united with his high school sweetheart, Bernadette, and shortly thereafter, Lance was born.
From an early age, Stretch was building and honing his prodigious progeny. They would awaken prior to sunrise each day before school and run along the Coney Island beach, 1 ½ miles each way, before working on basketball drills.
Then, Lance would run up the same staircases, avoiding the pungent puddles of urine, in the 15-story Coney Island housing project buildings, five times up and down with 20 pushups at the top and bottom, that once served as the training portal for the fictional Jesus Shuttlesworth, Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury, along with Steph’s talented older brothers: Eric aka “Sky Dog” who played with Dominique Wilkins at the University of Georgia, Donnie aka “Sky Pup” who was on the country’s top scorers at Texas A&M in the mid-‘80s and Norman aka “Ju Ju”, one of the city’s most spectacular prep point guards who fell off the map when he didn’t attend the University of Tennessee due to academic and standardized test shortcomings.
The neighborhood is rough and rugged, characterized by blight, narcotics and homicide. But underneath those daunting obstacles are generations of strong, loving families who dream of getting out for something better.
In Coney Island, that dream, as remote as it is, revolves around basketball, with a passion for the sport that is only rivaled by the fervor that surrounds high school football in places like Texas and Florida.
From the day that Stretch put a basketball in Lance's crib as a youngster, they've been gunning for that #1 spot.
Lance was an unprecedented four-time state champion at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School and walked away as New York State’s all-time leading scorer, eclipsing the Railsplitter records previously established by Marbury and Telfair.
His recruiting odyssey became more of a tangled labyrinth than the Trojan War battles between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles in Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. And after his lone season at the University of Cincinnati, many thought he bumped his head when he opted to forego his final three seasons of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft, despite the fact the was the Big East Rookie of the Year.
While many scouting reports raved about his 6’10” wingspan, ability to penetrate the paint off crossovers, spin moves and hesitation dribbles, a size, strength and explosiveness that was NBA-ready, vision, proficiency on his mid-range pull-up jumper and smoothness of his three point stroke, the sections regarding his deficiencies overflowed.
In one assessment, a scout wrote: “Legitimate question marks surrounding his character and mental makeup (high school carrer marred by an assault charge) ... The hope is that he will gain maturity at Cincinnati ... His on court body language is awful ... Often seen pouting, dragging his feet, arguing with referees and yelling at teammates ... If he believes he should get the ball and doesn't, or doesn't get a call, he's inclined to allow it to affect his game and take a play or two off ... Despite his athletic gifts, lacks explosive elevation on his jumper and on drives to the rim ... Needs work on leg strength, but just not a very explosive leaper ... Tends to fade away and abort follow-through on his jump shot from time to time ... Capable of making the spectacular pass, but does not always make the simple, smart pass ... Shows glimpses of extraordinary court vision, but too often has tunnel vision toward the hoop and doesn't look for teammates ... Seems to predetermine when to shoot and when to pass, rather than naturally allowing the flow of the game to come to him ... Gets wrapped up in 'style points' and getting oohs and aahs from the crowd instead of playing sound fundamental basketball ... Prone to stagnant over-dribbling. Lateral quickness is just average - looks lead footed ...Too much standing around on defense rather than being proactive on help D.”
While many thought he’d be an eventual lottery pick at the hype machine’s crescendo while he was playing at Lincoln, like others in his high school class like John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Stephenson wound up being selected in the second round with the 40th overall pick.
Watching him emerge this season as one of the league’s top players, especially with his performances against Miami thus far in the Conference Finals, it’s hard to believe that players like Tibor Pleis, Andy Rautins, Terrico White, Nemanja Bjelica, Lazar Hayward, Craig Brackins, Luke Babbit, Ekpe Udoh, Wesley Johnson and a host of others were picked before him.
Early on in Indiana, the reservations about investing in him seemed warranted. He struggled with immaturity issues and stayed glued to the Pacers bench. As a rookie, he only appeared in 12 games. During his second season, it looked like he’d be heading overseas once his rookie contract expired.
But last year, he showed that he might seriously become one of the league’s better players in the years to come.
It was a remarkable transformation. When Danny Granger was lost for the 2012-2013 season due to injury, Lance stepped into the starting lineup. He announced himself as a certifiable factor at this time last year, when he scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the decisive Game 6 victory over the New York Knicks in the conference semi’s. It was a win that propelled Indiana into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the Reggie Miller era.
That Indiana team stretched the Heat out last year, ultimately losing in seven games. Lance’s play throughout the series was uneven, but he raised eyebrows in terms of what he was capable of in the crucible of a Finals atmosphere with his 20 points in a Game 4 victory.
Thus far, in this year’s Conference Finals re-match against the Heat, he’s elevated his game to the point of being Indiana’s best player. In Game 1’s 107-96 victory, he scored 17 points and dished out eight assists. Throughout the first three quarters of Game 2’s 87-83 loss, Lance attacked Miami’s defense like Jim Kelly in Black Belt Jones.
He looked every bit the equal of LeBron and D Wade in that game, with a brilliant 25-point, six-rebound and seven-assist performance.
With Paul George looking wobblier than Zab Judah doing the chicken dance at the hands of Kostya Tszu after catching a knee to the head and suffering from some concussion symptoms in Game 2, the stage is set for Stephenson to prove that his time is now.
So for the duration of this series, make sure to pay a little more attention to his growth, development and maturation. Contrary to the nickname, Lance really wasn’t “Born Ready”. But he sure looks ready now.