You have to be “Born Ready” in order to wake up a sleeping giant as Lance Stephenson did in Game 3 of the ’12 Eastern Conference finals, when he flashed LeBron James the “choke sign” after a few missed free throws.
King James’ response was like swatting a fly off his shoulder as the eventual champs dispatched the Pacers in six games.
As if the public apology he had to offer wasn’t embarrassing enough, throughout the series, Heat players made Stephenson’s measly 12 minutes of action a living hell – elbows, shoves and body blows galore.
The lingering banter was even more disrespectful.
“Lance Stephenson?” LeBron James smugly asked. “You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time. Knock it off.”
That’s how most people felt about Stephenson, the Coney Island basketball legend, whose drama-filled journey to NBA respectability has been slow and challenging.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski put it best in a piece he wrote about Stephenson earlier this month:
“One year ago, Stephenson was considered a clown, a punch line, a downright embarrassment within a mature locker room.”
Truth is, Lance had some trouble ridding his body of all that concrete-jungle juice that gets up in every school-kid celebrity baller out of NYC.
He was a brash, dominant rim-wrecker who found legendary success at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and followed in the footsteps of other talented but troubled cats like Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair.
Already shining as a prominent part of the lineage of dope NYC point guards – Stephenson enhanced his stature by capitalizing on the city’s growing hunger for another backcourt monster to take center stage.
It had been a while since a NYC guard came with the billing awarded Stephenson.
As a sophomore, he was the youngest player featured in the movie Gunnin' For That #1 Spot, which followed eight high school basketball prospects.
NYC used to be a breeding ground for deft ball handlers and flashy floor generals. Stephenson is a “Last of the Mohicans” type, with a ghetto hoop dream well-known to hoop heads.
Before playing a game at the University of Cincinnati, Stephenson already had an Internet TV series bearing his basketball moniker (Born Ready).
He was a brash Brooklyn dude who, like Jay-Z said, “might take some getting used to.”
His ball skills, however, were instantly sweated. Stephenson did cats dirty within the NYC steel cages and was serving dudes like OJ Mayo down at Adidas ABCD camps back in ’05, eventually making his Rotten Apple presence felt in the ’09 McDonald’s All-American game. He had offers from D-I darlings such as Kansas, Maryland, and St. Johns.
All that changed when the NCAA started investigating whether or not Stephenson damaged his college eligibility by making money off his film. The press and the college basketball recruiting hunt soured on him after a sexual assault charge and Stephenson delaying his college decision.
When the dust cleared, one-and-done with the Bearcats was Stephenson’s best option.
There were many talent evaluators who felt he needed more seasoning, but former Pacers boss Larry Bird – a mentor and proponent of Stephenson – saw moldable, raw, potential greatness in the 19-year-old and chose him with the 40th pick of the second round in the ’10 NBA Draft.
“Larry Bird gave me the confidence to feel I could play in this league,” Stephenson said. “We text all the time to this day. I want to thank him because he’s a legend, and when he tells you that you can do something, it just gave me the confidence.”
Stephenson’s confidence was tested during his first two seasons as he adjusted to the talent and increased game-refining demands of NBA life.
Apparently, that Pacers locker room Wojnarowski referred to, has rubbed off on Stephenson, who capitalized on a season-ending injury to all-star guard Danny Granger to grab starter’s minutes.
He continues to blossom in these playoffs, and is beginning to impact the game with the same tenaciousness and confidence that earned him the title “Born Ready” back in ’06 when Bobbito Garcia, a legendary NYC radio DJ and Rucker Park announcer, saw Stephenson catch wreck for the first time.
In a pivotal ECF Game 7, the third-year Pacers guard bum-rushed the Knicks with nine points in the game’s final five minutes for a career-high 25 points, while using his god-blessed 6´5 frame to grab 10 boards.
In Game 1 against Miami, Stephenson didn’t particularly shoot well (2-10), but he was very active on D, played within the framework of the game, and contributed to a slim Pacer’s overtime loss with a game-high 12 rebounds.
Combine those two games and somewhere in between you'll find the real Lance Stephenson, and what the Pacers can come to expect from him in the future. His ability to fearlessly attack the cup and dominate guards can change the complexion of this Miami series in a second.
Stephenson’s high school coach Dwayne (Tiny) Morton says this recent showing is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I think Lance is playing at about 70 percent of his skill-set,” Morton told the Daily News. “I really believe that as he gets more comfortable he’s going to be able to show off more of what he can do.”
Stephenson’s been showing up in the postseason since he was in diapers crossing cats over.
At Lincoln, Stephenson became the all-time scoring leader in New York State history and won four-straight city championships while doing it.
Stephenson’s ability to perform as a star within a winning system is probably what makes Larry Bird dig him. He took over games in high school, but showed a willingness to acquiesce to others in college and the pros.
Basketball isn’t chess for Stephenson. He might treat it like rugby, at times, but he’s a natural ball player with an easy feel for the game.
“It’s believable, but unbelievable,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after the Pacers eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs. “He has no playoff experience, but he’s got some of the best basketball instincts I’ve been around…the kid’s got guts.”
Guts are one thing, but maturity is something that develops differently in young players.
For every Lenny Cooke and Lloyd Daniels, there’s a Rafer Alston and Derrick Rose. You have your tragic tales of ballers who never quite reached the hype that preceded them. On the other hand, there are cats that endured inevitable pitfalls of youth, honed their games on the rugged inner-city playgrounds and still got busy in the NBA.
These are the black and white examples of success and failure. Stephenson falls somewhere in that gray area.
“It’s a part of the inevitable development of a superstar,” said Brooklyn’s Masta Ace, a notable ’90s rapper and hoop head who has witnessed a slew of great guards growing up in BK. “Lance dealt with a lot of the distractions of being young and on top. It took some time for him to mature, but look at him now.”
Stephenson’s stock in the hood and in corporate America is on the rise again. He’s signed to an AND 1 sneaker deal and is reminding people what all the fuss was about concerning this cocky kid from BK.
A rematch with Miami is Stephenson’s next gut check. One certainty is that in this go ’round, Stephenson won’t be an afterthought playing scrub’s minutes and clowning on the periphery.
“His talent is incredible,” teammate David West said. “We see it every day. When Lance plays well, we win. He’s grown up.”
Grown up enough to back up his hype on the NBA court and proudly wear his hood check-in on his sleeve.