It’s the day after Labor Day and Lance Stephenson is trotting past last minute beach-goers through the Coney Island sand until he gets to the very end of it on West 37th Street. There, he leans on the gate to catch his breath for a couple of minutes, while Jamel Thomas (aka 530), his trainer during his summer days in New York, jogs in a few minutes behind.
The new Charlotte Hornets shooting guard has been running the beach during his summer stay in New York, just like all the past Coney Island greats have. Their run through the Coney Island beach is usually a two-mile trek that begins on West 37th Street toward to the famous defunct Parachute Jump, where they turn to go back to their starting spot. Thomas says they usually do the whole run in under 15 minutes.
After a quick weight lifting session at the 9-month-old YMCA on the corner of West 29th and Surf Ave., the four-time HS city champ proceeds to drive a few blocks over and park his car in front of the basketball court on the West 24th St. side of the Carey Gardens housing projects. Literally just seven days prior, about 30 steps away on that same corner of West 24th and Mermaid Ave., a 21-year-old was fatally shot in plain daylight. Yet, today Stephenson’s $300,000 dark silver Rolls Royce Wraith sits there alone. No bodyguards. No entourage. Just him. Thomas parks his car behind him. And two of his high school friends park a third car behind Thomas.
The teenage kids playing at the park look back at the Royce, easily recognizing who’s in the driver’s seat. In a few minutes, Stephenson will surprise them by joining them in a full-court run. Nothing too serious, just a light run so that the neighborhood kids get a chance to experience what it’s like to go up-and-down with a rising NBA star.
In the meantime, Stephenson chilled in the car for a few minutes to talk hoops with us.
One thing that become clear from our conversation is that he sounds as focused and hungry as he’s ever been, and is poised to show that the best has yet to come. A mixture of new school flash and old school assertiveness, the Brooklyn native knows there are still many critics to turn into believers this upcoming season.
When he didn’t have the internet in a frenzy over his own remix of Bobby Schmurda’s “Hot N***a,” he spent a considerable amount of time training in Brooklyn among those who were there before it all become a business. And he does plans to return in February, this time to take care of unfinished business.
SLAM: What’s the feeling like of knowing you’ll be starting a new chapter in Charlotte in just a few weeks?
Lance Stephenson: I’m definitely excited. It’s like a new beginning. I definitely want to come in and help—just be a main factor and get us as far as we can.
SLAM: Returning to your old stumping grounds of Coney Island, what can kind of effect does that have on you?
LS: I feel like when I come back home, I get my attitude and my aggressiveness back. I need to re-up. I come home and hang with friends, and just work out with 530.
SLAM: The kids seem to be very receptive to you here. How are those conversations like?
LS: I come back and just want to show the kids that if you work hard then you can be in the same position that I am. That you can be sitting in this car too. I always like to come back and show my face.
SLAM: What changed last season from the one prior that took your game to a whole new level?
LS: Last year, I was just hungry. I want to be one of the best shooting guards in the League. I work hard every day to get there. I want to prove a point. When everyone sees me, they’ll be like, “Yo, that’s Lance. He’s nice.” That’s why I go so hard and get into it. That’s why I want to be as good as I can be.
SLAM: Considering how well you played last season and how the fans embraced you, how difficult was it making the ultimate decision to leave Indiana?
LS: Leaving Indiana was really hard for me. I didn’t want to leave but this is a business and we ended up going our separate ways. I definitely was sad when I left. I actually cried. The day I really knew I was going to leave, that’s when I had tears coming out.
SLAM: Who was the first person in the Pacers organization that you called once you arrived at your decision?
LS: I called Paul. I told him, George, I wanted to be back playing with you next year, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. I just made my decision right now so this is it.
SLAM: For a minute it looked like you might never get the chance to really play significant minutes in Indiana. How was that process from not even being in the rotation to the starting shooting guard?
LS: The process that I went through was definitely tough. Lots of people would have been gave up. My first two years, I was just sitting behind the bench suited up. I told myself while watching those games, Man, one day I’m going to be on this floor and I’m going to let everyone know that no one can mess with me. So when I actually got my shot and coach let me play, I was ready.
SLAM: One of your biggest supporters since day one seemed to have been Larry Bird—even when you sat behind the bench those two years.
LS: I feel like Larry always had my back. He always knew that I was ready. It was just there for me to prove it and show it. I feel like when I finally got the opportunity, they let me show it.
SLAM: You and Kemba Walker will be running the backcourt in Charlotte this season—we’ve been looking back in history to see if there’s ever been another NYC starting backcourt in the League. What do you think of this backcourt’s potential?
LS: I mean, two New York City guards staring in the backcourt? I can’t wait ’til the season starts to see how that’s going to look. But I feel like we’re going to change a lot of things. We’re going to make Charlotte love us. I don’t think there’s ever been a New York City starting backcourt, ever. So that’s going to go down in history.
SLAM: Any predictions for the upcoming season? How much potential do you see in this team?
LS: I think we can be very good. Last year they made it to the Playoffs. They got knocked out by the Heat, but just making it to the Playoffs and being one of the top defensive teams in the League, that means that they could definitely help me. I think I can come in and make that even better.
SLAM: You are one of the few players in the League who isn’t scared to get very physical with LeBron James and try to get in his head. How is it going up against him?
LS: I feel like some players in the NBA just bow down to LeBron before they even start guarding him. When I’m on the court, I feel like everyone is equal. I don’t feel like you’re better than me. I feel like we’re equal and I’m trying to be better than you while we’re on this floor. That’s just my motivation. That’s just from growing up out here. When I’m on that court, I fear no one.
SLAM: Coming back and working with Thomas, who saw Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury battle their way into the League, as well as himself—how is that relationship?
LS: With Jamel, we’ve been working on conditioning this summer. Just working on my body. Shooting off screens and lifting weights. I don’t lift weights, so I’ve been up here lifting weights. Just getting my body toned up cause I haven’t been working on stuff that I used to. I used to workout with Jamel when I was younger. I feel like I need that power back that I had when I was younger. I was explosive. I want to get that explosiveness again.
SLAM: For someone that hasn’t been lifting weights, you’ve always had a bulky NBA physique.
LS: I’ve always looked muscular but I want to look ripped. I want to look strong. I don’t just want to look big.
SLAM: Is this park on West 24th Street the one where you played growing up?
LS: I used to play at all the courts in Coney Island. But this is the court that everyone comes and plays at now. I think this is one of the best courts out here, so they all come to this one.
SLAM: What’s the message you send to this new generation of Coney Island ballers?
LS: You just have to push yourself. I always had my dad to push me or someone like Jamel. I always had people that pushed me and motivated me to get up out of here and become one of the best players to come from here. I want to be one of the best to come out of New York, period. The All-Star is here next year. I have that on my mind. I want to make it for them.