by Eldon Khorshidi / @eldonadam

It’s a Sunday afternoon in mid-winter, and on the surface, Lance Stephenson is proving his doubters right.

Stephenson is exactly where they said he’d be: back home, struggling on a street corner in Brooklyn. He can barely walk, and although there are a million things going on around him, he remains deep in thought, his conscious consumed with flashbacks and his eyes fixated on the clock across the street, literally watching as the minutes pass by.

After a few moments, Stephenson regains focus. The bus he’s riding has come to a full stop, and it’s time to get off. But he can’t stop looking at the clock.

About an hour later, sitting with his heavily-bruised right foot in a bucket of ice, Stephenson looks up and smiles.

“I’m from Coney Island, but a lot of my [AAU] teammates was from this area, these projects around here,” he says. “We used to always meet at the clock on Atlantic Avenue, so when I saw the clock, it hit me: I’m finally here. This is just spectacular.”

“Here,” as Stephenson alludes to, is the Barclays Center, the plush new home of the Brooklyn Nets, across the street from the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that houses the iconic clock and blocks from the Fort Greene Projects Lance references.

Lance Stephenson is back in Brooklyn, but this is anything but a sad tale. He’s now a professional basketball player, and tonight he has a game to play—well, he hopes he has a game to play. The previous night—a victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, in which Stephenson posted 17 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals—the combo guard bruised his foot during the game’s final minutes.

Despite the unrelenting pain, Stephenson, as if there was ever any doubt, decides to suit up and give it a go. But early on, he lands awkwardly on the sore spot, and just like that— six minutes, 1 rebound and 0 points later—his evening is finished. For the trillionth time, there’d be a story written about Stephenson, for better or worse.

***

To understand how Lance Stephenson became the starting shooting guard of the Indiana Pacers, it’s helpful to rewind to last April.

In the final regular-season game of their lockout-shortened season, the Pacers fell to the Chicago Bulls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 92-87.  It was an otherwise meaningless game for the organization—the Pacers were already locked into the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference—but it was the most important game of Stephenson’s NBA career.

For the then-21-year-old, the tilt was the final game of his sophomore NBA campaign, and as he and the Pacers coaching staff knew, it was his last chance to showcase his value. Up until that game, Stephenson had seen 20-plus minutes only three times during the season. But he started against the Bulls, and in 35 minutes of play—which was more minutes than he’d logged in the previous 25 games combined—Stephenson shined bright, scoring 22 points on 10-15 shooting. Those numbers may seem like any other pretty-good performance, but trust that for Stephenson it meant so much more.

“That game was huge for me,” Stephenson says. “I had been working hard in practice and Coach Vogel kept telling me to be patient, that my opportunity would come. He told me that I’d be starting and that it was my chance to show what I could do. I didn’t know when—or even if—that opportunity would come again, so I had to take advantage.”

At his post-game press conference that night, Pacers coach Frank Vogel cut straight to the point: “Our starters got some good reps tonight, and so did our bench. We accomplished the goal of getting a good look at Lance Stephenson.”

Stephenson didn’t play much in the Pacers’ 2012 Playoff campaign, but that April contest validated the patience and confidence the organization had in him. After an up-and-down freshman year at the University of Cincinnati—in which Lance averaged 12.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor but was labeled as having a me-first attitude that gave some NBA teams pause—Stephenson slipped to the second round, where the Pacers took him with the 40th pick in the 2010 Draft. When the pick was made, many basketball pundits criticized the selection, saying Stephenson was just another hot-headed teen from New York. Desperate for a comparison, they called him the next Omar Cook.

In reality, though, the pundits didn’t matter, because Lance had the person with the most clout in his corner: Indiana Pacers President of Basketball Operations and NBA legend Larry Bird.

When Stephenson was dealing with a legal case—and later the ensuing disciplinary action—that caused him to appear in only 12 games during his rookie year, Bird’s support and confidence didn’t waiver. “I’m pretty bullish on Lance Stephenson,” Bird said mid-way through the ’10-11 season. “I’m very high on the kid; I want him to be a part of the team, whether he’s dressing or not. If he’s going to be what I think he’s going to be, I think the kid’s got a chance to be very special.”

It took three years, but the investment is starting to pay off. For a kid used to being the focal point of his basketball team, riding the pine and earning everything in practice put life, and his career, in perspective. This was the NBA, and Lance wasn’t entitled to anything. But still, as the organization and his teammates knew, Stephenson’s potential contributions outweighed any transient maturity issues, and it was only matter of time before he turned the corner.

“With Lance, most people don’t realize how young he is,” says Vogel. “He came into the NBA when it should have been his sophomore year in college, so there’s a maturation process for all players that age. We honestly, as an organization, weren’t worried.”

“The things that I learned while I was sitting out, especially from the vets, changed everything for me,” adds Stephenson. “I learned to just play ball and not worry about scoring all the time. I realized that the most enjoyable parts of the game don’t involve scoring, because those are the things that help your team win games.”

This season, with All-Star wing Danny Granger sidelined for three months with a knee injury, Stephenson stepped into the starting lineup and has excelled as a do-everything guard, helping the Pacers once again achieve third place in the Eastern Conference. At 6-5 and with a sturdy, 228-pound frame, Stephenson can overpower most other guards and maneuver his way into the lane. During what Coach Vogel called his “first season,” Stephenson has averaged 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 29.2 minutes per. He is shooting 46 percent from the field, which is the sixth-best rate among all shooting guards averaging 25-plus minutes per game.

“He’s come a long way in his first three years,” says Vogel. “It was a maturation process. He had to learn how to be a professional, how to work hard in practice and how to make the necessary sacrifices to be successful in this League. He’s really grown in that regard and now is obviously a huge part of what we’re building here.”

“I try to bring everything to the team—assists, defense, rebounding, scoring,” Stephenson says. “I think I can do anything, so if I’m having an off night scoring the basketball, I feel like I can contribute in several other areas and still be effective.”

But how? How could it be, that after two full seasons with the team, the Pacers were just starting to get a feel for Stephenson and his abilities? The short answer is this: (a) Lance Stephenson is one of the most enigmatic players in the NBA, and (b) for the majority of his young-adult life, Stephenson’s career—on and off the court—has been analyzed, scrutinized and speculated upon so much that his actual basketball abilities fell into the background.

If you’re familiar with this magazine, you know that we did a feature on Lance in our historic 100th issue in ’06 and we put him on our cover (alongside John Wall) as a high school senior in ’09, and for good reasons.

Following in the shadow of fellow Coney Island legends Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, Lance’s basketball career was fodder for the New York tabloids by the age of 14. With a wide frame, yo-yo handles and a lightning-quick first step, Stephenson was miles ahead of his peers on the basketball court. As a high school freshman, he went around New York City competing—and often times outplaying—professional players, which earned him the nickname “Born Ready,” a moniker that’s tattooed on his right bicep and is mentioned everywhere he goes.

In July ’05, the summer heading into his freshman year of high school, Lance gave the then-No.1 junior in the country, OJ Mayo, a heated battle at the ABCD Camp in New Jersey. Stephenson, 14 years-old and all, attacked Mayo without fear, scoring at will and cementing himself as one of the best prospects in the country.

 

At that point, the tables turned and Lance became the target—opposing players made their name by playing well against him. Stephenson was still able to lead Abraham Lincoln High School to four consecutive City Championships, ending his career with 2,946 points, the most in New York history.

“I’m still a little mad he broke my record,” says fellow Brooklynite Telfair, who to this day remains close friends with Stephenson. “But seriously, he deserves it.”

Speaking with Stephenson today, it’s clear being the alpha dog of the merciless New York basketball scene contributed heavily to how he approaches the game.

“You gotta feel like the person in front of you can’t guard you,” Stephenson says. “When I’m playing, I’m looking at the person ahead of the person who’s guarding me, so I don’t worry about the person in front of me. That’s how I got my name ‘Born Ready’—I don’t care who’s in front of me. I just attack.”

People outside of NBA locker rooms are also taking notice of Stephenson’s unique build and playing style. He has quickly emerged as a fan favorite in basketball-crazed Indiana, and earlier this season, footwear company AND 1 signed Lance to an endorsement contract to make him the front-man of their brand.

“Like me, AND 1 is a basketball sneaker company dedicated to enhancing the game of basketball,” Stephenson says. “With the game changing every day, they are committed to hard work and dedication, and that’s what I live by. I’m excited to be a part of the family.”

Always considered a lethal scorer, Stephenson is now making sure he expands his game to keep up—and eventually excel—in the NBA. Once criticized as a defensive liability (Stephenson was an aloof, overzealous defender; he would lunge for steals in the passing lane but rarely move his feet to stick with his man one-on-one), Stephenson has worked tirelessly with assistant coach Brian Shaw to make D a strength of his. Says Telfair, “He can do it all on the court, and if he can perfect his jumpshot, he’ll be un-guardable. When you’re 6-5 and can handle the ball, it makes things very difficult.”

“He’s one of our best ‘push guys’ in the open court,” adds Vogel. “We all talk about LeBron James being a freight train in the open court, and he is, but Lance is a freight train, too. With his speed and his physicality, and his ability to handle the ball and finish at the rim, good things usually happen when he’s playing. He’s a rare breed.”

For Stephenson, the physical tools have always been there, and now his mental game is as well. Labeled both a phenom and failure before he even stepped on an NBA court, Stephenson has overcome adversity and found his comfort zone in Indiana, standing out while fitting in. He continues to improve, and at 22 years young, it can only be the beginning.

We tried to warn you last decade, and we’ll do it again now: It’s not smart to bet against Lance Stephenson. After all, he was Born Ready.