“Ready” or Not…

by February 04, 2008

Giants or no Giants, I recognize that my jobs is still to focus on basketball, which is what I did for the early part of this weekend,checking out the “SNY Invitational” at New York University’s Manhattan gym. I put the event’s name in quotes because it was basically a contrived gathering with little significance: four public schools from New York playing in a two-day tournament in the middle of the season…no unique match-ups or anything real at stake. That said, the event drew nice crowds (about 2,000 a night) and good media coverage because the people promoting it (CornerStone Promotions and the “Mets network”, SNY) spread the word and gave it live television coverage, which is an unfortunately rare thing for high school hoops in New York City. The other, main reason the event was a success was because it had the city’s marquee player, Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, taking part. I experienced the enthusiasm for watching the tournament when I arrived at the venue about 10 minutes after the first game (Frederick Douglass Academy-Cardozo) had begun and found a chaotic scene at the front door. I eventually got in and settled in to watch Cardozo (led by Iona-bound guard Trinity Fields) beat up on undersized FDA, 59-45.

Game two Friday night pitted Lincoln, defending city champs and always one of the top teams in the country, against John F. Kennedy, a team that beat the Railsplitters in two PSAL Class AA city championship games in the last eight years. Lincoln in general is noticeable for its size and athleticism, qualities that Stephenson has in abundance. Lincoln beat up Kennedy, 81-61, Friday night, and then rolled to the Championship, 86-55, over Cardozo Saturday night. The story in both Lincoln games—pretty much in every Lincoln game—was Stephenson, the 6-5, 200-pound guard/forward who is outrageously athletic and I swear could get to the rim a number of times in an NBA game if he was called up to play one tonight.

Sure, there are issues with young Lance: his shot needs some polish, he is prone to outbursts against his teammates and the refs and he plays way too much “Allen Iverson defense” (lunging for steals in the passing lane but rarely moving his feet to get properly positioned to stop a guy one-on-one), but his sheer physicality and fearlessness have me—and many others—feeling like college and pro stardom are just a matter of time.

This site isn’t known for its high school coverage (we’re trying, though), but knowing about Lance transcends a casual interest in high school basketball. For one thing, there is a “documentary” about him that may one day be TV or a film that is currently viewable online at bornready.tv. I haven’t watched too much of it yet, but it is well done and may feature SLAM, PUNKS or yours truly at some point or another. For another thing, he is the top-ranked junior in the country, according to our own Aggrey Sam. Lastly, even if you only get your basketball knowledge from SLAM, you may be familiar with Lance because I/we ran a feature on him in our 100th issue. Seemed like a logical time to re-run said story. Don’t ever say we didn’t tell you about this kid.

SLAM 100, August 2006

AND IT DON’T STOP: We do a lot of looking back in this issue, but we’ve still got one eye on the future. And as we check out the Class of 2009 to see who’s next, we can’t help but notice a talented young guard from Coney Island. What are the odds of that?

By Ben Osborne

The Brooklyn Cyclones are not the best minor league baseball team in the country—they’re just a Class A franchise, after all—but the record-setting attendance figures the Cyclones have posted over five years in Coney Island illustrate that they may be the most high-profile. Similarly, Lance Stephenson is not the best high school basketball player in the country—he just finished his freshman year, after all—but he might be the most compelling. Standing on the concourse of the Cyclones’ KeySpan Park on this cool May afternoon, overlooking
the centerpiece of what his dad, Lance Stephenson Sr., calls “the new Coney Island,” the younger Stephenson represents CI’s future in his own way. On the basketball court.

“Growing up, I had friends on every block, so I played on almost every court in Coney Island,” says Lance Jr., who spent his early years in the local projects and is following the neighborhood archetype by playing for long-time local power Abraham Lincoln High. “My father has helped me a lot, and I always watched how guys like Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury had grown up and played ball. I followed the things they did, but I do it in my own way.”

The shadow cast by the Marbury/Telfair clan is long, even for a kid whose family is trying to present him as a new and improved version of the local legends. Truth is, Lance does have a chance to be the best Coney Islander yet. He already goes 6-4, 195 pounds, and he and his 6-6 father think he’s not done growing. So he’s got size that Bassy and Steph lack, without scrimping on the skills. “I can play whatever position the team needs me to,” Lance says. “If the team needs me to be a point guard, I’ll be the point guard. Shooting guard, I can play shooting guard. Center, every position.”

Co-signs Lincoln coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, “Lance’s strongest qualities are his size, his strength and his confidence—he does not back down from anyone. I played him all over the court this season, which is not easy for a kid, but I didn’t tell him that.”

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably legitimately curious about this basketball prodigy, a player all but guaranteed to be ranked among the top five players in the class of 2009 throughout his high school career. But some of you may be wondering what the hell a 15-year-old is doing getting a feature in SLAM. Know this: in basketball circles, he’s earned it.

Lance’s “potential” has been talked about since he starred in the AAU nationals at age 9. Five years of AAU ball later, he was doing it on one of the biggest stages amateur basketball has to offer. Matched against OJ Mayo, the top-ranked player in the class of ’07, at last summer’s Reebok ABCD Camp, Stephenson went for 16 points and wowed the fans and media with his precocious play. He spent the rest of last summer playing AAU games with Team Next (his long-time team) and the Juice All-Stars (a Morton-run team that plays at older levels than Team Next) and dealing with rumors about where he’d attend high school. Yes, an eighth grader’s high school choice was fodder for the New York tabloids. Torn between the Catholic school education Bishop Loughlin offered and his long-time wish to play with many of his friends at Lincoln, Lance’s decision dragged on literally until the first day of school—when he showed up at Lincoln.

Morton says that he’d “never expect a freshman to be a starter, but it was obvious by the end of the first day of practice that Lance would be one.”

A starting small forward spot locked up, Lance led Lincoln to a 15-1 mark in the Public School Athletic League, averaging 21 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists per game before upping both his rebounding and assist numbers in the Railsplitters’ eight-game march to the city title. “On paper, he had the best season that a freshman has ever had at Lincoln, winning the city and reaching the state finals,” Tiny says.

“He showed me how special he was during the first two games against [long-time local rival] Grady. I always measure my kids by those games. First game was at home, and he had 18 in the first three quarters, but he didn’t score in the fourth and we lost. Second time we played them there and he had 26 and we won. That showed he wasn’t scared of pressure.”

All this is to say that we may actually be late to cover Lance. “I like being in magazines and doing photo shoots and interviews,”
he says, confirming we are hardly the first publication to holla at him. “I just want to work hard so I have even more stuff like that.”

Basketball-wise, Lance is undoubtedly on the right track. We’ve seen him play, and the explosiveness is volcanic. He’s got a first step recruiting expert Tom Konchalski calls “the best since Fred Astaire,” a solid handle, mind-bending passing skills and the ability to dunk on kids even bigger than him—which, by the way, Lance calls his “favorite part of the game.” His defense, especially on the perimeter, is pretty indifferent, but it’s hard to kill a kid for that when we’re, um, witnessing much of the same thing from LeBron James. Point is, we’re comfortable saying that as long as he keeps improving and his body fills out, Lance has got things covered on the court.

Off the court is always the tougher thing to gauge, especially when evaluating a kid who doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. To reporters, he comes off as shy and soft-spoken, but he never lacks for confidence and he says all the right things about wanting to get good grades and stay out of trouble, neither an easy feat in a high school and neighborhood that have only recently begun recovering from decades of neglect.

Easily the biggest expert on this part of the story is Lance Sr., also known as Stretch. The father is an emotional bear of a man, with a loquacious nature that more than makes up for any introversion on his eldest son’s part.

Walking near the recently rented home he shares with Lance, his long-time wife Bernadette and their newborn second child, Lantz, the 36-year-old former high school and small college player makes it clear who will be calling most of the shots during the next few years of his son’s career.

“I’ll be traveling with Lance to all the tournaments he plays in,” Sr. says. “I can’t believe some of the people that parents trust to make decisions for their kids. I hope things work out for them, but if things are gonna be fucked up, it’s gonna be on me. We’re gonna make the decisions and see what happens.”

On a local level, Lance Sr. still remembers seeing Donnie Marbury work Stephon out. “Then I got to watch Danny [Turner] push Bassy through,” Lance Sr. says. “They did it in the neighborhood for all to see. And to see the end results, it’s like, it paid off. Lance has got the frame, so I just gotta keep him straight. A lot of the kids his age got records already. Not to say you don’t need some police force out here, but they’re going too far as this place changes. I just tell Lance, go to the gym or to a friend’s house, but no walking around or hanging on the corner because they will get you. I know, because they’ve gotten me for a lot of stupid crimes. Loitering in the building, drinking a beer, just dumb stuff. That’s how Coney Island is now.”

Stretch continues. “Here’s the thing with Lance: When I look at him as a coach, he’s amazing. We work on everything together. Then, as a father, that’s the fun thing, because I know what he’s doing. He’s not gonna be out, hanging out. We stay on the road and outta the hood because of all our games. And when we are home, Lance just chills; he’s tired from all the games.”

To hear Lance Jr. put it, there’s already enough excitement surrounding his games to keep him satisfied. “I like all the attention,” he says. “I like when people see me and say, ‘Oh, that’s Lance.’”

Good thing he likes the attention. It’s not going anywhere.