Photograph by Rich Kane, via RushTheCourt.net.
Photograph by Rich Kane, via RushTheCourt.net.
At 7:30 on Saturday night, Lance Stephenson's Indiana Pacers will take the floor against the Miami Heat in the American Airlines Arena. An hour and a half later and roughly 1,300 miles northeast, junior guard Brandon Triche will likely lead the Syracuse Orangemen out in the Big East Championship. A little more than three years ago, the duo were playing against each other in a high school holiday tournament held at Manhattan's Baruch College.
At the time, Stephenson, a six-foot, six-inch, 195-pound senior shooting guard from Brooklyn, New York, was almost certainly the best high school basketball player in the country. He certainly was the best high school basketball in the country who, in the previous year, had been arrested for sexual assault and later been suspended from school for five days after stabbing a teammate with a glass shard during a lunchroom brawl. Triche shared New York State Player of the Year honors with Stephenson, but Triche played at Syracuse's Jameson DeWitt high school, an infinitely lower-wattage program than Stephenson's storied Abraham Lincoln High School, in Coney Island.
Lincoln was, and remains, best public high school program in New York City, and a program renowned in the hoops world for producing Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Both reached the NBA, and both developed reputations around the sport for being difficult. Stephenson shocked the New York City Public School Athletic League when he transferred from Bishop Loughlin to Lincoln his freshman year. He led the Railsplitters to three PSAL class AA championships in his first three seasons and had them gunning for a fourth. His coach Dwayne Morton put his latest prodigy ahead of Starbury and Bassy, calling him "the best I've ever had at Lincoln." He certainly was the best branded—Stephenson spent most of his senior year being shadowed by a film crew shooting a YouTube series about him, called Born Ready. That was Stephenson's nickname, bestowed by New York streetball /hip-hop legend Bobbito Garcia, and it was taken as a statement of fact.
That night at Baruch, Stephenson stood out during warm-ups for two reasons. One, he was the most physically imposing player on the court. By far. You spotted him immediately. A man among boys. Adonis descended from the clouds. LeBron the Second. Choose an approving cliché; it fit.
The other reason was more urgent, and less flattering. Stephenson spent the entire shoot-around standing in one spot 30 feet from the basket, bricking jumper after jumper. After shooting, he immediately got a new ball from a teammate who was rebounding and hoisted another prayer. What this meant—whether it was amusing or concerning or bewildering or some combination of the three—depended on the degree to which a given spectator accepted Stephenson's nickname as truth. Maybe Stephenson was good enough to spend warm-ups before a relatively meaningless holiday tournament tossing up 30-footers. Maybe he wasn't ready, or willing, or able at all. Whatever the case, it didn't seem like the best sign.
Then the game started, and his heave-y warm-ups started to make some more sense. Even with the impressive array of talent and incredible athleticism on the floor—at one point, a 5'10" Lincoln player caught a breaking DeWitt kid from behind, rose up, and stuffed his opponent's dunk attempt six inches above the rim—Stephenson was immediately magical. In the first 90 seconds, he scored two points, dished an assist, grabbed three rebounds, and added a steal. Twice, he snatched a DeWitt miss above the rim, pivoted in midair, and accelerated up-court. The first time, he jumped from just inside the foul line, contorted his massive frame around two defenders, and deftly laid the ball in. On the second occasion, he waited until the last second to hit to a petrified teammate who carefully converted the gimme. We started keeping stats on the back of a program, assuming the Basketball Hall of Fame would want a record of the inevitable quadruple-double.
Then Stephenson disappeared.
That is, his NBA-ready body continued to move up and down the court, but Stephenson himself wandered in and out of the offense. He received the ball 30 feet from the hoop and gave it up to an inferior teammate almost immediately, although he at least he didn't repeat his warm-up performance. It was still extremely apparent that he could go at his defender, draw a double team, split both or pass the rock, but the desire was seemingly gone. He had proved his point in the first minute and a half.
In contrast, Triche and the underdog DeWitt just kept coming. Then as now, Triche did not grade out as well in the eye test as Stephenson; though he had already committed to Syracuse, he was ranked 34th in the nation among the Class of 2009's shooting guards by Rivals.com; Scout Inc. was a bit more generous, listing him at 26th. His team fell behind 29-22 early in the second quarter, but managed to take a 35-33 lead going into halftime. They played with skill, but it was all effort, all the time.
As DeWitt pressed, trapped, and slowly moved ahead, Stephenson would come alive for a brief spurt every few minutes. An emotional moment—a steal, a big rebound, a perceived foul that went uncalled—would spark his anger and key the effort. He’d grab the ball and fly, determined for his team to score. But, seemingly before he had reached half court—not long, given his massive strides—the pilot light blew out, and he had seemingly stopped caring again. He’d launch a quick three, drive baseline and lose the ball in traffic, or pass after crossing the time line.
Only once, when Stephenson threw down a vicious breakaway dunk, did he appear shake off the malaise. As he steamed towards the hoop, his speed, athleticism, and impossible power were on full display. By the time he jumped, he had doubled the head start he had on the DeWitt point guard he had stripped mere seconds before. The ball slammed through the net and crashed into the floor as his bulk smashed to the ground. Stephenson unleashed a passionate, Kevin-Garnett-head-staring-at-the-sky/eyes-exploding-from-head scream. In any arena in the country, the effect would have been awe-ing. In a small, college gym it was not far short of terrifying.
More shocking, however, was the immediacy with which the country’s top prospect retreated back into his sullen self. Stephenson was gone before the noise that exploded from his body finished echoing around the gym. Not yet gone to Cincinnati (for one year) or the NBA (for an apprenticeship seemingly not nearing its end), but inarguably and irretrievably someplace else.
Rudy and Hickory High, Michael getting cut (since debunked) and the Miracle on Ice. Jimmy Valvano's imprecation to never give up, never ever and so on. As much as we are wired to cheer for the underdog, we are also—most of us—born underdogs athletically, and as such live in our bias every day. Lance Stephenson is not us, we're not him, but the incomprehensibility of his capabilities—the moments he could deliver, when he cared to do so—made him impossible not to cheer for. Triche and DeWitt were the better team that night, and maybe a better story, but, like everyone else in the gym, I focused on Stephenson. I was worried I'd miss something I'd never seen before, in person or anywhere else, and might never see again. He was why I bought the ticket.
In the end, DeWitt prevailed. Stephenson finished with 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting, adding eight rebounds and something like eight assists (our ad hoc scorecard is tough to read)—very nearly a triple-double, that is, from a guy who played roughly a third of the game despite being on the court the entire time. Triche had 20 and six, and earned a well-deserved MVP for leading DeWitt to a surprising tournament championship. (He would also beat out Stephenson for the 2009 Gatorade New York Boys Basketball Player of the Year, an award given for "athletic integrity, academic achievement, and community service.") While the trophies were being presented, the Lincoln star sat silently at the end of his bench, head covered in a towel. At least one person in the stands wondered if he was crying. Eventually he looked up, and it was clear he wasn't. His head was the same place it had been when he was on the floor: elsewhere.
This isn’t a story about wasted potential. Stephenson's isn’t. He is in the NBA, playing a role on a solid team and making a better salary than 98 percent of the humans alive. He's not coasting off his athleticism, either. His jumper— smooth, not beautiful, but serviceable —was a product of years of coaching and hours in the gym; he's doubtlessly working on it just as hard today. Stephenson’s shot may have been born on the Coney Island courts, but it wasn't born ready any more than he was. The shot matured under the tutelage of quality coaching, and Stephenson, to a certain extent, has as well.
Nor is this a story about a shoot-first, selfish, inner city point guard versus good "team" play. If anything, Stephenson was too willing to defer to his teammates, who played as if they were afraid to disappoint the god with whom they shared a uniform. They rushed layups and missed short jumpers after yet another seeing-eye pass found its way through a crowd of DeWitt arms. Yet the ball kept coming.
Instead, let's call it a story about two teenagers who have, more or less, successfully moved on from their high school highs. Stephenson has already done more with his immense talent than anyone else in that gym, even if he was clearly not maximizing his skills that night, and has not since. High school was a waste of time for him, and so—at least to an extent—was college. We watched Stephenson in awe and confusion, wondering if he’d ever do more than just enough. Of course, three years later, just enough proved to be more than enough to earn him a three-year contract worth almost $1 million a year with the Pacers.
Triche stayed in school because—well, for his own reasons, but also because the NBA was not yet, and may never be, interested. He was never going to be great, but he was always going to be good. After his freshman year, DraftExpress.com, which currently has him as the 63rd-ranked junior in the country, wrote: "He leaves much to be desired from an athletic standpoint, not being especially explosive with his first step or his vertical leap... He does a good job doing the little things, however, namely closing out on shooters and keeping his hands up, really maximizing his ability despite his sub-par athleticism." Two seasons later, he's still starting, still helping the Orange win; they're second in the nation as of the last week of the regular season. Triche will be back with the Orange for his senior year.
There is a strong chance that, a little after tipoff at MSG, Stephenson will peel off his warmups and enter the game against the Heat for fourth quarter mop-up duty. Everyone develops, still. Everything in its right place.