Lance Stephenson, the 6’ 6”, 195-pound shooting guard from Brooklyn, New York, might be the best high school basketball player in the country. The senior is positively the best high school basketball in the country who, in the past year, has been arrested for sexual assault and has been suspended from school for five days after stabbing a teammate with a glass shard during a lunchroom brawl.
Stephenson plays for Coney Island’s storied Abraham Lincoln High School, a program renown in the hoops world for producing Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Both have played in the NBA; both have reputations around the League for being difficult. Marbury is a brilliant scorer, but he — and his $22 million salary — are currently banned from entering Madison Square Garden by Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni. “Bassy,” as the diminutive Telfair is known, plays for the third team in his five-year career that peaked before he ever turned pro. The documentary “Through The Fire” chronicled his senior year at Lincoln and the detailed the possibility that he would be the first high school point guard chosen as the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA draft. (He fell to 13th.) The legacy is strong with Stephenson.
The night two friends and I see him play in a holiday tournament at Baruch College in Manhattan, Stephenson stands out during warm-ups for two reasons. One, he’s the most physically imposing player on the court. You spot him immediately. A man among boys. Adonis descended from the clouds. LeBron the Second. Choose an overblown sports analogy; it fits.
Second, he spends the entire shoot-around standing 30 feet from the basket, bricking jumper after jumper. After shooting, he immediately gets a new ball from a teammate rebounding and hoists another prayer. We notice this behavior with a mix of concern, amusement, and bewilderment. If you were that good, what would you do? Probably jack 30-footers. Still, it can’t be a good sign, can it?
Lincoln’s opponent on the night is Jamesville-DeWitt, a team from the Syracuse area that features Brandon Triche, a 6’ 3” point guard headed to play for Jim Boeheim next season. Yet even with the impressive array of talent and incredible athleticism on the floor — at one point, a 5’ 10” Lincoln player catches a breaking DeWitt kid and stuffs his dunk attempt from behind. Their hands meet six inches above the rim — Stephenson is immediately magical. In the first 90 seconds, he scores two points, dishes an assist, grabs three rebounds, and adds a steal. Twice, he snatches a DeWitt miss above the rim, pivots in midair, and accelerates up-court. The first time, he jumps from just inside the foul line, contorts his massive frame around two defenders, and deftly lays the ball up. On the second occasion, he waits until the last second to dish to a petrified teammate who carefully converts a gimme. We start keeping stats on the back of a program, assuming the Basketball Hall of Fame will want a record of the inevitable quadruple-double.
Then Stephenson disappears.
His physical bulk still exists on the court, but he wanders in and out of the offense, getting the ball 30 feet from the hoop and giving it up to an inferior teammate almost immediately. (At least he doesn’t repeat his warm-up performance.) He could go at his defender, draw another, beat both or pass the rock, but there’s no desire. He proved his point in the first minute and a half. The game no longer interests him.
Every five minutes, he comes alive for a brief spurt, keyed by an emotional moment — a steal, a big rebound, a perceived foul that goes uncalled. He’ll grab the ball and fly, determined for his team to score. By the time he reaches half court (four strides), he’s stopped caring again. He’ll launch a quick three, drive baseline and lose the ball in traffic, or pass after crossing the time line.
Only once, when he throws down a vicious breakaway dunk, does he appear shake off the malaise. As Stephenson races towards the hoop, his speed, athleticism, and impossible power are on full display. By the time his jumps, he’s doubled the head start he had on the DeWitt point guard he stripped. The ball slams into the floor as his bulk smashes into the wooden floor, and Stephenson unleashes a passionate, Kevin-Garnett-head-staring-at-the-sky-eyes-exploding-from-his-head scream. In this small, midtown Manhattan college gym, it’s nothing short of terrifying.
More shocking, however, is the immediacy with which the country’s top prospect retreats into his sullen self; Stephenson’s gone before the noise that exploded from his body finishes echoing around the sub-level gym.
Growing up, you’re taught numerous clichés about trying your best. Rudy and Hickory High, the Miracle on Ice and Jimmy Valvano. You’re supposed to cheer for the scrappy underdog. And yet, here’s a kid who can’t be bothered to try, but he creates moments so incomprehensible you root for him on the court regardless. You find yourself completely unable to focus on anyone but Stephenson for fear you’ll miss, well, you don’t know what because you’ve never seen anything like this. You just know you need to see it live.
In the end, Lincoln loses. Stephenson winds up with 15 points on five for 17 shooting, with eight rebounds and eight assists. Not bad for someone who played roughly a third of the game despite being on the court the entire time. Triche wins a well-deserved MVP while Lincoln’s star sits on the opposite bench, head covered in a towel. At least one person in the stands wonders if he’s crying. Eventually he looks up and it’s clear he’s not. His head is the same place it was when he was playing: elsewhere.
This isn’t a story about wasted potential. Stephenson isn’t. His jumper — although off tonight — is a product of years of coaching and hours in the gym. It’s smooth, not beautiful, but serviceable. For proof, go to any court in Brooklyn and watch the kids on the playground smash line drive after line drive against the double rims and metal backboards. Stephenson’ shot may have been born on the Coney Island courts, but it matured under the tutelage of a pro.
Nor is this a story about a shoot-first, selfish, inner city point guard. If anything, Stephenson is to willing to defer to his teammates, who play as if they are afraid to disappoint the god with whom they share a uniform. They rush lay-ups and miss short jump shots when yet another seeing-eye pass finds its way through a crowd of DeWitt arms. Yet the ball keeps coming.
This isn’t a story about another phenom who missed his chance at college and a scholarship. UCLA, USC, and Kansas keep calling. They will continue to call as long as he remains undecided. (Stephenson eventually chooses Cincinnati where he leads all Big East rookies with 12.3 ppg before leaving after his freshman season to enter the NBA draft.) His skills — coached and otherwise — keep many doors open.
This is a story about a teenager who’s content to show that he has done more with his immense talent than anyone else in this gym. Stephenson plays while we sit — watching in awe and confusion — wondering if he’ll ever do more than just enough.