What’s With Lance Stephenson?

Published on: 22nd June, 2009

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Big Apple basketball fans are always searching for an answer to the eternal question: Who’s next?

The question seemed to be answered five years ago when Lance Stephenson, then a gangly eighth-grader, went head-to-head with Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo at a summer sneaker camp in New Jersey. At the time, Mayo was considered the best high school player in the country. But Stephenson flashed two crossover dribbles to catch Mayo off guard that July afternoon five summers ago and suddenly the next schoolboy star from New York City had arrived.

Stephenson, now 18, has graced the covers of national basketball magazines, one of which declared: “This 17-year-old would be an NBA star right now.” He’s been the subject of a reality series. He’s been featured in a nationally released documentary about a high school all-star game at Rucker Park. The 6-5 swingman even made headlines on his first day of high school when he transferred from Bishop Loughlin to Lincoln, the high school that produced Coney Island legends Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair.

Stephenson more than lived up to the hype on the court, finishing his high school career as the state’s scoring leader, shattering Telfair’s old mark, and becoming the first player to win four straight PSAL championships.

Now, the kid they call “Born Ready” is struggling to find a school. Just days away from his high school graduation, he’s the only player in ESPN‘s Top 100 yet to commit to a school. Only one top program, Memphis — the same school embroiled in a controversy involving Derrick Rose‘s SAT score that may have to forfeit its 38 wins and second-place finish in the 2008 NCAA Tournament (although the current Tigers squad and coaching staff are not affected) — appears interested in Stephenson’s services.

Some have cited Stephenson’s on-court demeanor as a turn-off. Others were scared away by questions surrounding his eligibility, a pending sexual assault case and rumors of Stephenson’s possible involvement with an agent. His father’s constant presence caused some programs to cease courting the Coney Island star.

Though one source said USC coach Kevin O’Neill, hired yesterday by the Trojans — the program tainted by the Mayo recruiting scandal — may be interested in recruiting Stephenson if he can qualify academically.

“Lance is the most talented player in high school ball, maybe the most talented player in college ball…right now,” says one Big East assistant. “But all the (stuff) that comes with him … is crazy.”

Everyone knows about Stephenson’s storied past and present. But no one — not even Stephenson — seems to know what his future holds.

So what happened to the promise of the most celebrated schoolboy hoops player since Marbury and Telfair?

IS IT HIS FATHER?

When Lance Stephenson is playing, you know exactly where Lance Stephenson Sr. is at all times. It’s not his hulking frame that gives him away; it’s his mouth. Whether he’s antagonizing opposing players from the stands, cheering on his son or yelling about how Lincoln High coach Dwayne (Tiny) Morton is using Stephenson during a game, Stephenson Sr. usually has something to say.

He has also been hands-on in the recruiting process. His constant presence and controversial decisions — from taking his son on a tour of an Under Armour sneaker factory while on an official visit to Maryland (an NCAA no-no) and green-lighting the “Born Ready” documentary (possibly violating NCAA compliance ) — set off potential red flags among some college coaches.

One Big East assistant coach says his program would like to recruit Stephenson again, but his father’s presence has hindered the process.

“If it wasn’t for his father,” the coach says, “I think Lance might have picked a school by now.”

Morton says his relationship with Stephenson Sr. is “fine,” but admits to butting heads with his star’s father at times.

“He is who he is,” says Morton, who still offers advice to the family. “Sometimes I had to say some words to him behind closed doors … definitely. Have I had to tell him to shut up? Definitely.”

Others believe college coaches should be able to tolerate Stephenson Sr. for the sake of his son, in case they do sign him.

“It could be a potential turnoff but college coaches are paid a lot of money to manage relationships, manage egos and all that,” says one source familiar with Stephenson’s recruiting. “You have to know what you’re recruiting and … if you can handle it, you pull the trigger.”

Longtime recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski believes Stephenson Sr. has actually calmed down over the years.

“From the first time I saw Mr. Stephenson, I think he was even more vocal then,” Konchalski says. “I think he’s toned down from that somewhat. He realized that it wasn’t in the best interests of his son.”

Stephenson Sr. insists he’s just being a father looking out for his son.

“I don’t think me being involved either way is affecting Lance’s recruiting,” says Stephenson Sr., 39. “All we ask for is for an opportunity for our kid to play basketball, that’s it.”

IS IT THE SEXUAL ASSAULT CHARGES?

One of the first questions some college coaches ask about Stephenson is: “What’s the status of the case?”

“It’s so much of the unknown,” says one college assistant, referring to the multitude of questions surrounding Stephenson, including the sexual assault case in which he was charged with groping a 17-year-old girl last October. “It’s so late that if something happens you run the risk of the kid not being able to play.”

Stephenson and Lincoln HS teammate Darwin Ellis are scheduled to appear in Brooklyn Criminal Court on June 29, to face a hearing on the matter.

Stephenson’s attorney, Alberto Ebanks, has claimed his client’s innocence throughout. The case could end with a dismissal or with both sides reaching a plea bargain. If convicted, Stephenson could face up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. “He wants his name to be cleared,” Stephenson Sr. says, “and he wants to be recognized as a good person on and off the court.”

IS IT HIS ELIGIBILITY?

A reality television series. A recruiting-trip rendezvous to a sneaker company warehouse. A high school transcript.

All three have been sources of consternation for college coaches recruiting Stephenson. All three have the potential to threaten Stephenson’s college eligibility. And all three could leave the school that takes Stephenson open to an NCAA investigation — a Pandora’s Box most programs would rather avoid.

Stephenson starred in “Born Ready” — an Internet reality series that chronicled his life on and off the court during his junior season at Lincoln. The series, produced by Fader Films, debuted on the Web site bornready.tv in January 2008 and aired on MTV2 last spring.

If Stephenson or his family was compensated financially from the show, he could be declared ineligible to play college basketball.

College coaches, who spoke anonymously because they aren’t allowed to comment on an unsigned recruit, say questions surrounding the bornready.tv reality series have caused some schools to shy away from recruiting Stephenson.

“You don’t want to deal with a kid in June and then there could be a clearinghouse situation. You don’t want to deal with that over the summer,” says one college assistant familiar with Stephenson’s recruitment.

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