Posted: Saturday July 9, 2005 3:15PM; Updated: Monday July 11, 2005 7:48PM
O.J. Mayo (right), shown here at the '05 International Sports Invitational, is considered the best high school player.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
It was one of those moments you instantly knew would vault into streetball lore. On Wednesday night at the Reebok ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., Lance Stephenson, a rising ninth grader and the latest can't-miss point guard prospect from Coney Island, squared off against O.J. Mayo, the 6-foot-5 junior guard from Ohio who everyone knows is the best high school player in the country.
Sitting in the bleachers were dozens of Stephenson's friends and family from Brooklyn, cheering on his every move with typical New Yawkish enthusiasm.
Stephenson was a trash-talking, finger-pointing, tongue-wagging blur who got in Mayo's face as soon as they took the court to start the second quarter. When Stephenson made a quick move along the baseline, the Brooklynites erupted. Then Mayo got mad. He started taking it right at the youngster and repeatedly scored at will.
During one unforgettable sequence, Mayo buried a 3-pointer in Stephenson's face, then gesticulated wildly toward Stephenson's posse in the stands. After Mayo's team got the rebound on the ensuing possession, Mayo dribbled the ball down the left wing and prepared to take it to Stephenson again. Stephenson, however, was caught in a defensive switch. So Mayo literally ordered Stephenson to guard him, waited for the youngster to take his defensive stance and then buried another long 3-pointer.
There were two other games going on at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Rothman Center, but by this point, the entire gymnasium was keyed in to what was happening on the far court. After Mayo nailed that second three and again shouted toward the bleachers, the place went nuts. It was easily the most electric moment of the four-day session.
Watching the scene unfold, I thought, This is awesome. Then a split second later I thought: This is awful.
Awesome because whether we like it or not, the whole culture of basketball -- especially summer basketball -- is built around these mano-a-mano matchups. A similar scene unfolded three years ago, when LeBron James of Ohio took New York's Lenny Cooke to school. Cooke was the older player that day (and hasn't been heard of since), but the idea of the established star schooling the young prodigy was quite alluring. It was easy to get caught up in that, and it was fun.
Yet, it was also awful because the exchange between Mayo and Stephenson embodied all the things I like least about today's brand of American basketball. The selfishness and immaturity evident at the game's highest levels begin at summer camps like ABCD, where showmanship is celebrated and fundamentals are virtually extinct.
It was also awful because New York City is famous for eating its young, and the mano-a-Mayo was the precise moment Stephenson dove head first into the meat grinder. There's no doubt he's talented -- at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, he has good size and length, especially for a point guard. From what I hear, he competed brilliantly this spring at New York's IS8 tournament, which features players 19 and under. But I also saw Sebastian Telfair come to ABCD as a rising ninth grader, and he was clearly the best point guard in the camp. Stephenson wasn't even the best freshman at ABCD this year. That was Renardo Sidney, a 6-foot-9 small forward from Jacksonville, Mississippi.
There was not, however, a huge posse from Jacksonville making a circus out of Sidney's every crossover. And Sidney didn't have a coterie of reporters surrounding him like Stephenson did after his game against Mayo, even though he was so clearly outplayed.
"The good news is, he's from New York," said Gary Charles, who coaches Stephenson's summer team, the Long Island Panthers. "But that's the bad news, too. If it was up to me, he probably wouldn't be here, but his family really wanted to come and he really wanted to come. Everybody is in such a rush now. Nobody wants to wait."
It doesn't help that Stephenson's father, Lance Sr., has a reputation for being an overexuberant sports dad who often shouts profanity from the bleachers. (Incidentally, I'm hearing more horror stories about basketball dads than ever before, but that's a topic for another day.) And this being Brooklyn, there has to be an intense dogfight amongst the local high schools for Stephenson's services at the proverbial "next level." Stephenson says he is going to Bishop Loughlin, a private school in New York's vaunted Catholic League, but Lincoln High coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, who coached Telfair and has coached Stephenson in the summertime, is not going down without a fight. Bishop Loughlin coach Khalid Green told me straight up that he and Morton compete in a "bloodsport" for players. Stephenson is just the latest pawn caught up in that struggle.
Still, while it's tempting to castigate the New York hype machine for the way it prematurely inflates reputations, the reality is that all of us who allow ourselves to be titillated by the who's-next storylines are part of that machine -- and part of the problem. For his part, Stephenson wasn't the least bit regretful about having been thrust into the spotlight at at ABCD. "I had a great time," he said Friday night. "I wanted to play against the best players in the country, and that's what I did."
Of course, he's only 14 and can't be expected to know better. The same can't be said for us grown-ups in the bleachers.