Lance Stephenson (cont.)
If Coney Island was the isolated landmass from Lost, then Morton would play the part of Benjamin Linus, the undersized native doing all he can to keep the locals from escaping. When Telfair played for him, Morton, a middle school math teacher in Coney Island, founded his own AAU team Juice -- a street slang term for self-operated business. Having won three city titles with Telfair, he reached the final game again in 2005, but could not finish the job. Many thought Morton, who drives a navy blue Cadillac Escalade, had pulled a coup to ensure his future when Stephenson returned to Coney Island and Lincoln. "We never planned for Lance," Pretlow said. "Tiny said the 'hood wouldn't let him go. Coney Island kids stay."
Playing for the local school, college coaches immediately identified Stephenson's potential. As a sophomore he showed a shooter's stroke and played against the likes of Michael Beasley in the Elite 24 Classic at Rucker Park. That winter his family moved into a two-story white row house 12 blocks east of their old apartment. Though in a better environment, he needed only to walk out his front door to be reminded of its jagged corners. Across the street is Our Lady of Solace Shrine Church; to the left are spray-painted memorials of Yahaira (R.I.P. 1996-2006) and Cory R.I.P. 1978-2001, neighbors who fell victim to violence. "I like home," Stephenson told documentary cameras after happening upon a bloody sneaker taped off by police investigators, "but I might have to get out."
Things only improved in his junior year, as he started to chide his teammates less and brought a state title home. When he tried to take the next step to the Team USA level, however, trying out for the U.S. under-18 national team in Washington, D.C., he was cut from the final roster. Knowing that talent was never the issue, he vowed to work harder on restraining his emotions. For the first time that the father and son could remember, the coaches had taken the ball out of Stephenson's hands.
* * *
It was a cheerless Father's Day for the Stephenson family last June. Playing on Lance Sr.'s newly established AAU team, Raising Champions, at the Rumble in the Bronx tourney, Lance and his teammates slogged through three forgettable losses. Unable to make it out of pool play, the father, who calls himself his son's "agent," lectured his players afterward. "Man," he said, "we didn't even get a dunk."
To his son, he said, "You can be king of New York, but not if you play like this."
What raised eyebrows as much as the team's poor play was that the father finally had an AAU team, just like fellow top recruit Renardo Sidney's father did out west. The team played in several competitions, including the Adidas Super 64 tournament in Las Vegas, and became another chapter in the five-year fight for Stephenson's feet.
As early as the eighth grade, Stephenson sat down with his parents and his AAU coach to discuss marketing. "We saw pro things in Lance," said Charles, who coached him with the Reebok-sponsored N.Y. Panthers. "We thought he'd carry the mantel for Reebok."
Though Stephenson left Charles' Panthers to play for Morton's Juice when he transferred to Lincoln, more attention was paid to Stephenson's footwear during the recruiting process. New York recruitniks treated the labels on his sneakers like tea leaves to predict where he would attend college.
Known for playing on the balls of his feet, Stephenson caused a stir when he started wearing Under Armour socks and reportedly testing its sneakers. Having broken onto the Brooklyn basketball scene by providing sneakers and clothing at Boys & Girls High, Under Armour, which is owned by former Maryland football player and Board of Trustees member Kevin Plank, was attempting to establish a toehold in Brooklyn. Having never mentioned the school as a potential landing spot before the winter, Stephenson suddenly took an official visit to College Park in January and visited the Baltimore company while there. By the time Lincoln reached the city semifinal, Morton, who has never been as close with Stephenson as he was with Telfair, was wearing Under Armour golf shirts and the team was outfitted in Under Armour warm-up shirts.
Asked whether the interlacement of company and school would influence his college choice, Stephenson, who has worn the Nike sneakers of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the playoffs, said, "I just want to play ball."
In his own words, his father made a stronger statement about Under Armour, telling The Washington Post, "The sneaker sucks."
* * *
There are two tattoos on Stephenson's right biceps. The top one is of a young basketball player dribbling with his right hand and fending off any oncoming defenders with his left. The words Born Ready surround it.
Below that is an ink design of Coney Island's skyline, replete with the Wonder Wheel and other rides from the beachside community's famed Astroland amusement park.
As his roller-coaster recruitment process and prep career enters its final turn, Stephenson said he is focused on playing in Wednesday night's McDonald's game after falling in the state semifinal to Rice (Harlem, N.Y.) on Saturday. Over the years, Stephenson's father has mentioned the "hate" that New York fans have for their prodigies and the desire to relocate his son to a passionate fan base where the coach will be tough on him. If those words are to be interpreted as hints, both Maryland and Kansas would seem to be fits, and St. John's would be out. Having stayed with point guard Sherron Collins, the Jayhawks leader from Chicago's fabled public school league, on his official visit in February, Stephenson knows that an inner-city kid can find success in Lawrence and not get lost in middle America's Phog. "This is my life," Stephenson said on Tuesday. "I want to go somewhere that I'm comfortable and I can play at."
Stephenson certainly looked comfortable in Lincoln's 78-56 win over the Bronx's JFK High in the PSAL AA-Division finals in Madison Square Garden. In the week leading up to the game, Ellis, who has played Robin to Stephenson's Batman since the two were in grade school, would say simple things like "Hello," but all his friend would say was "History," to focus him on becoming the first team in New York's storied prep landscape to win four-straight city titles. With the capstone victory the classmates became history boys. "This was a lot of hard work," said Stephenson, tears welling in his eyes as four television cameras continued the Truman Show treatment. "I don't think the next kid can top this."
Next, as Stephenson well knows, can be a burdensome four-letter word in the Lincoln lexicon. With greater challenges ahead, the senior guard walked toward the freight elevator, trophy in hand, just as Marbury and Telfair had before him.