Brooklyn hoops legend Stephenson buries Knicks, Heat up next
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The player they called "Born Ready" was more than prepared to be a New York Knick on June 25, 2010 at Madison Square Garden.
Brooklyn high school basketball legend Lance Stephenson was the Big East Freshman of the Year coming out of the University of Cincinnati at that night's NBA Draft. And he had told the Eagle, and anyone else who would listen, in the days leading up to the league's annual selection extravaganza that he was eager and willing to ply his trade within the familiar confines of "The World's Most Famous Arena".
“I always wanted to play in the Garden,” Stephenson noted nearly three years ago, a season removed from winning an unprecedented four consecutive PSAL championship for Lincoln High School, where he also became the highest-scoring player in the history of NYC scholastic hoops. “I grew up playing in the Garden since high school. If the Knicks pick me, it would be a dream come true to play my home games here.”
The Knicks had not one, but two chances to pick Stephenson in the second round that night. But they instead opted for Syracuse shooting guard Andy Rautins with the 38th overall pick and Landry Fields out of Stanford with No. 39. One selection later, buoyed by the insight of team president and NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird, the Indiana Pacers took a chance on Lance.
Rautins is currently struggling to find his way back into the NBA while Fields is a reserve for the Toronto Raptors after the Knicks chose not to re-sign him following a fairly productive off the bench during the 2011-12 campaign.
As for Stephenson, he's getting ready to take on LeBron James and the defending world champion Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night after burying the Knicks' playoff hopes with the best performance of his three-year career Saturday night.
''I just didn't want to go back to New York and play Game 7,'' Stephenson said after scoring 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting, ripping down 10 rebounds and making virtually every big play down the stretch for the Pacers during their series-ending Game 6 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday night. ''Just get it done with now and I'd do whatever it takes to do that. It showed tonight.''
It's easy, three years removed from that fateful evening in Manhattan, to hem and haw about how misguided the Knicks were in passing on one of the finest all-around players our borough has produced in recent memory. It's even easier to point at the irony that it was Stephenson who played a major role in ending the Knicks' best season in two decades.
But it's more than worth noting that Stephenson, dubbed "The best I've ever had," by long-time Lincoln coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, carried some extra off-the-court baggage with him into the draft room that night. And was considered less than "Ready" to jump into the NBA and dominate the way he did Saturday night.
More than a year before he was drafted by Indiana, Stephenson was suspended from school and missed two games for the Railsplitters due to an altercation with a teammate. That same year he was also arrested for groping a 17-year-old girl at the Coney Island school, resulting in a Class B misdemeanor charge.
Even after he turned pro, Stephenson was arrested for third-degree assault after allegedly shoving his girlfriend down a flight of stairs, though the case was eventually dismissed. In 2011, shortly after making his NBA debut with the Pacers, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound dynamo was demoted to the D-League for what the organization called "maturity issues."
Now all of 22-years-old, Stephenson, appears to finally be "Ready" for a long and productive career in the NBA, one that could see him make his first Finals appearance in two weeks time if the Pacers can stun the Heat.
In a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports, Stephenson intimated the most valuable lesson he received from Bird, the man who believed right from draft night that the Brooklyn native could thrive in the world's most competitive basketball league.
"Learn everything, learn, learn, learn,' Larry used to say to me," Stephenson recounted. " 'Watch the games,' he would tell me. 'Don't just sit and take these games for granted. I listened to him. I watched the other players that were in front of me, and I took what they did and tried to put in my swag. ... I owe Larry Bird so much."
The kid from Coney Island is beginning to pay back that debt during these playoffs. And the Knicks, much to their chargrin, can only sit back and watch.