Proving His Worth

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

On April 28, 2008, Lance Stephenson attended the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City to view the documentary "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot." The film starred Stephenson, Coney Island's most recent prep basketball phenom, as well as other high-profile high school and college players.

Stephenson, then a junior, had just led Lincoln High School to its second consecutive New York Class AA title and was sought after by major Division I programs such as North Carolina, Georgetown, Louisville, Southern California and Texas. His skill on the court was heralded by every talent evaluator who watched him play. There was even an Internet reality series entitled "Born Ready" -- Stephenson's nickname -- that followed his rise to sure-fire stardom.

Thirteen months later, Stephenson's recruitment lingers on, long after most Division I programs have filled their 2009 recruiting classes. Still regarded as one of his class's top talents, Stephenson shoulders ancillary baggage -- questionable amateur status, a pending criminal charge, a reputation for petulant on-court deportment and a father viewed as meddlesome -- that has led many schools, including more recent suitors such as Maryland, to waver in their pursuits.

The star who more than a year ago had his choice of college basketball's elite programs has become a prize only for those schools in desperate need of a temporary marquee attraction.

"He's got a one-and-done mentality," said Jerry Meyer, a college basketball recruiting analyst who has followed Stephenson's development for several years. "He expects to only be [in college] one year. The question is, is he a talented enough player to make it worth one year when you have to consider all the other risks?"

Over the past decade, interest in youth basketball has grown exponentially, and in recent years teenage players have inspired regional and national followings at a time in which the consequences of their fame were not entirely flattering.

In the past year alone, Brandon Jennings opted to play professionally in Europe instead of at Arizona, with which he had signed a letter-of-intent, after struggling to receive a qualifying standardized test score, and Renardo Sidney signed with Mississippi State on April 30 after USC and UCLA withdrew scholarship offers amid concerns over the player's academic and amateur standing. Both players were high school all-Americans.

Stephenson, a 6-foot-5 swingman whose play has drawn broad acclaim since he was in the fourth grade, reportedly wants to clear his name before making his college choice. Some would argue that the choice is no longer his to make.

"There's no logical reason for Lance not to have been recruited and go somewhere," said Sonny Vaccaro, a person of nearly unmatched influence on the youth basketball scene and a confidant of the Stephenson family. "And it's only because of whether he'll be eligible to play on an NCAA team. It's got nothing to do with basketball ability."

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Issue No. 42 of Dime magazine, a basketball lifestyle publication, featured a cover story on Stephenson that proclaimed "This 17-Year-Old Would Be an NBA Star Right Now." The cover was unveiled one week before the U.S. under-18 men's national team trials began in July 2008.

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