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Proving His Worth
Gary Charles, director of the New York Panthers AAU program, has coached 14 former and current NBA players. You get to a point, he said, where you can recognize unique talent. So when Charles first saw the ferocity with which Stephenson overpowered his opponents, he moved the kid, who then was in the seventh grade, up to play with the Panthers' 17-and-under team.
"I wanted to capitalize on the fact that here was another young man coming from Coney Island," Charles said. "You know, Stephon [Marbury], Sebastian [Telfair] and now here comes Lance. I thought that would obviously play well to the media and everyone else. At that time, we had just switched over to Reebok, and I knew Reebok needed a boost, so I thought having Lance being connected to Reebok would work well from a marketing standpoint."
Stephenson has faced comparisons to Marbury and Telfair -- both of whom played at Lincoln and now play in the NBA -- for years, though he became more of a public spectacle in high school than either of his predecessors.
But for all the talk of Stephenson becoming college basketball's next one-and-done rental, he may never be allowed to play for any university because of the very spotlight that provided him national notoriety. In January 2008, an Internet reality series called "Born Ready," which documented Stephenson's life, kicked off on the Web site bornready.tv.
According to compliance officers from multiple athletic programs, a school likely will look into any prospective athlete's affiliation with a Web site to determine whether the relationship produced compensation for the athlete or his family, whether a third party like an agent or financial adviser was involved and what prompted the company producing the Web site to form the relationship in the first place.
Representatives from Fader Films and Den of Thieves, the production companies that run bornready.tv, declined to comment for this story.
Should an investigation find that Stephenson violated NCAA amateurism regulations, he could be declared ineligible. That, sources familiar with Stephenson's recruitment concurred, is the prevailing issue that has soured many programs on the standout prospect.
Stacey Osburn, NCAA associate director for media relations, said a prospective student-athlete's academic and amateur standing is subject to review by the NCAA's Eligibility Center as soon as a university places that student-athlete on its Institution Request List, which must occur before the student-athlete can take an official visit to that university.
When asked if the NCAA currently was investigating Stephenson's amateur status, Osburn said the NCAA could not comment on specific prospective student-athletes because of privacy reasons.
Regardless, the number of Stephenson's suitors has diminished greatly in the past year. Arizona and Memphis -- programs with new coaches -- are said to be in the mix. Florida, which just saw sophomore guard Nick Calathes leave to play professionally in Greece, and Florida International, despite public sentiments to the contrary, also are in play, sources said.
According to Vaccaro, the Stephensons consulted him as recently as March about the possibility of playing professionally in Europe next season. Vaccaro said he told the family they "weren't the right group" to try the foreign route -- not because Stephenson wasn't good enough, but because of the challenges of adapting to life overseas.
"Lance has never been out of Coney Island," Vaccaro said. "There is something to be said about that."
Stephenson visited Maryland in January, but his recruitment came into question when he toured the Baltimore headquarters of Under Armour, the official apparel provider of Maryland athletics and a company owned by Maryland booster Kevin Plank. By late March, Maryland was said to no longer be in the running for Stephenson, but Lance Stephenson Sr. recently told USA Today that the Terrapins were back in contention.
"Maybe because the options were dwindling, perhaps," Konchalski said. "Or maybe he realized that they have a terrific program and have a terrific coach. I hope that's the reason."