Proving His Worth
Once a Sure-Fire NCAA Prospect, Stephenson Is Now Struggling to Take Next Step in His Basketball Career

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 Rivals.com 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."

* * *

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.

During one of the trials' morning workouts, Stephenson at times sulked and was openly hostile toward his teammates. After a midcourt chat with the team's head coach, Davidson's Bob McKillop, Stephenson's play -- and demeanor -- improved.

However, Stephenson was not selected to the team's final roster, and the Americans finished second in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Argentina later that month.

"The committee felt that Lance wasn't going to be one of the top five to seven players on the team," said one high-ranking USA Basketball official, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly. "He was worthy of being on the team, but what you deal with is it would have taken too much energy for the coaches to maintain Lance playing less minutes and being on the bench, and it would have diverted [them] from working with the top five to seven guys to win a gold medal."

Meyer said he's never seen Stephenson play a game in which Stephenson didn't bicker with his teammates. Longtime basketball recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski, who has developed a close relationship with the Stephenson family, said Stephenson always has had "awful body language," but also that the player recently has tried to improve in that regard.

"The way he was introduced to me was, Lance is ranked the fourth-best fourth-grader in New York City," Konchalski said. "A kid like that, how can he be expected to grow up normal? He's lived in a fishbowl and whenever he's screwed up and whenever he's had tantrums or whatever, people have made excuses for him.

"But it's no different for him than it is for a lot of kids nowadays. If Michael Jordan grew up in New York City nowadays, he wouldn't have been Michael Jordan; he would have been Michael Jackson."

In October, Stephenson was charged with misdemeanor sexual assault after allegedly groping a 17-year-old girl. The case recently was adjourned until June 29, and Stephenson's attorney, Alberto Ebanks, said he believes the prosecution may be interested in "making an end run," indicating the matter may be dismissed or settled before the next court date.

While the case's conclusion would ease one concern shared by the schools still recruiting Stephenson, others remain, such as the influence of Stephenson's father. A heating plant technician, tall and burly, Lance Stephenson Sr. has managed his son's recruitment from its outset.

Sources familiar with Stephenson's recruitment said his father's involvement has been heavy-handed to the point of becoming detrimental. Those sources also indicated some coaches were apprehensive of the role the father would assume once Stephenson arrived on campus. Lance Stephenson Sr. did not respond to numerous cellphone messages seeking comment for this story.

"As a coach, you've got to be a little bit leery because you're wondering, 'Am I just going to get Lance and be able to coach Lance?' " Meyer said. "Or am I going to be coaching and dealing with Lance's dad because he's going to be listening to his dad as much as to his coach?"

* * *

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company