Scott Tinley
Monday March 30th, 2009

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Less than two minutes into his Public Schools Athletic League semifinal, Lance Stephenson, the leading scorer in New York schoolboy history, pilfers a cross-court pass and pushes the ball up the middle. Inside a stuffy Carnesecca Arena, the one they call "Born Ready" looks back at a defender and gauges his lead. No Boys & Girls High player can catch him. His Abraham Lincoln High teammates stop near half court and watch. Approaching the rim, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound wunderkind wags his tongue and elevates for a thundering right-handed dunk.

"Half-man!" the public address announcer shouts. "Half-amazing!"

His passion uncorked, the lean, muscular star with the fiery on-court demeanor goes face-to-face with a defender, yelling, "Let's go, n-----!"

"That competitiveness is his greatest strength," said Gary Charles, the senior guard's former AAU coach, who watches from the crowd, "and his greatest weakness."

After Lincoln's 74-64 win, Stephenson explained, "I just wanted to get my team hyped."

Hype, as he knows, can be a double-edged sword. Blessed with an assassin's detachment, the nation's top unsigned recruit has mowed down the competition along Gotham's grassroots scene since he was in the sixth grade. Accompanying success, however, has been the demand to live up to the standards set by Coney Island natives Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Three months before he receives a senior yearbook, he has already been the "Talk of the Town" in The New Yorker, the cover boy for numerous basketball magazines and the centerpiece of a web-based documentary. "I like the spotlight," said Stephenson. "I used to be in the shadows."

While the NBA's age-limit rule precludes Stephenson, 18, from making a prom-to-pros jump like Telfair, he has already supplanted his predecessor atop the city's wins (four PSAL titles) and scoring lists (2,946). After flirting with the idea of following class of 2008 star Brandon Jennings to Europe, Stephenson said he will attend college next year, most likely at Kansas, though he insists that he's still considering Maryland and St. John's.

After turning down offers to make the announcement locally, he was expected to slip on a Jayhawks hat at the McDonald's All-American festivities in Miami on Tuesday morning, but delayed the choice. "Nothing really changed," Stephenson said when asked if his postponement came as a ripple effect of the recruiting uncertainty created by Memphis coach John Calipari's dalliance with Kentucky. "It was just really hard for me and my family to make a decision. I just want to wait it out."

In addition to his hectic on-court schedule (Lincoln played five games in six nights during one stretch), the introverted Stephenson has had to mature quickly. As much as meeting his girlfriend, Jasmine, in the lunch room and babysitting his 2-year-old brother Lantz seems simple, he has faced added responsibility of late. Within the past year, he fathered a daughter, separately faced a Class B misdemeanor sexual assault charge stemming from an October incident in which, according to police, he allegedly groped a 17-year-old girl and watched his parents unplug the documentary cameras. Stephenson's attorney, Alberto Ebanks, denies the accusations, saying, "I know the alleged victim was motivated to make this up. He will be cleared."

When asked if becoming a father and going through the pending court case affected him, Stephenson said, "I'm focused on basketball, not off the court things."

The questions have related to his game, too. After trying out for Team USA's 18-and-under unit in July, Stephenson was cut due to chemistry concerns. In season, recruiters noted regression in his skills, lamenting a lack of left-handed drives and wondering where his vaunted shooting range had gone. During February's Primetime Shootout in Trenton, N.J., a marquee event in which Stephenson went for 42 and 35 points in previous years, one recruiter said his skills were "lousy" and "he needs to lose weight." Another countered that he "loves his large hands" and the fact that he appeared "unafraid to fail."

New York-based talent evaluator Tom Konchalski, who has watched Stephenson and numerous top prospects navigate the City's pressure cooker for 51 years, said, "Right now he's a target. All the ills of the culture ... they want to pin the tail on him."

Looking to impress Kansas assistant coach Danny Manning at the end of the PSAL semifinal win, Stephenson called for the last shot. With the victory already in hand, point guard Darwin Ellis waved off his classmate, put the ball down and walked toward his sideline. Stephenson picked it up and dribbled slowly to the rim. Recoiling in mid-air, he lowered the ball and unwound a violent slam. "Coaches will remember that," he said.

* * *

Suiting up for Joe Packer, a Coney Island community organizer, as a wide-eyed fourth grader at Primary School 288, Stephenson's aggressiveness stood out. "He would practically foul his teammates to get the ball," said Packer, a 1974 Lincoln alumnus who regularly attends the Railslpitters' games. "He has an insatiable hunger."

At 12, Stephenson caught the eye of talent evaluator Clark Francis, who was in town to grade high school players at the Rumble in the Bronx AAU tourney. "He was the best sixth grader in the nation," said Francis, who ranks elite youth for

The driving force behind Stephenson's development has always been his father, Lance Sr. "Stretch," as he has been known since a teenage growth spurt, played at Lafayette High in Brooklyn and traveled cross-country to play at UC Santa Barbara. To toughen his son, the 39-year-old heating plant technician had him run on the sand of the Island's beaches and in the stairwell of the Mermaid Ave. housing project complex. Inside their apartment Lance Sr. logged how many pushups his son could do in 60 seconds. "I loved racing the clock," the younger Lance said.

Lance Sr. did all he could to ensure that his son survived a neighborhood blighted by guns and drugs. Packer remembers Lance Sr. attending a meeting for an anti-drug community group, called Coney Island Lives for Youth, when his son was in grade school. Accepting donations from locals, Packer said that most gave the suggested $25, but Lance Sr. offered between $200 to $300. "I told a banker if he can give that much, why can't you?" Packer said.

Stephenson was set to leave the neighborhood in the summer of 2005, when he enrolled at Bishop Loughlin, an all-boys Catholic school in Brooklyn. A standout at the ABCD camp in New Jersey, he challenged O.J. Mayo one-on-one and gained fame. Immediately after the camp, marketing mavens plotted made-for-TV games featuring the Stephenson-led Loughlin. "He was the quietest kid to come across the bridge," said former ABCD director Sonny Vaccaro, who remains a confidant. "He seemed like he was from a southern state."

Stephenson attended Loughlin for three days before playing in the championship game of the Conrad McRae Youth League at Brooklyn's Dean Street Park. After his team lost the final and he was not named MVP, both father and son became volatile, throwing a trophy and shouting vulgarities, including claims that organizers linked to Loughlin had misled them. That Monday, Stephenson did not attend classes and Loughlin coach Khalid Green, who likened his recruiting against Morton to "blood sport," feared that his star had left. The next day, those concerns were confirmed. Standing in a Lincoln hallway, looking at the freshman, Morton called in his assistant, Kenny Pretlow. "Sit down, you're not gonna believe this," Morton told Pretlow. "Lance is at Lincoln."

"Stop lying," Pretlow said. "How do you know?"

"I'm outside his classroom," Morton said.

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.

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