Wednesday January 13th, 2010

The high school basketball player they called "Born Ready" was anything but, at least away from the basketball court. The amazing thing about that was he was the first to realize it. "I needed to be away from New York to learn how to be a man,'' Lance Stephenson said this week. "I was glad to come out here to change my life.''

Out here is Cincinnati, a small place compared to where Stephenson is from. They'll give him elbow room in Cincinnati, everywhere but in the lane. The locals are respectful of their sports stars. They're grateful enough to let their heroes breathe.

When Deion Sanders played center field for the Reds in the mid-'90s, he marveled at the space he got from fans. Prime Time was "household,'' as he liked to say. He was a two-sport jock, a bejeweled celeb who dabbled in hip-hop and was among the most recognizable sports people on the planet.

In Cincinnati, he could go to the mall. He could eat at a restaurant and not need VIP seating.

Stephenson could not have known any of that when he agreed last June to play quasi-amateur basketball at the University of Cincinnati. What he did know was that New York was starting to smother him. Breathing was a problem. So was being the next Next. New York is always looking for the next Next. That was Stephenson, who got Next from Sebastian Telfair, who inherited it from Stephon Marbury by way of Kenny Anderson. And so on.

When your high school team wins four city titles and you break the state's all-time scoring record (held by Telfair, who took it from Anderson), you are going to be pampered. Or as Stephenson put it, "respected too much.''

"In New York, everything was given to me. Out here, they keep me grounded. It's not like, 'Oh, he's a superstar, let's treat him different.'

"If everything is given to you, you feel like, 'I can do whatever I want and get away with it.' Out here I can't get away with everything.''

Either Stephenson talks as good as he plays, or there was a whole lot of misjudging going on the last few years.

Hoop junkies know his story: A legend at Coney Island's Lincoln High who had the Born Ready nickname applied to him by a Rucker Park announcer during a summer league game in 2006. The star of an Internet TV series of the same name, for which he received much attention from the NCAA, whose sleuths wanted to know if he got paid.

Stephenson took a tour of an Under Armour warehouse in Baltimore, while on an official visit to Maryland. The company's founder and CEO is also on Maryland's Board of Trustees. Oops. On top of that, Stephenson was charged with sexual assault for groping a 17-year-old girl.

All that happened in a two-year span. Many college coaches were scared off, seeing more risk than reward, even as recruiting experts proclaimed Stephenson to be the next Next. After Cincinnati signed him, the Bearcats had to sweat an NCAA tooth-combing. Stephenson was cleared just before UC's first exhibition game in November.

A kid could get exhausted from all that hype.

"You like it in the beginning,'' Stephenson said. "You feel like you're different than other people.''

Different was good for awhile: The press, the fawning, the awe when he entered a playground or a gym. Look at me.

That changed when the NCAA started looking at his film career and the press went south after the sexual assault charge. Different was no longer good. "It was a negative thing in my life and I wanted to change it,'' Stephenson said.

Stephenson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in the assault case and was sentenced to community service. He wasn't paid for Born Ready. He's no longer on the NCAA's hit list. He has adapted to college life in a way that delights him.

Stephenson earned a 3.5 GPA in his first college quarter. He never achieved better than a 2.0 in high school. Skeptics would suggest he excelled at Dick and Jane and never missed a Connect-the-Dots class. His academic advisor, Sara Piepho, said Stephenson's courses were legit: "They're not basket-weaving and Yoga 101,'' she said. In fact, Stephenson's schedule included an English class and a paralegal course.

When Piepho told Stephenson late last quarter that the 3.5 was a possibility, he wanted to call his parents. Their reaction was, "Are you serious?''

Piepho was wary of Stephenson when he arrived. Blue-chip recruit, not expected to stay more than a year or two: Another guy she'd have to run down and introduce to study hall. "Any time you have a kid who could be one-and-done, you wonder,'' she said. It hasn't happened that way. "If I could clone him, I would. He's disciplined and driven. He makes good decisions.''

Stephenson hasn't been the me-first playground player some suspected he'd be, either. If anything, he has held back. He leads Cincinnati in scoring at 12.7 points a game, but that's only slightly better than Deonta Vaughn's 11 points a game and Yancy Gates' 10.

"In high school, I could just go. Take over,'' Stephenson said. "I do that here, (defenses) collapse on me, I get a turnover.''

The one game he did take over on Dec. 30, the Bearcats upset Connecticut. Stephenson had 21 points, including the game-winning free throws. Still, he's not a finished product. Stephenson is not Kentucky's John Wall. He's still learning when to pass and when to shoot, and how to fight through screens on defense.

"Sometimes, he's in the all-pass mode,'' said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. "Sometimes, he's in the all-drive mode. When he (learns) when to pass, when to shoot, when to drive and take what the defense gives him, he's going to be a special offensive player.''

In the meantime, the learning continues for Born Ready. He'll be back in New York on Wednesday night, in Madison Square Garden against St. John's. Stephenson refers to Cincinnati as "out here.'' Either he sees it as the small-town outback, or an out from the unique burdens of being a New York schoolboy basketball prodigy. Maybe both.

It's nice to go home, Stephenson figures. But only for short time.

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