APRIL 15, 2009
On the basketball courts of New York City, there may be no truer measure of a player's stature than his nickname. If a player is considered good, then his moniker will be something straightforward: "Pee Wee" if he is short; "Lefty" if he shoots with that hand. But if a player is viewed as great, then his talent can actually inspire poetry. He will be called "Half-Man Half-Amazing" for his superhuman dunks or "Skip to My Lou" for the way he hopscotches down the court as he dribbles past hapless opponents. "In New York, " says Bobbito Garcia, the editor of the basketball magazine Bounce and the unofficial etymologist of the city's basketball culture, "you don't get a nickname unless you earn it."
It's a testament, then, to the considerable basketball talent of Lance Stephenson, an 18-year-old high school senior who lives in Coney Island, that he has already been graced with several quality nicknames, ranging from the punning ("Sir Lance-A-Lot") to the messianic ("The One"). But the nickname for Stephenson that is most inspired, and the one that seemingly everyone agrees fits him best--including Stephenson himself, who has it tattooed on his right bicep--is "Born Ready."
He earned the name on a humid summer night in 2006, during a game at Rucker Park in Harlem. Considered the Mecca of New York's playground courts, the Rucker has long been a proving ground for the city's best basketball players. Everyone from NBA stars (like Manhattan's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Brooklyn's Connie Hawkins, and Queens's Kenny Anderson) to esteemed streetballers (whose reputations typically never extended beyond the five boroughs) has run up and down its green-painted asphalt. Even heralded NBA players who aren't from New York have come to the Rucker over the years to burnish their legends. Stephenson first played at Rucker Park in 2003, when he was just twelve years old, in a game that featured local youth stars. After the youth game, the adults--many of them Division I college players--took the court, but they were a player short, so they approached one of Stephenson's teammates. "I was sitting next to Corey Fisher, and they asked him to play," Stephenson recently recalled for me, as he sat in the living room of his family's cramped Coney Island rowhouse. "And then he was like, 'No, no.' I think he was scared. And then they asked me, and I was like, 'What? He said no?' I'm like, all right, I'm playing. And they just took me out of the crowd, and I just started playing. "
It would be the first of many occasions during which Stephenson was a boy among men on the city's playground courts, as he routinely began to compete (and often excel) in games that were composed of not just college players but pros, too. By the time Stephenson came to the Rucker that night in 2006--as the only rising sophomore in an all-star game showcasing the nation's top 24 high school players--his reputation was well-established. But it was only after he had executed a particularly impressive driving layup that Garcia, who was serving as the game's M.C., felt sufficiently moved to christen him over the courtside P.A. system. "I'd seen him go up against seasoned NBA veterans, seasoned college cats, high school kids two or three years older than him, and he was always reppin'," Garcia says, "so I just called it. He's Born Ready."
In the two-and-a-half years since his anointment, Stephenson's stature in New York City basketball circles has only grown. He's continued to shine on the playgrounds, and, more importantly, he has dominated the city's high school game. With one Public School Athletic League (PSAL) championship to his credit before he was dubbed Born Ready--having led his Abraham Lincoln High School Railsplitters to the city title as a mere freshman--Stephenson repeated the feat in his sophomore and junior years, earning two New York Daily News "Player of the Year" honors in the process. Going into his senior year of high school, Born Ready, who has grown to an imposing 6'5" and 205 pounds, was on the brink of breaking New York State's all-time scoring record of 2,785 points--held by a previous Lincoln player, Sebastian Telfair. He also stood poised to do something that none of the great New York City high school basketball players who came before him had ever done--not Connie Hawkins, not Kenny Anderson, not even Kareem: collect four city titles.
"If he wins a fourth straight city championship," Tom Konchalski, a Queens-based basketball scout who's been watching New York City players for 51 years, told me, "he'll elevate himself to iconic status."
Ever since basketball first entered the national consciousness, the sport's New York City icons have become American ones. Yes, basketball may have been invented in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts--by a Canadian, no less--but the game was largely developed, and then perfected, by people who played it in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Like abstract expressionism and the Beats, basketball was one of New York's cultural gifts to the rest of the country--and, in many ways, a perfect expression of the individualism and grit that characterized the Big Apple itself. "[T]he most active, dedicated basketball city of all," as the late Pete Axthelm described it in his classic 1970 book The City Game, New York has long been the sport's spiritual home. During the first half of the twentieth century, Irish and Jewish ballplayers learned the game on the city's settlement house courts and in its CYO gyms. From there, men like Nat Holman and Joe Lapchick spread the plays they helped develop--the give-and-go, the back-door cut, the pick-and-roll--across the country, first as members of a barnstorming pro team called the Original Celtics and later as coaches at the City College of New York and St. John's University. Then, in the late 1950s, after New York's white ethnics passed the torch to the city's African American players, it was black New Yorkers who, on courts in the city's housing projects, put the imprimatur of their own aesthetic on basketball. As Nelson George wrote of Rucker Park in his 1992 book, Elevating the Game, "Years before Jordan, Dr. J, or 'hang time' entered basketball's lexicon, the Rucker was, at least among its best, a place where the game belonged above the rim."
Of course, New York didn't just export its style of play to the rest of the country; it exported its players, too. Whether it was the "underground railroad, " which took New York's Catholics and Jews to play for fellow New Yorker Frank McGuire when he coached at the University of North Carolina in the 1950s, or, later, the "ghetto express," which delivered African Americans from Bed-Stuy and the Bronx to four-year universities all over the country, New York was always the hub of amateur basketball's elaborate transit system. Meanwhile, NBA clubs--to say nothing of NBA all-star games--were stocked with men who'd learned and honed their games in the five boroughs. During one remarkable eleven-year stretch in the 1970s and '80s, a New York-born basketball player won the NBA's MVP award seven times. The reflected glory from all this shined down on the city's high school players: Success in New York was viewed as the greatest predictor of success elsewhere. "People looked at New York City and said, 'If he's the best player in New York City,'" Dick Weiss, the New York Daily News's basketball writer, explains, "'he must be the best player in the country.'"
But, recently, that equation has proven to be a false one. In the past 15 years, the high school players who were hailed as the city's finest--who, as mere schoolboys, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated--have foundered at the college level or have made it to the NBA just long enough for a cup of coffee. Once mentioned in the same breath as Abdul-Jabbar and Hawkins, today names like Felipe Lopez and Lenny Cooke are mentioned as some of the game's biggest busts, if they are spoken of at all. Meanwhile, other New Yorkers who did go on to long careers in the NBA--Stephon Marbury, hailed as the city's greatest point guard ever when he graduated from Lincoln in 1995; Ron Artest, who grew up in Queens and played his college basketball at St. John's--are today known mainly as malcontents and underachievers. Worst of all, New York has ceded its star-making power to places like Philadelphia (Kobe Bryant), Chicago (Dwyane Wade), and Baltimore (Carmelo Anthony). "How many first-team [college] All-Americans is New York City going to have this year?" asks Dick Weiss. "I'll tell you: None. How many New York kids are playing in the NBA all-star game? None. Our city is not producing the great player in the numbers that it used to, and it's not producing the great star the way it used to."
All of this has been felt most acutely by Lance Stephenson. At the same time that his stature in New York City has been growing, his national reputation has plummeted. Once the consensus number-one overall player in the 2009 high school class, he has seen his ranking slip in the last few years--to number two, then four, and recently as low as nine, according to various scouting services. Some talent evaluators believe he has put on too much muscle and lost his quickness; others fret that he has yet to develop a consistent enough jump shot or the requisite defensive footwork to succeed at the next level.
The most pressing concerns involve his mental approach to the game--and to life. During his junior year at Lincoln, Stephenson was suspended from school for five days after fighting with a teammate. At the beginning of his senior year, he was charged with groping a 17-year-old girl on school grounds. (The case is pending.) Last summer, Stephenson suffered the ignominy of being cut from the USA National Under-18 team. "I was at those trials for two days, and I can tell you that from a pure basketball standpoint, there's no reason Lance should have been cut," says Sports Illustrated basketball writer Seth Davis. "Lance's problem was that he's a great physical specimen, but he was acting like a lousy teammate." Stephenson's troubles have been so great that, at the outset of his senior season, it was believed he was being heavily recruited by only a handful of colleges. "I think a lot of schools have concluded he's not worth the headaches," a coach at one Division I program told me.
And so Stephenson faces a double set of pressures: Not only is he expected to use his basketball talents to lift his family out of the grinding poverty of Coney Island; he's being counted on to avoid the pitfalls that have recently tripped up so many of the city's other stars and to reestablish New York's reputation as the most active, dedicated basketball city of all. "Everybody in New York is looking for the next savior," says Weiss. "And, right now, everybody is looking at Lance."
On a Thursday night in early February, Stephenson took the court at Lincoln for a game against Boys & Girls High School. Located a few blocks from the beach in Coney Island, Lincoln was once considered to be among the best academic high schools not just in Brooklyn but in all of New York, graduating students like Joseph Heller and Arthur Miller. Today, it's most renowned for its basketball team and for producing stars like Marbury and Telfair. In recent years, the Railsplitters have been the subject of two books and two documentaries; in Spike Lee's feature film He Got Game, about a fictional Brooklyn hoops phenom named Jesus Shuttlesworth, Jesus plays for Lincoln. And yet, despite this renown, Lincoln is still an inner-city New York public high school--meaning that its gym is a decrepit cage, which, during some games, is ringed by a dozen or so school security guards and police officers; its basketball locker room is a classroom; and, until recently, its team traveled to away games by subway. Although, in the popular imagination, the classic underdog high school basketball team is a bunch of white farm boys from Indiana who win the state championship, it's hard not to view Lincoln's record of success as a greater triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
As the teams warmed up before the game began, Stephenson did some desultory stretching and hoisted a few flat-footed shots. With his chiseled frame and fierce eyes, he possessed a quiet but obvious charisma. Still, his teammates seemed not so much inspired by as wary of him, and they gave him a wide berth. It had been a trying season thus far. Playing an ambitious schedule that included matchups against high school powers from Texas, Alabama, and California, the Railsplitters had already lost eight games--four more than they had in the entire previous season. Stephenson's personal performance had suffered, too. Although he was still scoring gobs of points, he wasn't scoring them in the emphatic manner to which he was accustomed. Rather than rim-rattling dunks and assertive drives to the basket, he was getting his points off pull-up jumpers and put-backs. "I haven't seen Lance play his game once this year," his father, Lance Stephenson Sr., complained. "If he even makes a move to the basket, the refs call him for a foul. Everyone just be flopping. It makes him so tentative, he's afraid to play his game."
In the moments before the opening tip, however, whatever tentativeness had been plaguing Stephenson seemed to evaporate. His posture went from slumped to coiled, as he paced around the center court circle, glaring at the Boys & Girls players. And, although Boys & Girls won the opening tap, it took Stephenson all of ten seconds to steal the ball from one of his opponents and race down the court for a ferocious tomahawk dunk. As the ball bounced on the floor around his ankles, he flexed his arms and let out a scream that echoed off the gym's faded-brick walls. Those would be the first two of his 29 points in the game--many of which were tallied in a similarly resounding fashion. When the final buzzer sounded, Lincoln had prevailed 64 to 54. Stephenson was surrounded on the court by a gaggle of reporters. "We ain't no losing team," he said, sweat still dripping from his face. "I feel very confident for the city championship."
Stephenson was accustomed to making these sorts of pronouncements to the press. Although basketball no longer occupies a central place in the life of the city, New York's high school players retain enough of their old mystique to be the focus of intense media scrutiny--especially from the growing number of magazines and websites dedicated to chronicling schoolboy basketball stars. Indeed, the most popular theory among hoops cognoscenti for why so many New York City high school phenoms have been flaming out in college or the pros is that they were never that good to begin with. "They create them to be these mythical figures when they're in high school and then, when they get to college or the pros, some of them turn out to be just ordinary players," says Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker impresario who for years hosted summer camps and tournaments for America's top high school players. "A lot of times, they're just overhyped."
But the hype can do more than artificially inflate a player's reputation. It can also cause him to overestimate his own abilities and fail to work on improving them. "I now see kids who I consider mid-and low-Division I prospects walking around with posses," says Gary Charles, the director of an AAU (i.e. non-school) team called the New York Panthers. "A kid's not going to listen to a coach telling him he's got to get better if everyone else is telling him he's already great." It's become so bad that, in recent years, an increasing number of elite New York players have been leaving the city--either to go to faraway prep schools or Catholic schools in northern New Jersey. "Even though they're right across the river, I don't think the kids in Jersey are playing with the same media attention and the same pressures that come in New York," says Kimani Young, who is on the basketball staff at St. John's University and was a star at Queens's Forest Hills High School in the early 1990s.
Most damaging of all, the media glare can magnify a New York player's struggles. While high school stars in other cities are generally free to make mistakes out of the public eye, in New York nothing is private. Stephenson, who for a time allowed a video crew to trail him for an online reality show about his life called "Born Ready," has learned that the hard way. Last October, after he was charged in the groping incident, he found a photographer from the Daily News waiting outside his house--leading to a picture of him in the paper strolling to his car, as if he were doing a perp walk.
The day after the victory over Boys & Girls, I went back to Lincoln to attend the Railsplitters' practice. Stephenson's father had told me to meet him and his wife, Bernadette, there so that we could talk more about their son. This didn't sit well with Lincoln's coach, Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, who evidently hadn't wanted any visitors at the session, but he grudgingly acceded to my presence. As I would learn, the relationship between the coach and his star player's family was a fraught one. Morton, who played point guard at Lincoln in the mid-'80s and has been the school's coach since 1995, was accustomed to managing the process through which his star players went on to the next stage of their basketball careers. In 2004, he helped Telfair chart a course directly from Lincoln to the NBA and a multimillion-dollar shoe contract with Adidas. But because Morton often seemed to do well for himself along the way--not long before Telfair signed with Adidas, the shoe company made Morton a consultant and reportedly agreed to a lucrative deal with his AAU team--the Stephensons, according to those familiar with the situation, feared he wouldn't put their son's best interests first, so they'd frozen him out of Lance's college decision-making process. "Tiny would like to have a lot of say in it," says one recruiting analyst, "but he's not going to have any say in it. It's pretty much just Lance's family."
Lance Sr. and Bernadette sat in a couple of school-desk chairs in a corner of the gym, while Lance did some shooting drills with his teammates; their other child, a two-year-old boy named Lantz, darted on and off the court, retrieving loose balls.
How old was Lance when he started playing basketball? I asked.
"He came out playing," Lance Sr. replied, giving new meaning to his son's nickname. "I mean, I can't even remember when he couldn't play. He always knew how to dribble. He picked it up, just like him"--he pointed at Lantz, who was right then dribbling a ball and displaying a shockingly good handle for a toddler--"at an early age."
Lance Sr., who works on and off as a heating plant technician, played basketball for Brooklyn's Lafayette High School in the mid-'80s. "We were like the third place team," he said. He'd wanted to play on the perimeter, but his 6'5" frame--which earned him the moniker "Stretch"--led his coach to stick him under the basket. Now, although Stretch is still a young man at 39, it's clear that the athletic ambitions he once had for himself are invested in Lance--and have been for some time. When Little Lance, as his parents called him, was a baby, his father held him in his arms and told him he was "gonna be a superstar. " By the time Lance was ready for high school, he was talented enough (one scouting service had ranked him as the number-one sixth grader in America) that he could have landed a scholarship to any of the various prep schools across the country that specialize in grooming future NBA players, to say nothing of some of the Catholic school powerhouses in New York City or just across the river in New Jersey. But Stretch had something else in mind, and he sent him to Lincoln. "We came in with a plan," he explained. "And our plan was to come in here, play well, win from day one, win four city championships, get the New York scoring record, and to leave."
The plan has entailed sacrifices. When Lincoln left New York to play against some of the powerful prep schools Lance had spurned, Stretch couldn't believe the resources those schools had at their disposal: While Lincoln didn't even have a trainer, these prep schools boasted whirlpools and ultrasound machines. He was also concerned about the quality of the coaching Lance had received. "I think Tiny does a good job with what he gets or whatever, but he only gets the kids from 4:30 to 6:30," Stretch told me. "That's not enough time to develop anybody." Even worse, Stretch believed Lance's outsized success on the New York stage had caused people to turn against his son. "Right now, Lance is playing against everybody, not just the opposing team. He's playing against the referees, he's playing against his own team," Stretch said. "At the end of the games, when they announce, 'MVP, Lance Stephenson,' man, people are tired of that shit. ... He's like the Yankees now."
Which made Stretch George Steinbrenner. His involvement in his son's life is extensive. He and Bernadette, who works for the city's housing authority, are at virtually all of Lance's games and many of his practices. "I'm the one that do all the thinking for him," Stretch explained. "He just concentrates on playing. ... I even tell him, 'Don't even talk to the refs.' I say that I'll get at 'em for you from the bleachers." This involvement is viewed by many as meddling, and, in the basketball world, Stretch has become something of a villain. "There is a cloud around the family," one recruiting analyst told me. Stretch was incredulous about such criticism. "It's a mom and a dad here, it's not just a mom by herself, and I guess people don't like that," he said. "Hell, I thought that was the thing to do, but when you get in the middle of this, you find out that people look at me as a nuisance." The criticism only made him and Bernadette draw a tighter circle around Lance. And, if this meant that, along with keeping at bay those who wanted to exploit their son, they also turned away those who truly did want to help him, then so be it. "We came in strong as a unit, the same unit. We only added one new member, and that's the baby," Stretch said. "No one else is gonna infiltrate."
And yet, despite all these sacrifices, despite his feeling of having to be constantly on guard, almost paranoid, about the people around his son, Stretch was actually happy with how things were turning out. Lance was just a few more 20-plus-point performances away from breaking Telfair's scoring record, and, after yesterday's game, the Railsplitters seemed to be rounding into form to make their run for a fourth straight city championship. Stretch pointed to a gaudy ring with an L surrounded by blue stones that he was wearing on his right hand, one of the three his son had received for his city titles. "I'm always telling people, 'You all wish you could do this!'"
Practice had ended about 15 minutes earlier, and the gym was now empty except for Stretch, me, and Lance, who, unlike his father, is known for his reticence and was sitting on the floor a few feet from us, texting on his cell phone. Stretch looked over at his son: "I told him his freshman year in high school [after he won his first city championship], 'If your career ended today, you did more than I ever did for basketball.' And that's the truth. So he already exceeded what I did, by far." He couldn't fathom Lance achieving these things anywhere else. Although he had dreams of Lance making the NBA and taking the family out of Coney Island, the most important thing to Stretch, it seemed, was his son earning a place in the pantheon of New York high school basketball. The mythology of the city game, as tattered and decrepit as it may be, was still powerful to him, and, because of that, his son, in some ways, had become a prisoner to it. "If you're gonna do it, you gotta do it in New York," Stretch said. "It was never a doubt. It couldn't be no other city."
Nine days later, Stephenson broke the scoring record, going for 24 points in Lincoln's win in the Brooklyn Borough Championship game. That victory gave the Railsplitters their customary top seed in the PSAL playoffs, featuring the city's 16 best teams.
After the Railsplitters' quarterfinal game at St. John's University--in which they held off a scrappy but undermanned vocational school called East New York Transit--a tall white man in a pressed Oxford shirt named Tom Konchalski waited outside the teams' locker rooms. When the Transit players emerged, he invited the seniors to try out for "the scholarship game"--an event he helps run for New York City players who do not yet have college scholarship offers. When he saw the Lincoln players, many of whom already have such offers, he congratulated them on their win. Every player, including Stephenson, shook Konchalski's hand and gave him his full attention.
Konchalski, who is 62 years old, has been a fixture at New York City basketball games for more than half a century. As a boy growing up in Queens, he and his older brother would take the subway all over the city to watch Connie Hawkins on New York's playgrounds. And, although Konchalski himself never played the game--"The most athletic thing I've ever done in my life is jump to a conclusion," he likes to say--he developed a keen eye for talent. Today, he publishes something called the HSBI Report, a newsletter he sends to about 220 college coaches, who pay $400 per year for his assessments of high school players.
When Konchalski quit his job teaching junior high math to write for the newsletter in the early '80s, New York City high school basketball was in the middle of a golden era, oftentimes having as many as three teams ranked in USA Today's top 25. Konchalski, who does not drive, was able to fill up much of the publication simply by riding the subway from game to game. But, with New York's basketball fortunes having declined, you're now just as likely to see Konchalski taking notes on a yellow legal pad in a gym in D.C. or Philly or the Tidewater of Virginia as you are in New York; he's become intimately familiar with Amtrak and the Eastern Seaboard's regional rail systems, as well as an expert at bumming rides. (He refuses, however, to own a computer, a cell phone, or even an answering machine; he writes his newsletter on a typewriter and sends it out using snail mail.) "The game was initially an urban game and an Eastern game," he says, "but it's a national game now."
Konchalski first met Stephenson when Lance was ten years old and was introduced to the scout as "the fourth best fourth-grader in New York City." ("I'd like to see who the top three were," Konchalski says now.) Since then, he's tracked Stephenson's progress and has occasionally offered him advice. When Stephenson was on the verge of getting cut from the USA Under-18 team this past summer for his bad attitude, the team's coaches asked Konchalski to have a word with the young star. Konchalski recalls, "I said, 'Listen, Lance, what's going to determine how far you go in this game and what's going to determine how far you go in life is not your skills or how much you improve your shooting, it's how you learn to deal with frustration and adversity when things don't go well for you.'" After the talk, Stephenson had his best practice of the tryouts. According to Konchalski, "Jim Boeheim said to me, 'What did you tell him? And can you put that on a tape so we can play it back for him?'" Alas, Stephenson returned to his earlier poor form in subsequent practices and was cut a few days later.
Konchalski, who goes to daily Mass and reads First Things on his train rides between games, forgives Stephenson for this and other trespasses. "I don't think Lance is a bad kid, I think he has bad body language," he told me in between bites of matzoh ball soup in a diner across the street from St. John's. "I think he has matured. He still has a way to go, but I think he's really trying, and that's all you can ask."
The scout had any number of ideas as to why New York's basketball fortunes had declined. Part of it was the hype machine. Another problem, he believed, was talent dilution. Not only were good players now leaving New York for New Jersey and for prep schools, but the ones who were staying were being spread too thinly across the city. He mentioned that last year there were 180 varsity boys basketball teams in the PSAL. "Banana Kelly is the name of one school," Konchalski said. "Urban Peace is the name of another one. Shouldn't that be a given? Urban Peace? Who's their rival? Guerrilla Warfare?" It was impossible to cover that many teams with quality coaches, not to mention quality teammates.
Indeed, the problem of talent dilution is perhaps even more pronounced on the summer AAU circuit (which is, in some ways, more important than the high school season in terms of college recruiting). In the 1980s and '90s, New York City had two dominant AAU programs, the Riverside Hawks in Harlem and the Gauchos in the Bronx. But, about ten years ago, the teams came under a cloud when the founders of both programs were accused of sexual misconduct. Although the allegations were never proven in either case, the controversy cracked the teams' monopoly, and it wasn't long before competing AAU squads were springing up all over the city--many of which were one-man teams. "You'll have a guy who thinks he's found a kid who's going to be the next great NBA player, and then he'll go around the neighborhood and get eight other kids and then create a program based around that one young man," says the New York Panthers' Gary Charles. "And then, he'll make a phone call saying, 'Can I get a shoe contract?'" Stephenson himself became part of this phenomenon. After playing several seasons for the Juice All-Stars, an Adidas-sponsored team that's run by Tiny Morton, last summer he left to play for a new Adidas-sponsored club called Raising Champions, which was founded by Stretch. "If a sneaker company wants a kid, getting his high school coach is good," says Ron Naclerio, who coaches at Cardozo High School in Queens, "but getting the kid's father is even better."
At the diner, Konchalski pondered the various theories. He believed they each held some truth, but, taken as a whole, they seemed unsatisfying. He was as perplexed as anyone about what was wrong with New York City basketball. He took comfort in the fact that "every year there are a ton of low- to mid-Division I players coming out of New York City"--the kinds of kids who'd soon be playing in the scholarship game. And yet, he knew that something with New York basketball was broken. The game wasn't at the center of the city's life as it once had been. First, in the 1950s and '60s, the white middle class had left the city for Long Island and Westchester County and, in the process of becoming suburbanized, lost interest in the game. And now, even in the inner-city neighborhoods where the game had thrived, Konchalski believed its popularity was flagging. When he walked by playgrounds, the courts weren't as full as they used to be. "There are so many more leisure options for kids," he said.
Worst of all, he'd reached the reluctant conclusion that the New York basketball culture he grew up in--the culture he loved--was now more of a hindrance than a help to a player who had dreams of becoming a star. "Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn," he said, "but, if he hadn't moved to North Carolina when he was a little boy, he wouldn't have been Michael Jordan." Konchalski seemed pained by this. "If he'd stayed in New York," he continued, "he would have been spoiled, he would have lost his hunger, he would have become complacent. And he would have had to have been a celebrity, he would have had to have been Michael Jackson in addition to Michael Jordan. He would have become a performance artist, and he would have cared a lot less."
Jordan, who's responsible for some of the greatest basketball performances in Madison Square Garden's history, didn't play at "The World's Most Famous Arena" until he was a freshman in college. Stephenson first played at the Garden when he was a freshman in high school. It's one of the few perks afforded to players in the PSAL: Every year, the two teams that advance through the playoffs to the city championship game get to face each other in the Garden. Any player would be excited for a championship game, but Stephenson said the arena itself, with its history and aura, inspired him to raise his game to an even higher level. As a sophomore, he scored 29 points in Lincoln's championship game victory. As a junior, he went for 27. "I just get hyped," Stephenson told me a few weeks before this year's championship game, trying to explain what came over him when he played in the Garden. "All of a sudden, it's like, I don't miss shots there."
A little before noon on a Saturday in late March, Stephenson took the floor for his final city championship game. If there was any doubt that he would perform as he had in the past at the Garden, it was erased almost immediately. His first shot--an 18-foot jumper from the baseline--swished cleanly through the net. He scored his next basket just a few seconds later off a steal and a layup. Not long after that, he stripped the ball from his opponent under the basket and dribbled the length of the court, slaloming through defenders, before taking off just inside the foul line and gracefully banking the ball off the backboard and into the hoop. At one point, the opposing team, John F. Kennedy High School, had 14 points, while Stephenson had 16. Although foul trouble would eventually limit him to just eight more points, he'd delivered the knockout blow so early that Kennedy could never recover, and, when the game was over, Lincoln had won its fourth straight city title, 78 to 56. Stephenson was now an icon.
Not that many people in New York noticed. Most of the Garden's 19,000 seats were empty for Stephenson's historic achievement. Ever since a brawl broke out between fans at the city championship game two years ago, the Garden had allowed the PSAL to play the game there only on the condition that ticket sales to the general public were prohibited; instead, each school was given 500 tickets and the PSAL a few thousand to distribute to guests. Even if the general public had been invited, it's not clear many people would have bothered showing up. The public interest in high school basketball in the city just isn't there anymore. As a New York Post writer told me after the game, Stephenson's record fourth championship would merit just 500 words in the next day's paper, buried "behind the Yankees, the NCAA tournament, and anything else that happens today." While that might be more than a high school star in most cities could ever expect, it paled in comparison to the attention showered on the New York legends whom Stephenson had theoretically just surpassed.
At that moment, though, Stephenson seemed unaware of how far the game's stature had fallen in the city. He sat in a chair and cried while his mother cradled his head and a teammate whispered in his ear, "You did it, boy!" Eventually, he regained his composure, and, while his teammates danced and hugged on the court, he stood apart from them and tried to put into words what he felt he'd achieved. He was unusually voluble. "I wanted four cities more than anything," Stephenson said. "I wanted to do this since eighth grade. I saw Sebastian get three, I'm like, 'I want to beat him, I want to get more.'" A man who worked for the Garden tried to break up the mini-press conference--there was a Rangers hockey game in a few hours, and the basketball court needed to be replaced with an ice rink--but Stephenson wasn't finished. He talked about the standard he'd set for other New York City high school players and how hard it would be for them to match. "I don't think nobody will ever do that again," he predicted, "because it takes work, you gotta be focused, you gotta be dedicated to the basketball."
Then Stephenson's thoughts turned to the future. He said that in ten days he'd announce where he was going to college--either to Kansas, Maryland, or St. John's. And, after college, the NBA. He was confident about what lay ahead. "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready," he said. "I'm born ready for all challenges. " He began to talk about his teammates and how much they meant to him, but the Garden employee was back. "Guys, please, we've got a hockey game," the man said. Stephenson resumed his reverie. "Lance, stop talking," the employee snapped. And, with that, Stephenson's moment came to an end. He walked off the court and, he hoped, into history.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.