POLITICS JULY 14, 2009
Finally, Lance Stephenson, the New York City high school basketball star I wrote about in March, has decided where he's going to college: the University of Cincinnati. I say "finally" because Stephenson's college decision came long after every other major recruit’s and some three months after he originally said he would make it. In that time, he saw his reputation--which was not exactly great to begin with--take even more of a beating, with one basketball writer going so far (or so low) as to liken him to "a supermodel with herpes." As the New York Daily News reported shortly before Stephenson committed to Cincinnati, there were a number of factors that were causing college coaches to steer clear of him--from an unresolved groping charge to questions about whether he'd been paid for an online reality show about his life, thus jeopardizing his NCAA eligibility. But the number one reason so many colleges were wary of Stephenson was his dad, Lance Sr., who goes by the nickname "Stretch." As an assistant coach for one Big East school told the Daily News: "If it wasn't for his father, I think Lance might have picked a school by now."
The story I wrote about Stephenson focused on the question of whether living in New York City was ultimately a hindrance to becoming a basketball star, but it just as easily could have explored whether having an active, involved father served as an obstacle to basketball greatness. In Stephenson's case, the two issues were certainly linked: The main reason Lance hadn't left New York to attend high school elsewhere, as so many other talented players from the city have in recent years, was because Stretch was obsessed with his son winning four city titles. But I think the issue of paternal involvement--in Stephenson's case, and in others--is bigger and more profound than that.
As Stretch complained when I spoke to him for my story, his presence in his son's life was viewed negatively by a lot of people in the basketball world. "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." Which is an understandable view: He can be an ornery, domineering figure; a Little League dad who believes his son's talents are greater than they are--even though, in his son's case, those talents are quite considerable. (My favorite Stretch quote came in response to a negative Washington Post story about him and his son: “Well, The Washington Post’s opinion is like an asshole. Everybody got one. It’s just opinion.”)
But a bigger reason Stretch is viewed as a nuisance is because, frankly, he makes it his business to be one. He's fiercely protective of his son, who, due to his basketball talents, has no shortage of people (both well- and ill-intentioned) offering him their assistance. While many basketball prodigies have a high school coach or a summer league coach or an agent or even a mortgage broker manage their college recruiting process--especially if, as is often the case, these prodigies are being raised by a single mother--Stretch has kept all these wannabe uncles and godfathers away from his son. He's shooed them away because, in trying to look out for his son’s and his family’s best interests, he’s decided to run the show. And, frankly, that's been Lance's biggest problem: His dad has done a terrible job of it.
This isn't necessarily a knock on Stretch. Managing the college recruitment (and, by extension, the future pro prospects) of a high school basketball star is a daunting task. With so many different people playing so different many angles, you need a lot of street smarts, if not a law or business degree, to do it right. Stretch, alas, has showed that he lacks all of these things. His biggest mistake was how he handled the timing of the announcement of his son's college decision. In March, Lance apparently decided he wanted to go to Kansas and was set to announce his choice at the McDonald's All-American game. But right around the time of the McDonald's game, John Calipari announced he was leaving his job as Memphis head coach to take the same job at Kentucky. What did this have to do with Lance? Everything. Calipari's decision to leave Memphis meant that all of the incoming freshman he'd recruited there were suddenly free agents--including Xavier Henry, who plays the same position as Lance, whose parents both attended Kansas, and who came close to committing to Kansas before ultimately being won over by Calipari to go to Memphis. As soon as the rumors that Calipari was thinking of leaving Memphis began to spread, Stretch should have had Lance announce right there on the spot that he was going to Kansas. Instead, he had Lance wait, Calipari left Memphis, causing Henry to decommit from Memphis, and Kansas wound up offering Lance's scholarship to Henry, who took it.
Once Lance saw his offer from Kansas disappear, things got worse. The groping charge against him, which stems from an incident last September, continued to hang over his head (and scare away college coaches), as his lawyer--apparently a friend of Stretch’s--failed to get the case settled or dismissed. (Last week, after multiple adjournments, Stephenson finally pled guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct.) There were also continued questions about his son’s participation in the online reality show--questions that Stretch, and the website’s owners, failed to clear up. And, of course, as these problems mounted, coaches apparently became ever more wary of Stretch, wondering how difficult he would make their lives if his son was playing for them in the fall. If someone else had been running Lance’s recruitment, even someone who was trying to exploit him, my guess is that none of these things would have been a problem--if only because it was in that person’s own self-interest to take care of them, and he would have had the savvy and experience to do so. He would have had Lance move up his announcement so he didn’t get aced out of his first college choice; he would have gotten him a better lawyer; he would have put to rest any questions about the website; and he would have reassured the coaches that he wouldn’t be in their ears once Lance was playing for them. (“Hell, Lance isn’t my kid.”) But Stretch couldn’t do those things.
And that’s the shame of this situation--that the world of big-time college basketball is so screwed up that being a good father isn’t necessarily a sufficient qualification for doing right by your son. Because it’s not just Lance Stephenson. Renardo Sidney, another supremely talented soon-to-be college freshman who’s had an almost equally disastrous college recruiting experience, has a similarly involved father. And even Xavier Henry--the guy who took Lance's spot at Kansas--has had a bumpy recruiting road paved by his dad. You’d think that having a son with the potential to make millions playing basketball--or, at the very least, get a free college education--would make things easier for a family. But that often isn’t the case. In fact, it almost seems as if the world of big-time basketball is set up to penalize kids who have involved fathers--since the system seems to run most efficiently when the player is being exploited. Since no good father wants to see his son exploited, it’s only natural that he’d gum up the system. Barack Obama may be urging "fathers to step up," but when they do in basketball, bad things tend to happen.
Maybe things will still work out for Lance Stephenson in the end. There are worse places to play college basketball than Cincinnati (although, by the time he decided to go there, it was pretty much the only school interested in taking him). With any luck, he'll play well enough in his freshman year that he'll be able to go to the pros next summer--which is where he'd be right now if it weren't for the NBA's one-and-done rule. And, hopefully, as Lance gets older, he'll be able to manage his own life and won't need his father to handle his affairs for him. But until then, I just hope that no matter how much of a pain in the ass Stretch is, he--and his son--aren't penalized too much for his stepping up.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.