It has been a good spring for Lance Stephenson.
He was a central piece of the Indiana Pacers' surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals; he is the centerpiece of the relaunch of an iconic basketball brand; he has helped kick-start some youth programs in his native Brooklyn; he is having his jersey retired by his high school; Larry Bird loves him—heck, he was even the surprise guest at an Indianapolis prom.
His biggest issue these days?
“We gotta figure out the laces,” he jokingly said about his signature AND1 shoes. “Sometimes they are too long.”
Those are some of the minor details the 6'5" swingman mulled over as he watched the Heat and Spurs go to an epic Game 7 in this week’s NBA Finals, a Finals which, with a few bounces the right way, could have featured the Pacers.
For the guy nicknamed “Born Ready,” watching this year is alright, but planning for a future on basketball’s biggest stage is where his focus is.
“We knew what we were capable of doing this year, even when others did not,” he said. “Were we surprised how far we went? No. Our goal was to play aggressive, play smart and take care of the ball. It was not about being stars, it was about winning games, and we definitely made progress this year.”
So did Stephenson, who went from being something of an unknown quantity for the squad to a stalwart defender and multifaceted offensive player, who became a key member of Indiana’s success.
While some were surprised by Stephenson's success, Hall of Famer Larry Bird was not. He has been one of Stephenson's most loyal defenders and confidantes since the team took him with the 40th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
Bird and Stephenson have an ongoing dialogue about his on and off court demeanor, and he said those talks and texts helped him to improve his game and adjust to life in Indiana this past winter.
“Larry has been an inspiration to me, we have similar values in what is needed to succeed, and he constantly reminded me all season to work on various parts of my game, to listen to the coaches and to stay focused on basketball.
“Every week he would give me little tips about defending a player or handling a situation, and those little things really helped change things,” Stephenson said.
Change for Stephenson came not just from basketball, but in his living arrangement as well. While some players from the hard courts of the inner city might have trouble fitting into the Midwestern environment of Indianapolis, Stephenson loved the change.
“The people, the fans, have all been great, it's like family, very few distractions that you would have playing in a big market and that’s what I needed, to concentrate on basketball and help the Pacers win.”
Stephenson also found ample time to help in the community both in Indianapolis and back in New York. He has been a regular at Pacers community events when kids have been involved, and, in New York, he founded his own youth program, giving young people the opportunity to exceed both in basketball and in the classroom.
He also stepped into another unique role in Indiana this past Spring, creating the “Ultimate Prom Experience,” picking up all the expenses for a local high school couple who had written to him—one of several thousand—for the chance to have all expenses paid for their special night out.
“Her story (Megan Conlin) was special to me,” he said. “She talked from the heart about some of her struggles in life, many of which I could relate to from growing up, and it was an honor to help them out.”
All that hard work and dedication on and off the court paid off with when Stephenson linked up with a key business partner, the relaunched AND1 brand this past year.
AND1, founded, 20 years ago in Philadelphia, has undergone a dramatic rebranding under new ownership which sought to recapture the presence the company had with the rise of streetball.
Stephenson became their first NBA player since Rafer Alston, and the latest in a line that has included Vince Carter and Stephon Marbury when the brand was in its heyday. His rise on the court and in the community fit in perfectly with AND1’s new positioning, and he has been an integral part of the new marketing vision for the company.
“They were there when no one else was, a company that came along and gave me a chance, and it is a pleasure to be associated with AND1, a brand we grew up with, as they make their move again,” he said.
Some of those moves will take place in the coming weeks, as the brand looks for new faces for its signature streetball series with a number of open tryouts this summer, and refits the thousands of kids who play in the legendary St. Francis DeSales Summer League in Rockaway, a league which has given rise to stars like Kenny Smith, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin, but was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
Stephenson will also be back in Brooklyn this weekend for yet another honor: seeing his jersey join very hallowed ground at Lincoln High School in an alumni ceremony. He remains New York State’s all-time leading scorer in high school basketball (2,946 points), with four city basketball championships with Lincoln, a New York State Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American Team selection in 2009.
“The values I learned at Lincoln with Coach [Dwayne "Tiny"] Morton, that’s where all this came from,” he said. “Without getting my start there, I would never be where I am today.”
Where he is, is at the cusp of greatness for a team many labeled as "throwback" by some and “exciting” by others, as the NBA season unfolded. For now, Stephenson is looking forward to hitting the courts around New York, working with AND1 on its promotional events and getting ready for the fall.
Jerry Milani is a featured writer at Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted.