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Charlotte's Move for Lance Stephenson Reunites NYC Rivals on NBA Stage

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterOctober 10, 2014

David Dow/Getty Images

"Don't go on that flight. We're going to Vegas."

Those were the words Lance Stephenson remembers his agent, Alberto Ebanks, telling him on July 15 as the then-free agent was about to board a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles to attend the ESPYs the following day. The reason for the last-minute change: a pivotal dinner meeting with the Charlotte Hornets' front office. Stephenson, who had been in San Francisco doing motion capture for the NBA 2K15 video game, checked into his Las Vegas hotel just 15 minutes before the meeting started.

The detour would prove to change the 24-year-old shooting guard's career, provide the improving Hornets a free-agent boost and spark a unique friendship between Stephenson and point guard Kemba Walker, the last two high school stars out of New York City to shine in the NBA.   

The immediacy of the meeting didn't fully represent how Stephenson and Ebanks felt about the Hornets. Entering free agency, they had actually pinpointed the team as a serious option for a few reasons: It had made the playoffs last season for the first time in four years, it had a void on the perimeter (and a welcoming NYC connection in Walker), and it could pay him more than his former team, the Indiana Pacers.

The priority, however, was Indiana, where Stephenson started his career in 2010 and developed into one of the game's most complete young guards—even leading the league last season in triple-doubles (five).

But according to Ebanks, the Pacers' pitch for a five-year contract wasn't sufficient financially, and they wouldn't offer a two- or three-year deal (the Pacers reportedly couldn't exceed the luxury tax, according to Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star). Ebanks wanted the quick out for the chance at a potential bigger paycheck for Stephenson in 2016, when the NBA's television rights will increase (announced on Monday) and add sizable income, or 2017, when players and owners can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement.

The Dallas Mavericks, though, were interested in Ebanks' terms. By the weekend of July 11, both sides had verbally committed to a two-year contract worth slightly more than Stephenson's eventual deal with the Hornets, according to Ebanks. But Dallas was in a holding pattern; the Houston Rockets first had to match Chandler Parsons' Mavericks offer, or it wouldn't happen.

"It was a domino effect," Ebanks said. "Dallas did not think that Houston was going to let Parsons walk. Lance was very close to being a member of the Mavericks. When you're a little further along into free agency, people are more in the position to pull the trigger when they see what they're looking for."

For the Hornets, that was Stephenson. They had made a play for Gordon Hayward, but once their offer to him was matched by the Utah Jazz on July 14, the next name on general manager Rich Cho's board was Stephenson. That led to the hastily scheduled dinner meeting in Las Vegas. And the Hornets arrived ready to close the deal.

The great Michael Jordan and Hornets owner was in unique form over the summer: in a free-agent meeting to court Lance Stephenson. And he got his man.
The great Michael Jordan and Hornets owner was in unique form over the summer: in a free-agent meeting to court Lance Stephenson. And he got his man.Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Not only were Cho, head coach Steve Clifford, associate head coach Patrick Ewing and vice chairman Curtis Polk present, but also owner Michael Jordan. When Stephenson and Ebanks walked into the restaurant at the ARIA, Jordan surprised them at the table (note: he wasn't at last summer's team meeting with then-marquee free agent Al Jefferson). Neither Stephenson nor Ebanks had ever met Jordan. And neither were prepared for what he was about to say to Stephenson: "You can be something special," Ebanks recalled.

"When I shook [Jordan's] hand, I was shaking," Stephenson said. "I was very nervous because that's like everybody in the world who played basketball's idol. I thought I would never meet Michael Jordan, but when I finally met him and talked to him and got to know him, that was the best feeling ever."

"I thought that [Jordan] set the tone for the meeting with his initial remarks," Clifford said, "where he explained to Lance why he liked him so much as a player and how much he thought he could help our team here. Also, the types of things that [Jordan] thought he needed to do to take his game to the next level."

A key factor concerned Stephenson's behavior, which last season saw him get into an altercation during a Pacers practice with Evan Turner—"It was a heated situation, but no punches were thrown," his former teammate Chris Copeland said—and blow into LeBron James' ear during the Eastern Conference finals.

Kemba Walker had played against Stephenson in high school and was eager to make him a teammate in Charlotte.
Kemba Walker had played against Stephenson in high school and was eager to make him a teammate in Charlotte.Michael Perez/Associated Press

"The message to Lance [in the meeting] was, 'You're so talented. Let your playing ability do the talking. You don't want some of this off-court stuff to overshadow your playing ability,'" Cho said.

Before the Hornets made their expectations clear, they did some homework. The day of the meeting, Clifford called Walker, who had competed against Stephenson in New York City from around sixth grade through high school, to get his thoughts on the free agent. Walker was very positive.

"I'm not worried at all about Lance," Walker said. "There's nothing wrong with him. He doesn't say much; he's quiet. He just likes to have fun. When I saw [him blowing into James' ear], I'm like, 'That's nothing new.' Lance has been doing that for years. It's just that he's on a big stage, so everybody is going to always have something to say about it.

"Lance just gets excited, and he loves to play the game of basketball. Basically he's trying to do whatever he can do to win a basketball game, and there's nothing wrong with that. I could care less if he blows into somebody's ear. He played very well in the playoffs last season, so he'll be fine, especially with the off-the-court stuff. I don't think he'll get in much trouble at all."

With that optimism in mind, the team and client decided to get a deal done that night. After the dinner, Cho and Ebanks worked together on finalizing terms, and by around 3 a.m. on July 16, a three-year, $27 million contract was complete.

Hornets GM Rich Cho inside his office at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
Hornets GM Rich Cho inside his office at the Time Warner Cable Arena.Jared Zwerling

Stephenson said it was "scary and tough" leaving Indiana because that's "all I know"—he said he even cried when he told the team—but he couldn't pass up a "bigger role" on an emerging team in the Eastern Conference, along with the additional money.

In the end, the Hornets had landed a top free agent for a second straight year (after signing Jefferson in 2013) and created one of the more intriguing starting backcourts in the league with the potential for instant chemistry.

***

Stephenson and Walker played against each other in AAU and the New York state high school tournament (Stephenson's squad went 2-0, including winning the 2007 championship), and they've teamed up on the city's playground courts through the years.

"When I saw the opportunity with the Hornets, I knew that backcourt was going to be sick, knowing that I would play with Kemba," said Stephenson, who went to Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. "He was so competitive [in high school], and every time we played against them it was a tough game. I feel like with our quickness and our handles, and the way that we make plays for our teammates, it's going to be tough for a lot of guards to guard us."

Walker during his days at national powerhouse Rice High School, which closed in 2011 due to financial problems that have plagued other schools in New York City.
Walker during his days at national powerhouse Rice High School, which closed in 2011 due to financial problems that have plagued other schools in New York City.Mike Groll/Associated Press

"I just remember he used to always kill us [in high school]," said Walker, who attended Rice High School in Harlem. "He was always bigger than everybody and stronger than everybody, so we had nobody to really guard him. We had some pretty good battles. He's always been super-competitive and he's always been a winner, so you can't beat that."

The two represent the celebrated and changing basketball environment of New York City. Once a hotbed for high school basketball, the landscape has lost some of its charm, a decline precipitated by ever-tightening budgets, the bigger recruiting business and the lure of lavish prep schools that offer a more competitive student-athlete curriculum.

Up until the last decade, most of the city's top public and Catholic high schools for basketball showcased a collection of the country's best talent. This year, just one New York City high school player ranked in the ESPN 100 class, Isaiah Whitehead. The others from the city—Angel Delgado, Terry Larrier and Chris McCullough—all graduated from outside prep schools. In next year's ESPN 100 class, there are none from the city.

"[Stephenson and I] know how important it is to play together—not only for the Hornets, but for us being from New York," Walker said. "Everyone says New York is kind of falling apart as far as basketball players and stuff like that. So it's pretty cool to be on the same team. There hasn't really been a New York backcourt like ours, so for me and him to get this opportunity to play with each other, it's pretty cool."

The excitement came the day Stephenson signed, when Walker posted a photograph on Instagram of both of them from a high school game with the words "Who woulda ever thought we would be teammates! NY boys!"

"That's the buzz around New York," said Royal Ivey, a native New Yorker and former NBA veteran who is now the assistant coach for the D-League's Oklahoma City Blue. "[Stephenson and Walker] basically have New York on their backs right now. [The city's basketball's issues] are bigger than Lance and Kemba, but at the end of the day, they're holding a lot of weight, too. If they play well, then New York is relevant again."

***

Despite their shared past, the future for Stephenson and Walker is in North Carolina.

"I love Charlotte," Walker said. "I'm more reserved and calm and laid back, and this city is slow."

So slow that on a Wednesday afternoon in late September, Ewing, one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, could be found walking down East Trade Street alongside Time Warner Cable Arena all by himself—with only a security guard in sight overseeing the garage where players' cars enter. Before heading into the No Grease! barber shop, Ewing says, with his trademark wide smile, "Hard to do this in New York!"

But what the city vibe doesn't give off is what's brewing inside the arena: a new beehive-looking court with two tones of shiny hardwood and a rebranded and uniformed team (post-Bobcats) that features a roster deep in effective role players, devoted to defense (they ranked fifth-best in defensive rating last season according to Basketball Reference) and committed to Charlotte (many stuck around town in the summer for workouts).

It's a roster that also features one of the best low-post players in the game in Al Jefferson (21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game last season). Now healthy after straining his left plantar fascia in last season's playoffs, the Hornets' go-to player has been working with Ewing on his right-block moves (last season, for example, he had 139 fewer attempts on the right side of the court, according to sports data visualization website Vorped.com).

Then there's the New Yorkers. Stephenson, who finished second in Most Improved Player voting last season, was one of only four players to average 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists (the others were Kevin Love, Kevin Durant and Nicolas Batum). And Walker maintained his consistent play, averaging 17.7 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds. Both focused on jumpers and three-pointers during summer workouts.

"Both of them are tough," Jefferson said. "That's one thing about New York guys, man. They only know one way to play."

Regarding Stephenson, Copeland knows how much he'll be missed in Indiana.

"I think he's misunderstood," Copeland said. "It's just his presence, man. I think we're going to miss that, whether it's his competitive nature or that fun-loving guy that you need sometimes in the long haul of a season. It's a grind. His presence altogether is something that will be missed here and help Charlotte."

Even with his much-discussed antics, Stephenson tries to exude an all-business air on the court—wherever that court is. At a star-studded pickup game over the summer at New York City's Terminal 23 gym, Stephenson joined a group that included Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, David Lee, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., Walker and others. Only one stood out for his formality of someone preparing for work: Stephenson.

"Lance said hello to some people and gave certain guys five—cordial—but no chit-chatting," Ivey observed from the sidelines. "He went to stretch, and they started the game. He didn't say one word. It was like, 'I'm checking in at the job and I hate my boss, but I do great work.' He played hard like it was an actual game.

"He was just being Lance, going out there and just trying to go at everybody's neck. Lance was really climbing up in people's s--t, not giving anyone a break defensively. At one point, he made a very aggressive move on Tim Hardaway Jr., and he told Lance to calm down, that it was just a pickup game. [Lance] has got a vendetta. [The Hornets] are going to run the show through Al Jefferson, but he feels like he's got a lot to prove now."

That aggressiveness could come in use for Clifford, who has plans to incorporate his NYC imports as basically two point guards in order to strengthen the team's scoring and playmaking they needed from the outside after ranking 24th in offensive rating last season.

"Lance has a post-up game and he's a very good cutter, but to me his biggest strength offensively is his pick-and-roll game," Clifford said. "With both he and Kemba, I think that they’re both excellent pick-and-roll players, and I think that they can complement each other well. That will give us the ability to run a pick-and-roll on one side of the floor, move it to the other and get another pick-and-roll player on the other side of the floor."

For his part, Stephenson has dreams of wearing his upcoming AND1 "Born Ready" sneaker—designed after the Parachute Jump on Coney Island—during this season's All-Star Game back in New York City, returning home as a more polished professional.

"I'm very hyped for that," he said. "I just want to do the best I can. I don't want to have any problems like I did last year."

With Stephenson, Walker and loftier expectations on their backs, the Hornets are buzzing.

"We're ready to take it to another level," Jefferson said. "I think it's time for the sun to come back out in Charlotte."

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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