With the NBA season underway, there's one basketball personality not in the league who's been building an even bigger following than many of the players. In only a matter of months, he's caught the attention of the NBA's best players, popular NBA-related brands and thousands of kids worldwide.
Meet Johnny Stephene, 28, a ball-handling wiz with an exploding business—a unique skills trainer for the NBA's elite who's leveraged the power of social media to become one of the hottest individual brands in basketball.
"He does a great job at self-promotion, but he's passionate at what he does. He really wants to help people," said Denver Nuggets guard Nate Robinson, who worked with Stephene over the summer. "I've told my Nuggets teammates about him. They can't believe that he is that good and they're, like, 'How is he not in the NBA?' He should definitely be a part of some NBA team as a coach, trainer, because his gift is so powerful."
Since Stephene started his Instagram account Dribble2Much a little more than a year ago, he's gained more than 580,000 followers and counting, worked out with All-Stars Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan, been considered by an NBA team for employment, organized clinics for kids worldwide, launched an apparel line called Handle Life (a double meaning for his ball-handle and recovery from a major injury) and signed a few endorsement deals with more possibly to come.
Stephene, in fact, is the first non-NBA player on Stance Socks' client roster, which features Dwyane Wade, Chandler Parsons and Andre Drummond.
"I think his whole story is compelling because he's built such a great connection with kids and NBA athletes," said Clarke Miyasaki, Stance Socks' executive vice president of business development. "Basketball is his life, and the whole story with his injury to where he is today is super unique and one we want to help him tell."
After Stephene played college ball through 2012, the 6'1" point guard suffered a stress fracture in his left leg later that year while playing professionally in Mexico. With his basketball career struggling to gain traction, he began to utilize the skill for which he has shown a gift since he was a boy, taking his creative ball-handling to Instagram, and a new brand was born.
"What separates him is that he is exceptional at marketing his brand and speaks to the teenage kid," world-renowned streetball dribbler Grayson "The Professor" Boucher said. "He has a lot of videos that show him doing cool combo moves, then finishing with a jumper, which is cool because it shows the product of what his workouts produce, and the kids are intrigued by that."
While Stephene never played major Division I hoops nor suited up for an NBA team, he has a handle that even the top ballers can't touch.
"He had me really feeling like I couldn't dribble," Robinson said. Added DeRozan: "You definitely feel a difference."
At about the age of six, Stephene, who was living in Boynton Beach, Florida, at the time, became mesmerized watching an older local player named Cedric Long dribble the ball between his legs on the outdoor court at Rolling Green Elementary School. Stephene then had a revelation: "If I could shake my shadow, then nobody can guard me, because my shadow is the only thing that could stick with me."
So Stephene practiced every day after school in his backyard for up to three hours.
"When my mom finally let me play [at Rolling Green]—at around age 10—I was already fully trained, man," he said. "I was breaking down grown men on the court."
In his preteens, Stephene studied the dribbling prowess of NBA players Rafer "Skip 2 My Lou" Alston and Jason "White Chocolate" Williams, and then he created his own countermoves. He unleashed his first crossover after watching then-rookie Allen Iverson famously freeze Michael Jordan in his tracks in 1997. He was 10.
"I went in the backyard and I practiced the exact same crossover every day," he said. "Now my crossover is exactly like Allen Iverson's, and that's how I break most peoples' ankles. That crossover paid for my scholarships, it started Handle Life, it started everything."
Wherever the southpaw Stephene went, he dribbled—sometimes even until 3 a.m., waking up the neighbors. He also slept with a basketball. The summer before his freshman year at Boynton Beach Community High School, he started waking up every morning at 6 a.m. to work on his handle even if it meant skipping breakfast.
As a teen, the nicknames came. He was called "Johnny Quest" locally (after the TV show character) and "Dribble Machine" in the Police Athletic League in New York City.
Stephene teamed up with Stephen Curry's younger brother, Seth, at Liberty University before later transferring to Central Oklahoma. After going undrafted in 2012, he averaged 30 points per game in Mexico's LNBP pro league, but his time was cut short because of the stress fracture.
"For six months I couldn't move," he said. "I went back home [to Oklahoma City] and I didn't know what I was going to do with my life."
That's when Stephene found his calling.
It was May 2013, and pickup-game season was tipping off at Central Oklahoma and Quail Springs Baptist Church. While Thunder players like Durant and Russell Westbrook competed, Stephene did creative stationary dribbling on the sidelines, and kids in attendance wanted to learn. Even Durant was impressed.
While Stephene started teaching kids for free, he trained Central Oklahoma head coach Terry Evans' son, Tre. Stephene's first client proved to be an influential one.
"His game improved so much that his dad said, 'Johnny, I think this is what you need to do, man. You really know how to get people better,'" Stephene said.
Stephene took his lessons to Instagram in June 2013, when the mobile app launched its video feature. Every day he started posting three main videos—a move, drill and freestyle combination. The following month, he entered a Nike-sponsored competition to get an invite to join a summer team with Durant and James Harden. Though he didn't win, his videos attracted around 1,000 new followers a week. Now, Stephene says, it's between 7,000 and 10,000.
Last fall, while Gilbert Arenas was mulling a return to China or a comeback in the NBA, he came across Stephene's account. "Gilbert was like, 'I can't do some of these moves, man. I need to fly you out here to L.A. to get me ready,'" Stephene said. Around that time, Robinson posted on Instagram, without having worked with Stephene, "Learned so much from watching his clips #handlelife."
That helped lay the foundation for Stephene this summer. Not only did he work with Robinson, Durant and DeRozan, he also spent time with Matt Barnes, Avery Bradley, Randy Foye, Austin Daye and Seth Curry. Paul George wanted in, too, before his injury with Team USA. Blake Griffin also put in a request for next summer. Stephene even visited music mogul Diddy's house to work with his son, Christian.
"He puts videos together where a move he makes, we might do it in a summer league game," DeRozan said. "It catches on with people immediately when they can see it. I was following him on Instagram all last season and we got connected."
This summer, Stephene was in such hot demand that Jordan Brand invited him to Las Vegas for its XX9 sneaker release event to interact with Team USA and kids for a clinic. A few NBA players even wanted to move him to their respective city for full-time training this season.
In addition, after Barnes put in a good word with Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the team discussed hiring him for player development. But, according to Stephene's business consultant Chris Hoyle, they couldn't add to their staff. Stephene still works out Barnes and other Clippers at their practice facility.
The best way to describe Stephene's methodology is it's based on rhythmic sequences and memorized coordination, so a player can enhance his combination moves with quicker reaction time, more physical strength, better dexterity, increased eye-hand coordination and, ultimately, added confidence.
The roughly two-hour workouts—he charges by the hour—usually start with exercises designed to build better hand strength for ball-handling, lead into complex countermoves and end with game-like situational moments. When he's completed his days or weeks with a player, he provides a worksheet with catered step-by-step drills to follow.
"My unique specialty is that I can do everything that I teach," he said. "My handles are better than most people I'm training. I know how to make people feel good and look good and be confident in their handle. I just put people through what I had to do get my handles better, and then I mold it to where I can help them with their game."
In one two-ball dribbling drill, Stephene has a player take three creative dribbles quickly and then pass one ball to him while receiving another one, always at the count of three. In general, most of Stephene's drills position him directly in front of a player, designed for developing combination moves without hesitation. The intensity increases when a player uses two balls, wears resistance bands or dribbles through cones or chairs closely together. While watching film of a player helps Stephene design certain sequences, he mostly improvises dribbling moves on the fly. That's his true gift as a trainer.
"It's based off of feel," he said. "I'm really hard to guard, so my predictions are good. So I do combos predicting on how somebody is going to react and I can turn it into a drill that helps somebody else's prediction. My favorite combination is an in-and-out, crossover, spin, switch hands and scoop layup. That's my go-to move, and nobody can stop it."
While players like DeRozan and Robinson have always made ball-handling a part of their training routine, the intrigue over Stephene's challenging combinations won them over.
"There's probably some stuff you might not use in the game," DeRozan said, "but if you get comfortable doing that, you'll get comfortable doing the little countermoves when defenses are trying to force you in a certain way, or you're coming off a screen-and-roll and try to beat a guy. We definitely will work together again this season and next summer."
Added Robinson: "I had never done specialized ball-handling. He really took me back to the basics and it was fun and challenging at the same time. And he just really made me feel that I could conquer anything with how he shows you how to do some of the drills that he does. I've been practicing a lot. He gave me such a great foundation to build on, so during the season, I definitely want him to come out and work with me."
Stephene, who dribbles about five hours a day, also presents some off-the-court moves on Instagram, complete with his own rap music, often recorded at Durant's in-home studio. For example, in one video, he's hungry in his kitchen, so he goes to the refrigerator, pulls out a ball and starts dribbling. In another, he's pulling off perfect crossovers with a tennis ball or on a beach doing step-back moves while imagining bouncing a ball. The purpose, he says, is to motivate players.
When Stephene was younger, he believed a career in the NBA would happen. "If I was in a better situation in college," he said.
Now, he believes it can, on different terms.
Stephene is booked for the next four months at a variety of clinics, some as far away as Hong Kong. He's also generated enough interest from NBA players that he'll organize group workouts for next summer.
While LeBron James is the one player he'd love to work with—"He would be even more unstoppable if I gave him different options to attack the rim," Stephene said—he's thinking even bigger than the game's best. Stephene dreams of his individual brand one day being bigger than Nike.
"Everything is like full speed," he said. "It's a popular brand that's jumping right now."