On November 7th, at the behest of Blog Serf James Vasiliou, I attended my first game in the Time Warner Cable Arena of this NBA season. Much has changed since last year, of course; the historically dismal Charlotte Bobcats had re-branded themselves as the Charlotte Hornets, returning to this city one of the most recognizable symbols of its growth during the 1990s and revitalizing a brand which had never really been the same since George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans in 2002. I fully intended to write about how the Charlotte Hornets, rather than the Bobcats, had returned to their place as a rallying point for a city, a way of telling the rest of America that Charlotte hosts more than simply heartless financial institutions and an airport you hate to stop through on your way to Boston, or Philadelphia, or Dublin. I intended to write about how the Bobcats’ postseason appearance last year, only its second in franchise history, became the perfect setup for this season and the re-emergence of the Hornets at just the right time. I wanted to write about how much better purple and teal look than grey, orange, navy and whatever other random colors the Bobcats haphazardly slapped on their uniforms each season to sell more gear to their beleaguered fanbase. I wanted to write about Al Jefferson’s jump hook (I’ll do that anyway, don’t worry).
Instead, I became positively enchanted with the Hornets’ shiniest new toy. No matter what happened on the court, I could not steal a glance away from him. This is how I learned to stop worrying and love Lance Stephenson.
By this point, Lance Stephenson can be, and has been, characterized in a number of ways. He’s a head case; he’s a maestro; he’s New York City basketball incarnate, the latest hope to continue an incredible tradition in a dry period for the five boroughs; he’s a court jester, dancing only for himself and giving the high royalty fits. All and none of these things are true, depending on the day, hour and minute. He is given to tantrums and spells of overactive inactivity, both of which interrupt spellbinding displays of basketball whimsy which bend the established codes of the professional game, for better or for worse.
Watching Stephenson play basketball live is like going to a warehouse concert in Brooklyn for a band you’ve never heard: you have no way of predicting what will happen, and common logic does not apply. It need not to in Lance’s case. Standing in the lower level of the Cable Box, as some people have taken to calling the Hornets’ home, I tried my best to focus on the action at hand in totality. The Atlanta Hawks had come to town to create another episode of one of the most promising budding rivalries in the NBA, one which holds numerous implications for playoff spots in a weak but competitive Eastern Conference. Like the previous home games this season, this one became a festival of people having an excuse to break out their Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson jerseys in un-ironic adoration.
None of that seemed to matter within minutes of the tip-off. Try as I might to track the ball, I ended up spending the majority of the time staring at Lance Stephenson. His constant movement and intense expression at every play stoked my interest, and a note I was typing in my phone soon became comprised almost exclusively of Lance tidbits. Some of the highlights of watching Lance Stephenson:
- On fast breaks, Lance directed his teammates coming into the lane as if he was standing outside Lincoln High and the traffic lights had gone dead.
- Lance routinely palmed the ball away from his body, directly disrespecting Kyle Korver.
- For the majority of the first half, Lance generally followed DeMarre Carroll into the right block and then basically did whatever the hell he felt like, drifting off of Carroll and into the paint or to the top of the key.
- When he rested, he did not retreat to the bench. Instead, he stood in the area at the edge of the court, often hanging on the railing separating the floor from fans.
- Lance looked pissed off after a timeout call because Lance just wants to GO.
- After each turnover, Lance immediately called for the ball, regardless of how many defenders surrounded him or of any other externalities.
Here are two quotes from the gentlemen sitting behind us in reference to Lance Stephenson:
- “Now he’s starting to feel hisself.” – after taking a wild long two, which missed
- “Lance is crazy as shit. I love him, but…”
His brand of playing to extremes is brilliant and ballistic, a tour de force of brash drives and harried rebounds. His flavor is distinctly and classically New York, honed during his four city championship years at Coney Island’s famous basketball factory Abraham Lincoln High School. He is New York State’s all-time leading scorer and was famously cut from Team USA’s U-18 team for what Wikipedia refers to as “chemistry reasons.” His departure from the former Eastern Conference stalwart Indiana Pacers in the offseason left a glaring hole which has become blinding in light of Paul George’s season-ending injury.
He talks several landfills’ worth of non-recyclable waste to his nemeses on the court. His nickname is “Born Ready,” as in #BORNREADY. Naturally, he earned that moniker at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park. He’s been back to the Rucker, in the summer of 2009, and predictably did away with any frivolous activity from ill-informed detractors. He asked to guard LeBron James during a playoff series against the Heat, was granted that masochistic wish and subsequently blew in King James’ ear (again, the court jester dances for himself). He became an Internet sensation.
What is frustrating about Lance Stephenson is exactly what makes him so mesmerizing as a basketball player. His attention turns from one thing to the next, and you never really get a good idea of exactly what he is thinking or why. One might audibly question why, on a routine possession, early in the shot clock, Stephenson attempts a behind-the-back pass to an unprepared teammate, tossing it out of bounds or into the outstretched arms of a charging defender. In a long line of athletes engaging in unorthodoxy and “____ being ____,” that is, as simply as his reality allows, Lance being Lance.
The joy of Lance Stephenson underscores his role within the larger picture of the Charlotte Hornets. Kemba Walker is the ringleader, another New York City product (shout out to the Boogie-Down BX) whose virtuosic ball handling and penchant for clutch shots has carried him to the brink of super-stardom in a league rife with incredible point guards. It was Walker, of course, who hit the game winner during the Hornets’ opening game of the season, calling to mind his takeover of the Big East Tournament while at UConn. He quietly fell one rebound shy of a triple-double, along with fifteen points and ten assists.
Al Jefferson is the core of the team in so many senses, leading from the front with his nimble work in the paint and around the boards. His fading jump hook, which actually more closely resembles a dump pass at the line of scrimmage from a college quarterback, has become one of the most unguardable shots in basketball. He backs his defender down a step or two before turning and launching an arching bomb toward the basket. It rolls off his hand so smoothly, and the entire motion is like watching melted chocolate spin ever so tantalizingly in a commercial. Against Atlanta, he rode that shot to 34 points, although he did miss what would’ve been a game-winning free throw. Whatever, doesn’t matter. That would’ve deprived us of what actually happened.
As he is wont to do, Lance had taken several mind-numbingly bad shots throughout the night, either tightly contested or from awkward angles. Following a crazy sequence of possession changes, and with 2.7 seconds left in double-overtime, the Hawks and Hornets had knotted themselves at 119, and it looked as if we were going to have to postpone our post-game plans for a third. Lance threw the inbound pass to Marvin Williams, who handed the ball back off to a trailing Stephenson. Born Ready did not dribble once before setting his feet and nailing his first three-pointer of the season off the backboard, sending the Cable Box into TV static.
Watching Lance Stephenson is an entirely visceral and completely overwhelming basketball experience. He is unlike anything or anyone before, yet he retains a certain sense of history and where his career could fit in it. His isn’t a burden of finding the proper combination of skill and desire; it is increasingly obvious that he has both in dangerously potent levels, probably more of the former than the latter. Perhaps landing under the watchful eye of one Michael Jordan will take Lance to his promised land, one in which the jester becomes the king.
Other phone notes which don’t fit comfortably into this piece:
- The single appearance of Bobcats apparel occurred when cameras showed a hat on a guy during a timeout. The hat was grey, and had it not been for the word “Bobcats” embossed on it, there was no indication that it had any connection to any NBA team other than maybe the Spurs due to color. People really hated the Bobcats brand and really, really love the Hornets.
- BRING BACK THE PINSTRIPED JERSEYS. PLEASE.
- “Booooooooooooya mama!” – an admirable attempt to throw off the Hawks’ free throw shooting
- A violinist plays Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” at halftime, and one of the guys behind us said, “Go on wit yosef, brotha.”
- MKG’s refined jump shot (!) is real, in small doses.
- Cody Zeller has faster hands than I remember and often found himself irritating Hawks ball handlers in weird areas of the court.
- Gary Neal, da bench gawd = Neal led bench players with 23 points, providing necessary spark for the second-unit players and hitting several huge shots
- “Cody Ballin!” – another quote from the guys behind us, indicating a Zeller heat check.
In a recent interview with Zach Lowe, Stephenson was asked if friends had emailed or texted him the Derek Fisher video-bomb from the Hornets/Knicks game last week. His response?
“Oh, no. I see everything that’s on the Internet.”
Hello, Lance. We’re watching you too.