Humbled Stephenson Back with Bird, Pacers
The text messages are still sitting there on Lance Stephenson's phone, dozens of them, dating all the way back to his rookie season with the Pacers a lifetime ago.
They came from Larry Bird, part of the two-way correspondence between the two that probably could be compiled into a book. It would be a tale of friendship, trust, mentoring, a real-life bro-mance that goes beyond the traditional formal relationship between a player and team president.
"I have them all," Stephenson says. "Neither of us ever changed our number."
They don't need to text now, although they still might. Stephenson is back home again in Indiana — he's the one who keeps referring to it as "home" despite being from the mean streets of Brooklyn — and can talk with Bird face to face if he wants. Bird's office is practically on top of the Pacers' locker room, one floor above. He attends all the team's practices and is a frequent visitor to the locker room on off-days.
For Stephenson, it feels like a welcome reunification after a difficult breakup and gradual reconciliation, a career-reviving, if not career-saving event. For Bird, it's more like something that was likely to happen eventually, but the timing had to be right.
And, man, was it ever right.
Stephenson had been lost at sea for three years, floundering on the waves of the whims of NBA executives, lapping ashore occasionally, only to be cast back out to the waters. He had played for Charlotte, signing a free agent contract after his marketplace value was overestimated and his representatives had rejected the Pacers' every-nickel-we-have-offer. He had been traded to the Clippers. He had been traded to Memphis. He had signed with New Orleans, suffered an injury, and been waived. He had signed two 10-day contracts with Minnesota, suffered two more injuries, and was released again.
He had found a semi-comfortable fit only in Memphis, where he was traded on Feb. 18 last year. Injuries forced him into the playing rotation and he responded, scoring a career-high 33 points in one game, and surpassing 20 three other times. His final game with the Grizzlies, he scored 26 points in a playoff series-ending loss to San Antonio.
Even then, the Grizzlies didn't attempt to re-sign him before the start of this season. Stephenson had one year left on his contract for $9 million, at a team option. The Grizzlies could have released him, waited for him to clear waivers, and then signed him to whatever deal they wanted to offer. They didn't. New Orleans signed him, but released him on Nov. 7 after he suffered a groin injury that required surgery.
He was adrift for three months, until Minnesota gave him a 10-day contract.
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"Stuff like that can bring your confidence down," Stephenson says. "I went from being traded twice to being a free agent again and being on the minimum in New Orleans, then getting cut and then doing 10 days. I thought, 'Man, I can't be that bad. I know I can help a team. You're telling me I can't do nothing?'"
Bird could have sat back, smiled smugly and said one big, fat "I told you so" to himself, or for that matter to the world while all this was going on. After all, he had practically rescued the rough-around-the-edges kid from New York, taking him in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft after just one uneventful season at the University of Cincinnati, and had nurtured him through four seasons with the Pacers. Stephenson blossomed amid the Pacers' patience and nurturing, becoming a starter on two teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and, in his final season, nearly making the All-Star team, producing a league-high five triple-doubles and finishing as runner-up in the Most Improved Player voting.
It seemed a slam-dunk that Stephenson would return to the Pacers in free agency. He talked openly of his affection for Bird. And Bird had made clear his desire, too. Presiding over the press conference to announce the re-signing of Paul George, he had spotted Stephenson at the back of the audience and said something along the lines of, "Don't worry, Lance, you'll be up here next year with your daddy."
Even in the face of rejection that could have been fairly viewed as betrayal, Bird wasn't bitter. He understood the business decision for Stephenson to test the free agent waters. He had spearheaded a recruiting effort that produced an original video – more like a documentary than a highlight reel – to entice Stephenson, and made the obligatory 12:01 a.m. call on the opening day of free agency and offered a five-year, $44 million contract. He made it clear that was the all the money he could offer without exceeding the luxury tax, and invited Stephenson's camp to come in a look over the books to prove it.
Stephenson's agent, family attorney Al Ebanks, said no, he wanted to see what other teams had to offer.
Bird said fine, no hard feelings, but he was moving on.
"You think I'm going to wait until August to see if you're signed?" Bird said.
Bird filled his need backcourt needs by signing C.J. Miles and then Rodney Stuckey – for less money combined than Stephenson could have made the following season. Bird stayed in touch with Ebanks all along, but with each signing the available financial pool for Stephenson shrank.
Stephenson says he didn't truly understand the situation at the time. He says he thought the Pacers were just throwing out a number to see if anyone would surpass it, and that he would have an opportunity to accept that offer if nobody did.
"I was young," he says. "That was my first time going through free agency and being a (prominent) player.
"When you think you're about to get rewarded, you feel good about yourself. It went from feeling good to right back down, like I didn't do nothing the whole time while I was here."
Stephenson was fortunate to land a last-minute deal with Michael Jordan in Charlotte, but it didn't work. It rarely did, really, with the notable exception of his sixth game, when he hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap off a 17-point, 13-rebound effort over Atlanta. His playing time with the Hornets dropped from 35 minutes in his final season with the Pacers to 26. His scoring average dropped from 13.8 points to 8.2. His field goal percentage dropped from 49 to 38. His 3-point percentage dropped from 35 percent to 17 percent – an NBA record for futility.
"I was getting forced shots or shots I wasn't used to," he says. "The Pacers, we were playing unselfish. David West would get the ball in the post, if he turned and saw me open, I knew I was going to get it. As soon as I got to Charlotte, it wasn't like that. It was forced threes, forced shots.
"It was tough, because we didn't have a primary shooter. It was me, Kemba (Walker) and (Michael Kidd-) Gilchrist. Teams were clogging up the paint and daring us to shoot. We needed a shooter out there and we didn't have one. I need the ball in my hands and Kemba needed the ball in his hands. It just didn't fit."
It didn't fit anywhere else, really, which made Stephenson long that much more for his Indiana home. He stayed away from Bird that futile season in Charlotte, but renewed their communication the following summer. He was spending a few days with Paul George in Las Vegas, talking about how much he missed the Pacers and Indianapolis. George decided to take action, texting Bird on the spot and suggesting he bring back his wayward son. Stephenson followed with a text of his own, and Bird responded.
There was nothing he could do at the time. His roster was filled with guards with guaranteed contracts. But that exchange began a second round of pen pal-ish texting and telephone conversations that never stopped. Bird couldn't talk with him while he was under contract with another team, but in between those stretches, they talked often — Stephenson saying he wanted to come back, Bird saying he would try but couldn't do anything yet.
"It wasn't like I was punishing him for not signing," Bird says. "I wanted him back. We all wanted him back."
Bird continued to encourage Stephenson, though, whenever he called to tell Bird he had an offer from another team.
"He always said, 'Go do it. Something's going to happen,'" Stephenson says. "And something happened."
What happened was that Stuckey got hurt. Again. After battling injuries for the past two seasons, Stuckey suffered a strained tendon in the Pacers' game against Philadelphia on March 26, an injury that would keep him out at least four weeks. With Glenn Robinson III also out with a strained calf muscle, and with a clause in Stuckey's contract that the Pacers would not be obligated to honor the final season of it if they waived him before the end of the season, the Pacers had little choice.
They waived Stuckey, who still goes to The Fieldhouse for treatment and plans to return to Seattle over the summer and rehab his way back into the league for another two or three seasons. They needed a guard, badly, but that was only half the fateful moments that led to the reunion with Stephenson. He had suffered two ankle injuries in Minnesota, the second occurring when a teammate collided with him two minutes into his appearance in a game in Boston on Feb. 8.
He was due to sign a contract that would take him through the rest of the season the next day.
Bad luck again, he thought.
"Imagine that," he says. "After that injury, I'm like, 'Man, I'm done. I'm getting ready for next year.'"
He was back in New York, immersed in another round of rehab, when his cell phone rang. It was his new agent, Mark Bartelstein, with whom Stephenson signed last summer. The Pacers had called.
"Are you ready to get back?" Bartelstein asked.
"Yeah!" Stephenson shouted.
Stephenson's actually not ready. Not as he'd like to be. The injury was a Grade 2 ankle sprain, one that usually requires about a month to heal. He's playing in pain, and estimates he's at about 75 percent of his normal athleticism. But he's trusting in the Pacers' training staff and believes he can get through the playoffs, if not improve.
He's just happy to be with the Pacers again, under the protective roof of Bankers Life Fieldhouse and amid a fan base that once seemed fairly evenly divided on him, but now is head-over-heels in love with the passion and athleticism that has kick-started a team stuck in neutral.
Stephenson didn't talk directly with Bird until he arrived at The Fieldhouse and walked in Bird's office two weeks ago. It was their first face-to-face conversation since 2014, the culmination of all those text messages. He had made it a point to look over at Bird when he was on an opposing team at The Fieldhouse — twice with Charlotte and once with the Clippers — but didn't dare speak to him then.
"I was scared," he says, "because I hadn't seen him since I saw him during the games when I played here. It was weird going in there. We talked about all the stuff we went through."
"You're happy to be back, huh?" Stephenson recalls Bird saying.
"Yeah!" Stephenson shouted.
"I always believed in Lance," Bird says. "He's older now, and I know what he said to me on the phone and in texts. I know he was crushed by not being back here, especially after it didn't work out in Charlotte. I know he believes in our medical staff. He knows they can fix him in a heartbeat. He's got some (physical) problems, and it's going to take awhile to get (healthy again). He'll be here all summer, he'll work hard and he'll be great next year."
There's more to it than that, however. Bird could have had Stephenson for the bare minimum. There were no competing offers, and Stephenson would have taken anything. He had made that clear to others in the Pacers' front office, even offering to go to Fort Wayne to play for the Mad Ants and work himself back into shape.
Bird, however, went beyond that. He signed Stephenson to a far more generous guaranteed contract. He wanted to give Stephenson the security of a guaranteed contract for next season, which will allow him to work out at The Fieldhouse all summer, protect the franchise's interests and give Stephenson the opportunity to earn a bigger contract.
Pacers owner Herb Simon signed off on the deal. It's a bargain for the franchise, because the mid-level salary next season will be more than $8 million, and starting two-guards are making about $14 million per season. Bird considers Stephenson a starting-caliber player, and didn't want to take advantage of his vulnerable position.
"He wasn't getting anything before," Bird said. "A lot of people said it was a stupid move, but I didn't want to bring him in on a minimum."
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That kind of commitment resonates with Stephenson, further enhancing his devotion to the franchise he once spurned.
"It means a lot," Stephenson says. "Just for them to have that same confidence in me from when I left. They still believed in my talent. Those three years went by so last. For Larry to still believe in me and believe Lance can do it … he always told me to stay confident and stay working hard. I did that the whole time, I just wasn't getting rewarded for it."
Now he has been. He gives the impression it would take a crow-bar to get him out of Indianapolis now. He's living in a hotel now, but has begun house-hunting in the suburbs and will spend the summer here, getting back in shape. Bird told him they'll have to tear down and rebuild his body and game, and he's ready.
"I need that," he says. "My body was breaking down a little bit.
"Right now, I'm playing off just hanging on. My body is not the same as when I was here before. Now I'm in good hands with great trainers. I think I'll be all right now and get back to moving the way I was when I was here before."
Stephenson already is playing the way he was when here before. He's allowed to have the ball in his hands, make plays, create for teammates. Memphis aside, the other teams tried to make him a classic off-guard, a catch-and-shoot wing. That's not Stephenson. His game was honed on the playgrounds and in the gymnasiums of New York, and has always been at his best when he has the ball in his hands.
He's also feeling the love of the fans. He gets it when he walks from his downtown hotel to The Fieldhouse for practice and games, and feels it when he enters games. The ovation when he made his second debut, against Toronto on April 4, was memorable and meaningful. He had been a divisive figure when he was with the Pacers the first time, drawing criticism for in-game "antics" such as blowing in LeBron James' ear in a playoff game. But it seemed his popularity had only increased during his absence.
Perhaps the fans recognized he was exactly what the Pacers needed.
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"He's going to be fine," Bird said. "He's real when he says he feels this is his home. That's no b.s. He wants to be here and he wants to make the fans happy. What they did for him that first night is pretty incredible. Because he needed that."
The fan response, combined with the renewal of his role, has enabled Stephenson to recapture much of his mojo. He has no more worries, no more doubts about himself. He knows he has a job next season, and probably beyond. It shows in his play, which helped propel the Pacers along the five-game winning streak that pushed them into the playoffs.
"It's just being comfortable again," he said. "Letting the game talk for itself and not worry if the team likes me or my teammates like me, or what the coach needs me to do. I get here and it's like, 'Do this, that, that and that and you'll be all right.' I didn't get that from no other team. It was like playing guessing games."
Looking back, painful as it was at times, the three-year hiatus from the Pacers was a good thing in Stephenson's mind. The lessons learned from it, and the incredible fate that brought him back — his injury the day before he was to sign with the Timberwolves for the rest of the season and Stuckey's injury — makes him believe it all was meant to be.
"I couldn't even try to be the same guy I was before," he says. "I'm so much older and smarter. Back then I was a little young and having fun and being childish a little bit. Just happy to have that opportunity and getting all the love I was getting. I was childish and playing hard and having fun. Now, I'm more serious about the game. I don't take the game for granted.
"I feel God put me through all those situations to humble me. I was on a pedestal. I was feeling like, 'I'm the man.' I feel like God punished me because I felt so high about myself. He brought me back down to humble me."
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