The Stephensons At Home In Indiana

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 28, 2014

The doorbell rings, and Mom gets up to answer. Lantz Stephenson has just arrived home on the school bus, all smiles, welcomed into the modern, spacious house in the southeast suburbs of Indianapolis, as if he were stepping into a 1950's sitcom.

Mom and dad are waiting for him. The missing family member, oldest brother Lance, is away on a road trip for his employer, the Indiana Pacers, the team for whom he's a blossoming star and an upcoming free agent, one likely to command a king's ransom.

They all live together here. Lance the father, Bernadette the mother, Lance the 23-year-old NBA player and Lantz the seven-year-old. There's a basketball goal with a glass backboard and paved halfcourt in the backyard, amid a small wooded area, a framed poster of the pro ballplayer hanging over the fireplace in the family room, and a painting of him hanging over the fireplace in the living room. Otherwise, there's no clue as to the profession of the man – the athlete – who is the fulcrum on which the family turns. Just another family enjoying suburban life, with a brighter future than most.

So, let's get right to the point that's jabbing at the collective conscience of a growing number of Pacers fans: The Stephensons want to stay. All of them. They love it here in their world away from their native Brooklyn. It seems so perfect, in so many ways, that it feels like destiny.

Dad grew up a devoted fan of team president Larry Bird as a player, so when Bird selected his son in the 2010 draft, it seemed like it was meant to be that they would wind up under the same fieldhouse roof. And Lance the player is making Bird the team president look prescient, ranking second on the Pacers in scoring (14.2), second in rebounding (7) and first in assists (5.3). He's a legitimate candidate to be selected as a reserve for the All-Star team, but more importantly than that, he's gradually casting an improved image for himself and reveling in the fact he's finally, for the first time, a member of a team that's truly together and accepts him for who he is.

The Story Behind Lance and Lantz

Lance Stephenson, a war veteran, struggled after returning home from Vietnam in the late sixties. He was, like so many soldiers, adversely impacted by the side effects of Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the U.S. Military to deforest the country. He battled alcoholism, too, and he found it difficult to build a career. The war haunted him.

He worked as a security guard and earned a college degree on the side, but never overcame his demons. His son, also named Lance – the third in a row, actually – recalls walking down the street with him in Brooklyn in 1969 when a car backfired. His father hit the pavement and started screaming, as if he were back in a battle. His troubled father became estranged from his wife and mother, and Lance, the son, grew to resent that.

So, when Lance, the son of the war veteran, had a son in 1990, he named him Lance, in honor of his father. Young Lance grew up to lead his high school team to four consecutive state basketball championships, become New York's all-time leading scorer and be drafted by the Indiana Pacers. Lance, the war veteran, died in the mid-nineties and didn't get to see it happen.

Then in 2006 another son was born to the son of the war veteran, and his wife Bernadette. He was given the name Lantz. Same reason, same pronunciation, different spelling.

“I just wanted to honor my father,” Lance, the son of the war veteran said. “When he came back from the war, he had a tough time adjusting. Everything was different and he got sort of a bad rap. I wanted to remind everyone that he was a good person, he just had some bad times.

“I decided I was going to name all my sons Lance just to irk … not to irk them, but to show that pride, and to rebirth the name. Try to clean it up and show it in a good light.”

No, things couldn't be better for the Stephensons. But the summer will bring a challenge, either for the Pacers, who must find a creative way to pay him market value – which might require a painful maneuver or two – or for them, if they have to pick up and move to another city to stay together.

Lance, the player, says “I'm a Pacer,” and drops no hints that he wants to test the open market. His parents are more blunt.

“We're optimistic that he will stay here,” Dad says. “I listened to Larry Bird (at the press conference to announce Paul George's long-term contract last summer) say, 'Lance, you'll be sitting here with your dad.' That's what we believe. Until otherwise, that's the plan. Larry Bird said that and we bought into it. We believe it, Lance believes it.”

“We don't try to analyze the future to that point,” Mom chimes in. “That's out of our control. I guess when we get to that point … right now we're just focusing on day-to-day.”

They have planted roots, for sure. Dad, for example, is coaching two AAU teams, which Lance finances and Lantz plays for. It's full circle for him, in a way. When Lance was playing on the AAU circuit in New York, for national powerhouses, Dad had a reputation for being an overly-involved parent. He was never a head coach for his son's teams, but was plugged into all that was happening and was criticized in some quarters for it. He says he always supported the coach, although admits he crossed the line one time when he shouted a play call from the stands. But now he's on the other side of the equation.

Now he's a mentor to parents in the role he once filled.

“We try to help the parents out,” he said. “There's a lot of parents … I always say, I hope I wasn't that bad. I have to deal with parents coaching while I'm trying to coach. These parents set the bar real high on the kids.”

Coach Lance just had one of his players quit because the kid's father was putting too much pressure on him, so much so that the kid was looking at his father during games instead of his coach.

“I told the dad, first of all, your child is scared of you,” Lance said. “And if he's scared of you, he's going to be scared of this world.”

“They (parents) go hard here,” Bernadette said. “Everybody thinks they're going to make it.”

Lance, Bernadette, and Lantz Stephenson

Lance and Bernadette Stephenson share a laugh with their youngest son, Lantz, in their Indianapolis home.

Pacer Lance made it largely because of his parents' involvement, but he had the body and skills to make it possible. Father Lance nurtured and drove him, but didn't have to push that hard. Pacer Lance wanted it. He joined an intense workout program with future pros Stephon Marbury and then Sebastian Telfair starting at the age of nine. They called it the “Breakfast Club.” They'd get up at 5 a.m. each day before school, run up and down the 15 floors of urine-stenched steps five times, sometimes dodging homeless drug addicts, and do 20 pushups at the top and bottom. Then they'd run along the Coney Island beach, 1 ½ miles each way. Then they'd work on basketball drills.

Pacer Lance did that five days a week until his senior year in high school. When Marbury and Telfair moved on, Father Lance took over the direction. Other kids would join them, although by the end of the school year only one other kid could be counted upon to show up – an African immigrant named Moses. He's now a model in New York, and recently came to visit the Stephensons for a few days.

Workouts such as that are why both Father Lance and Pacer Lance reject the “playground player” tag that some have put on the Pacers guard. They prefer to describe themselves as old school. Not only for the work ethic, but for the attitude about team play. What, after all, could be more old school, at least for a person of Father Lance's generation, than to pick Bird as a favorite player?

It was a bold choice in the Projects. Back in the eighties, when Father Lance was part of the Brooklyn playground scene, he and his junior high school-aged friends chose a favorite player and called one another by that name. One friend was Magic, as in Johnson, another was J, as in Julius Erving, another Kareem, as in Abdul-Jabbar. Lance liked Magic and Kareem, but since they were taken, he enthusiastically embraced Bird. Even wore his jersey number, 33.

His friends scoffed. Bird wasn't the coolest choice for a role model in their neighborhood. But when the Celtics beat both Philadelphia and the Lakers to win the championship in 1984, Father Lance had the last word on the playground.

“I'm like, 'You can't handle the white boy!'” he said. “'You guys don't know basketball! I study the game! Y'all don't understand the game!'”

And later, when Pacer Lance was blossoming as one of the best players in the country for his age group, Bird became a measuring stick.

“My dad watched him all the time,” Pacer Lance said. “He made me like Larry. He always had tapes. When I'd come home after games in high school, he'd show me something and say, 'Larry Bird did it this way, so don't do it that way.' He always used to compare me to Larry.”

Which is why it seemed fateful that Bird drafted Lance with the 40th pick four years ago.

“I was like, 'Did I fan myself into this or something?'” Father Lance wonders.

The Stephensons had heard rumblings that the Pacers – meaning Bird – liked Lance, and actually thought he might be taken with the No. 10 pick instead of Paul George. When the first round passed and his name wasn't called, Lance grew despondent. And after the Pacers selected him with the 40th pick, he broke into tears while his family celebrated around him. He thought he had let them down by going so low. Perhaps it had been a mistake coming out after his freshman season at Cincinnati. But his parents were ecstatic.

“Larry Bird!” Bernadette shouted. “Oh, this is going to be our oppportunity!”

“You'll see!” Father Lance told his son. “This is Larry Bird!”

They wouldn't have minded if their son had been selected by the hometown Knicks, who held the 38th and 39th picks, but Donnie Walsh, the Knicks team president at the time, went with Andy Rautins and Landry Fields instead.

Looking back, all parties believe it worked out for the best.

“I heard everything in New York; everything,” Walsh said. “It wasn't like he was on substances, or he was a gangster, or things like that. He was so good so young, you had to wonder if he would work, or if he already thought he was Michael Jordan. That was the risk with him.

“In New York it's a head trip. That's why I don't like to see guys from New York play with the Knicks to begin with. They're being called a star before they even step on an NBA court.”

Says Bernadette: “I look at it now, being away from home benefits Lance and all of us.”

The Stephensons moved to Indianapolis as quickly as possible after the draft. “Couldn't have come any faster,” Father Lance says. They all lived downtown for awhile, then moved to the southeast suburbs. Pacer Lance, according to his parents, gives no indication of being unhappy with the living arrangements. He's gone a lot, so there's always someone to look after “his” home, and it works out well for Lantz and his parents as well. Lantz – known within the family as Tookie, a nickname provided by his grandmother – attends a public school and rides the bus each day, something Pacer Lance's parents didn't dare let him do in Brooklyn. They took turns driving him, to avoid trouble, because a school bus was a prime location for trouble.

Shortly before the 2010 draft, Father Lance told his son to become a part of whatever community he wound up playing in. Old school, remember. To live there year-round, become involved and relate to the fan base. It irritated Lance's parents when, after his first couple of seasons with the Pacers, so many players left town as soon as the season ended.

“Everybody's gone! We the only ones left here!” Bernadette said.

“I used to hate that,” Father Lance said. “Man, at least act like you was wanting to be here a little bit.”

“They have their flight reservations and they're gone,” Bernadette said, laughing.

“This is home base for us. We go visit New York, but we come back.”

Home base. So, what if Pacer Lance winds up signing with another team this summer? What if the Pacers simply can't afford to keep him without exploding the luxury tax threshold? What if the family would have to move to stay together? After all, Lantz was only three when the family moved here, and knows no other way of life. He factors into all equations.

“That would be tough, because we like it here,” Father Lance said.

“We're established here,” Bernadette said.

“I told Lance, we might stay in Indiana,” Father Lance said.

“You leave, but we might still be here,” Bernadette said, laughing again.

For now, they can only hope it doesn't come to that.

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