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What do Ricky Davis and Lance Stephenson, once and future NBA lightning rods, have in common? More than you'd think.

A first dunk is like a first kiss. If you’ve done it right the first time, you’ll never forget how it should be done. Ricky Davis’s first dunk came when he was in the eighth grade at Wood Intermediate School in Davenport, Iowa, and it changed him forever.

Dunking made him distinct, and better yet, popular. Davis had tried to slam it home for months, but never could stuff it. But on this day, he stole a pass and streaked up the court. As he leaped he felt his body climbing higher than ever, before raising the ball above the rim and crashing it through. “I didn’t even really realize what I did until after I did it,” Davis says. “I was in Iowa, so nobody was dunking in eighth grade. That was like history.”

The dunk momentarily stopped the game — it was silent in the Wood gymnasium. The next morning, news of Davis’s feat was broadcast over the PA system during the school announcements. It wasn’t until later that day when an epiphany struck: During the game, Davis hadn’t noticed a teammate ahead of him down the court, wide-open for an easy layup. When his teammate pointed it out to him at practice, he didn’t think twice. “Somebody was wide open,” Davis says, nonplussed. “I didn’t even pass it.”

That afternoon, Ricky Davis realized how fun it could be — not just scoring and dunking, but entertaining. They don’t stop games for pretty passes. Assists aren’t touted on the morning announcements.

That was the first of many dunks. A controversial and colossally entertaining 12-year NBA career followed — one that Davis hopes to relaunch soon. Born Tyree Ricardo Davis IV to a Midwestern military family, Davis has wandered much of his life. He’s 33 years old and smarter now, but also gravity-bound. He’s played in France, Turkey, China, Puerto Rico, and for the Development League’s Maine Red Claws since his last stint in the NBA, 36 forgettable games with the Clippers three years ago. By then he was so hobbled by a left knee injury that Davis says he was no longer able to dunk. His explosiveness, the gift that made him so entertaining, was gone. He’d adapted as best he could, but like a slugger with a slowed bat, his one true talent had vanished.

“I ain’t got no game [without it],” he says. “That’s it right there. My first step and my pull-up, elevating over people. I mean, I could still play. I could play with an injured leg. But I was ready to retire because I wasn’t in the [right] mental state and I wasn’t physically right.”

Davis tugs at his left knee as he explains, and demonstrates how, in order to keep it straight, he needed to lift his leg with his hand. NBA doctors, Davis says, misdiagnosed the injury as tendinitis. He recently learned that the injury was actually a patellar tendon tear, for which he underwent surgery and rehabilitation. Now he says he’s ready to resume his NBA career. In January, he got a shot with a workout for the Timberwolves. But Minnesota passed on bringing Davis back.1

“I might not be able to 360 on the fly, but I’m going to dunk that thing, definitely,” Davis says. “It’s still there and that’s all I want to show. I know it’s hard because what they’ve seen the last few years is garbage. You see a guy, 33, played 12 years, that might be it. I want to change their minds. But it’s hard to change their minds if I don’t ever get a chance.”

Over lunch at P.F. Chang’s in L.A.’s Beverly Center, Davis appears at peace with his post-NBA life, but he’s still hopeful for another opportunity. His trademark braids are shorn and his hair has been cropped into a short, even cut. Over lettuce wraps and apple martinis, Davis is reflective, repentant, hopeful, and self-aware. But, most important, he says he’s healthy for the first time in years.

He’s trying to get back into the NBA, a task that’s nearly as hard as getting in.

There is a maximum of 450 roster spots for NBA players among the league’s 30 franchises. Given some teams’ preference for roster flexibility, that number can shrink by as many as 90. There are players in the Development League and overseas looking to break through. There are undrafted kids looking to catch on. There are veterans trying to get back in, while others are desperately hanging on. The competition is ruthless. And Davis knows that the NBA isn’t the same as when he left.

“[I could] go out hard the night before, then come out the next day and give you 40,” Davis says. “You know why? I came in with Anthony Mason, Derrick Coleman, Eddie Jones. [They would tell rookies] ‘You put the bags up. You better have the condoms. You better meet us.’ That’s what I came into.”

The roguish days of the NBA seem a distant memory, but Davis hasn’t forgotten.

“It was instilled in me,” he says. “Anthony Mason coming in with 50 shots of tequila. This was before they brought the bottles. The waitress coming out with 50 shots and I’m 17, 18 years old. So now when I’m 25, 26, I go out and hang out, kick it. The league changed so fast and so drastically. It was hard to change sometimes. This routine, I’m not used to that.”

Davis says the league has grown up, but it’s also lost a sense of camaraderie.

“Guys don’t go out,” he says. “Guys don’t hang out. Guys aren’t out as a team hanging out all together. You used to go to a club and you could see a whole team together. Now there’s one or two guys. And I’m sure that’s the guys who came in in the ’90s. The other guys are playing Xbox together. It’s different now. It went from No Boys Allowed to now, boys allowed. When I came into the league, those guys were grown men. I’m fighting against a 30-year-old. This is how he eats.”

The NBA is more image-conscious than it was when Davis was in his prime. Teams are more sensitive and players are more business-oriented. The Malice at the Palace brawl in 2004 was the turning point. That image of Ron Artest maniacally hurdling over the stands played on an endless loop in David Stern’s head, an infinite reminder of the need for change.

No franchise was more affected than the Indiana Pacers. The team methodically wiped its roster of every player involved in the fight, in a process that took years. “There’s no question about it, the culture of the team is going to change and we’re not done yet,” then–team president Larry Bird told the Indianapolis Star in 2008. “We’re going to continue to work on that through the summer.

“If you look at some of the guys in the proposed trades, they’re a little bit older, went to school for at least three years. That’s part of the change, more mature kids, some experience and getting guys that we think can come in here and play right away.”

But there comes a time when every organization needs to take risks, no matter how small. “This league is not a Sunday church picnic,” says Mark Boyle, the Pacers’ longtime broadcaster. “Almost every team that has any success in this league takes a chance on somebody sooner or later because that’s just the way it is.”

Bird took that chance when he selected Lance Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 draft. Stephenson, a Brooklyn phenom, arrived with plenty of off-court baggage — his college recruitment had grown so sordid that then–Florida International coach Isiah Thomas bowed out of the process because he was so concerned that an NCAA investigation would follow a commitment from Stephenson.

Now Stephenson, 22, has become one of this season’s biggest surprises. He’s on the short list for the league’s Most Improved Player award after spending two seasons watching, waiting, struggling, and occasionally stoking controversy.

Stephenson and Davis aren’t the same kind of player. Stephenson’s strength is his defense and ability to push the ball upcourt. Davis, in his prime, thrived on his silky jumper and trapezelike athleticism. But they have more in common than you might think.

Some players are trying to get in.

“I know what it takes to win games and I still feel like I’m in shape,” Davis says. “I got it. It’s just a matter of getting a workout, a 10-day.”

Some players are trying to stay in.

“I’ve been waiting two years for this and I figured this was my only chance,” Stephenson says. “Either I was going to play good now or be out the league.”

Lance Stephenson first dunked at an AAU tournament in sixth grade. From that point forward, he dunked whenever, over whomever, wherever he could. “Once I dunked once, I knew how to dunk,” he says.

Stephenson didn’t have a typical childhood. He was driven everyday and completely focused on basketball. He’d run up the Coney Island Beach steps, and challenge his father, Lance Sr.,2 to push-up competitions. “Lance just wanted to be a kid, and he had to deal with it day in and day out,” says Gary Charles, who coached Stephenson in AAU. “I think sometimes he got out of character because people expected [so much of him].”

Stephenson always played above his age. He dropped 20 points as a fourth grader against eighth graders. He challenged O.J. Mayo, nearly three years his senior, and held his own. While still in junior high, he played on an AAU team with then–high school (and future NBA) players Danny Green and Joakim Noah. Stephenson played against Sebastian Telfair, another Coney Island product, when Stephenson was 10 years old. Lance Sr. hollered across the court at Telfair’s uncles, bellowing that his son was ready for the spotlight right now. Telfair, five years older than Stephenson, was already a legend in New York basketball circles.

“[He] killed me,” Stephenson says. “But that experience right there, scoring on him, I felt like I could be like him one day.” In 2006, a Rucker Park announcer noticed Stephenson’s penchant for thriving against older competition. He nicknamed him “Born Ready.”

“Whoever put somebody in front of me, I went after them,” Stephenson says. “I felt like I was living up to the hype. I don’t think it was bad hype.”

Lance Stephenson
Stephenson was New York’s first mega–prep star athlete whose high school career coincided with the rise of social media. He heard all the criticism and acclaim in real time. He heard it when he enrolled at Bishop Loughlin instead of nearby fabled Abraham Lincoln High School, setting off a maelstrom in Coney Island. He heard it when he abruptly transferred to Lincoln just two days after beginning at Bishop Loughlin, later citing the distance he had to travel to school. He heard it when he was suspended for five days in 2008 after a skirmish with teammate Devon McMillan. And he heard it when, later that same year, he and a teammate were arrested for groping a female student. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

But on the court, Stephenson dominated. Lincoln captured four PSAL city titles during his reign. Telfair had won three. Stephon Marbury, another Brooklyn son and Lincoln graduate, only captured one. It seemed as if Stephenson played at Madison Square Garden as often as the Knicks. By his senior season, he’d surpassed Telfair’s state scoring record of 2,785 points.

Lincoln coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton remembers calling a play that Stephenson failed to run during a championship game.

“Lance, we just went over the play and you still didn’t run what you were supposed to run,” Morton said to him.

“Coach, when I get in a groove, when I get out there, I don’t remember plays. Just give me the ball and I’m going to score,” Stephenson responded.

“That’s what he used to do,” Morton says. “And he scored a lot of points and we won a lot of championships.”

But colleges were skittish about recruiting Stephenson. He was an enterprising kid in high school, with his eye on the big picture. Among his questionable choices: At Lincoln, he filmed an Internet reality show and toured an Under Armour facility run by a Terrapin booster on a trip to the University of Maryland.

Stephenson eventually landed at Cincinnati, where he averaged 12.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in a solid if unremarkable freshman season. He declared for the NBA draft shortly thereafter. On draft night, Stephenson gathered with family and friends in Manhattan. The Knicks, his hometown team, had back-to-back picks in the middle of the second round. With their first pick, the team chose Andy Rautins from Syracuse with the 38th selection. Then NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver began, “With the 39th pick, the New York Knicks select Lan … ” The family rose to their feet, tension creeping into their throats, before Silver finished his sentence: “Landry Fields.”

“Can you imagine?” says Albert Ebanks, Stephenson’s agent. “Everyone jumped up.”

But Stephenson didn’t have to wait much longer after that — Bird and the Pacers grabbed him just one spot later. Ebanks says he knew that it didn’t matter where Stephenson was taken, that he’d make a path for himself. “I would describe him as a three-dog, one-bone guy,” Ebanks says. “You put three dogs in a ring and put a bone in the center, he’s going to be the one to come back with that bone.”

In a different era, Stephenson likely would have leaped to the NBA from high school. “I probably would,” Stephenson says. “But I liked that one year of school. I learned a lot.”

In a different era, Ricky Davis likely would have leaped to the NBA from high school. Davis felt he had outplayed NBA-bound Tracy McGrady at the 1997 Magic Johnson High School Roundball Classic. But Davis honored the commitment he made to his mother and the University of Iowa, averaging 15 points and nearly five rebounds per game in one season as a Hawkeye.

“I’m glad I didn’t [go to the NBA right away]. Kind of,” Davis says. “Because it helped me. I played center in high school. I had no idea about dribbling. I swear to you. When I went to college, they broke the game down. They showed me about playing defense.”

The Charlotte Hornets drafted an 18-year-old Davis with the 21st overall pick in the 1998 draft. Davis’s parents, Tyree and Linda, lived with him during his first two NBA seasons. “If I would have went out there when I was 17, 18, I would have really been bad, probably getting DUIs, acting crazy,” Davis says.

He concedes that he wasn’t NBA-ready — he even prepared by playing at a summer camp populated by free agents and NBA fringe guys. Then the lockout delayed his debut. Davis sat most of his rookie season, watching and simmering. Sometimes he boiled over.

“I was mad and I would cuss everybody out [over losing],” Davis says. “That’s being 18, 19, 20, 21. I wasn’t even old enough to buy liquor. But I got a million dollars.”

Heat
Charlotte3 dealt Davis to Miami in a nine-player deal during the summer of 2000, but Davis tweaked his ankle and knee and only played in seven games for the Heat. That’s when the clock started ticking. A player, no matter his potential, is only afforded so much time before being discarded. It didn’t take long before he was moving again. Davis, in his third NBA season — and at 21 the Heat’s youngest player — was traded to Cleveland in 2001.

But before he left, Davis says he found a mentor in Pat Riley.

“I was out of control,” Davis says. “I was a little firecracker. When I was 18, 19, I was a little firecracker. But I kept getting hurt. [Riley] kept giving me books and keeping me straight. [He gave] me life tips.”

Larry Bird is mentoring Lance Stephenson.

Bird resigned from his team presidency last summer, but he still texts Stephenson small notes of encouragement. “Force D-Wade left, don’t let him go middle,” he wrote before a recent game against the Heat. They talk at least a handful of times a month.

“My impression is that Larry really went out of his way, really liked him as a player, thought he could be very good and that he made a conscious effort to talk to him all the time and took a specific interest in him,” says Donnie Walsh, who resumed the Pacers’ presidency when Bird stepped down.

“Larry just liked him as a player,” Walsh says. “He understood what he had heard about him. So I think he took the attitude when he first came here of, You’re not going to play. You’re going to learn how to play. You better not get into any trouble. There was a lot of attention by Larry on the off-the-court stuff. This is how you act as a pro. I think that the kid listened, for the most part. From what I heard, it was rough in the first year. But we had good guys on the team, so they got involved and helped him.”

As Davis’s parents had after he was drafted, Stephenson’s parents moved to his new city with him.

“The team did its best to vet him and to look into some of the scenarios or situations that you just sort of get into, and to see them for what they are worth — which is really, in the big picture of things, mischief more than malice,” Ebanks says. “They weren’t taking a flyer on him. They did their homework.”

Morton says the Pacers called him before the draft and asked how Stephenson would react to acquiring money for the first time.

“I told him it’s a great question,” Morton says. “Most of us, if we were born with a little money, if you give us a lot of money, it could change us. I wouldn’t know what he would do with a lot of money. It would depend on his management team, I told him.”

But Stephenson’s NBA journey was almost derailed before it began. In August 2010, he was accused of pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs during an argument. Bird, still in the process of redefining Indiana’s identity, quickly released a statement. In it, he wrote that the Pacers had worked too hard “to permit the actions of one individual to reverse all of the positive strides that have been made as a franchise over the last couple of years or to hurt the image of the rest of the players on our team.” Authorities dismissed the case in 2011. Stephenson’s name hasn’t appeared in the blotter since.

On the court, his game had stalled, too. Stephenson dismissed the constructive criticism of older teammates. He was aloof and moody. Jim O’Brien coached Stephenson when he broke into the league. “I’ll pass,” he simply replied when asked to be interviewed about Stephenson.

Stephenson seldom played in his first two seasons. “We’ve had some guys here in the ’90s that were older-school guys who would have snapped him in half by now,” Boyle says. “I’m surprised that he’s still in one piece. He agitates his own teammates during practices. Not that it’s that bad. But day after day for six months, I imagine it gets on your nerves.”

Pacers assistant Dan Burke identified Stephenson as a talented player in need of some molding. He’s the reason coaches want to coach, he thought. He also recognized that Stephenson’s nickname, Born Ready, was far from accurate.

“I think he thought he had to come in and show everybody he was the man by defying the vets, defying leadership,” Burke says. “It wasn’t defiance in an explosive or antagonistic way. It was just him trying to be himself. He needs a little bit of that bravado to perform, and I think he just needed to find out where he crossed the line, and that was something we had to tell him every day, that some of the things you are doing isn’t helping the team. It could be something as mundane as keeping your locker clean and being a good neighbor.”

The transformation started, oddly enough, when Stephenson agitated LeBron James in last season’s playoffs. Stephenson had watched the intensity of the playoffs, the way players bore down on defense, how every possession counted. He wanted to play, to do anything to help his team. Television cameras caught Stephenson making a choke signal after James missed a technical free throw in the third quarter of the series’ third game.

“I was trying to do anything to get into anybody’s head on the floor,” Stephenson says. “I felt like at that moment I got in his head and I made him miss that shot. That helped us win that game. I try to be involved even if I’m not on the floor.”

That didn’t sit well with Miami.

“Lance Stephenson?” James asked incredulously. “You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time.” Old-school enforcement ensued. Veteran Juwan Howard aggressively approached Stephenson before the series’ next game. Dexter Pittman, a reserve big man who played for Miami last season, clotheslined Stephenson during the waning moments of the fifth game. “I think you’ve got to stop and wonder at that point, Is it me or is it everybody else?” Burke says.

Stephenson is right. Indiana did win the third game and assumed a 2-1 series lead. But then James turned in a 40-point, 18-rebound, nine-assist masterpiece in the next game. Miami won the final three games on its way to a championship, and Stephenson learned something about tugging the tiger’s tail.

“It gave LeBron a little trigger,” Stephenson says. “It made him go harder the next game. He responded well after I did that. Coach got on me a little bit and I just calmed down.”

Stephenson still talks, especially at practice. But when an opponent talks back, he turns it up a gear.

“That gets me motivated because when you talk junk that means that you got to score or you got to show that you’re not just talking, you’re playing hard too,” Stephenson says.

At a recent practice, Stephenson and teammate George Hill pressed Gerald Green after a defensive lapse. The badgering was harmless, yet persistent enough for Coach Frank Vogel to quietly ask them to stop. “He’s young and a lot of guys grow up talking on the court,” Walsh says. “Act like you’ve been there before. The less you say on the court to referees and other players, the more confident I think you are. It’s kind of like, we all grow up in the city. After a while, you got to know that the guys who wolfed all the time weren’t very tough. The guys who never said anything scared the shit out of me.”

Ricky Davis pissed Michael Jordan off. Like most everyone, he wanted to be like Jordan once upon a time. He wore number 23 and practiced acrobatic dunks. But Davis barely played in his first three NBA seasons and Jordan retired from the Bulls before they could face off. When he arrived in Cleveland in 2001, he started turning his garbage-time minutes into personal contests. If he played 10 minutes, he tried to get 15 points. If he played six, he tried to get 10. By the fifth game of the season, he started to discover his confidence, scoring 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting.

He played even more after Cleveland dealt two veterans ahead of him, Lamond Murray and Wesley Person. Davis played in every game of the ’01-02 season after combining for just 101 games in his first three seasons. He also finally got his chance to engage (and enrage) Jordan, who had recently returned to the NBA as a Washington Wizard.

Davis outdueled him, too. Both scored 18 points, but Jordan missed 10 more shots and grew impatient with Davis’s dunks at the end of an easy Cavaliers victory. Jordan told Davis that he would remember his performance the next time they played. “I started talking,” Davis says. “I don’t know why. Who wouldn’t say something, you know? Then after the game, I think he felt it. I said, ‘Hey, MJ. Can I get your shoes?’ He just looked at me. He came back and tore my ass up.”

Later that season, the 38-year-old Jordan dropped 40 points on Davis. “He didn’t say too much,” Davis says. “Just, ‘I’ve got your ass, young fella. I’ve got your ass.’ That’s what he said. When we stepped on the court, I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t want to wake him up no more. He came into the game and remembered that.”

Davis cemented his role as a crowd-pleaser with the Cavs. He could go for 40 points on seemingly any night. He was the first player to have an in-game through-the-legs dunk.4 He posterized Steve Nash and Charlie Ward. He even wagged his index finger after blocking Dikembe Mutombo. “I got a tech too,” he says. Davis had everything except wins.

The Cavs were on their way to a rare victory over the Jazz on March 16, 2003, when Davis turned a blowout into a scene that’s still debated to this day. During the game, Davis had been told by a teammate that he was just two rebounds shy of a triple-double. He had been close a few other times that season, but he could never seal the deal.5 “When I hear that, all I hear is Ice Cube [rapping], ‘Mess around and got a triple-double,’” Davis says. “That’s all I hear.”

With time winding down, he grabbed one more rebound late in the fourth quarter. His line: 28 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds.

“Now I can’t get a rebound to save my life and I’m talking about 30 seconds on the clock,” Davis says. “I’m still thinking of a way to try and go get it.” Davis motioned for teammate Jumaine Jones to inbound the ball to him in the closing moments. “They were about to foul me,” Davis says. “I don’t know why they were fouling. We were up 20 points. But they were still fouling at the end of the game. So when I caught the ball, I knew he was going to foul me. I caught it. I went and tried to go get that rebound and it stuck with me.”

In an attempt to acquire that final rebound, Davis purposefully shot and missed at his own basket. (By rule, a player cannot be credited with a rebound for a miss on his own goal.) Then things got ugly. Old-school enforcement ensued when Utah’s DeShawn Stevenson fouled Davis. Hard. Utah coach Jerry Sloan turned irate, telling reporters afterward, “I was glad that Shawn tried to knock him down. They can put me in jail or whatever they want for saying that, but that’s the way it is.”

The sequence ignited a fierce debate about individual achievement and results in sports. The Cavaliers fined Davis $35,000. Figures around the league denounced him and his selfish style of play. Davis has the advantage of a decade’s worth of perspective now. He says he’s surprised the stunt has stuck with him, but he also concedes it was all his own doing.

“I had thought I got the rebound,” he says. “I was so in my selfishness that I wasn’t thinking of the whole perception of what could happen. When you’re so young, you don’t think about what will happen later. And me coming from where I’m coming from, playing in the park all day … I’m going to get in trouble? Why would I get in trouble? We’re up by 20. That’s what I’m thinking in my head. We’re up by 20. Why would I get in trouble? But there’s more politics involved. There’s more than being a little kid and playing in a grown man’s world.”6

Coaches from John Lucas to Keith Smart7 to Paul Silas came and went in Cleveland. Davis says that Lucas told him that the organization planned to lose as many games as possible in order to better position itself to acquire James in the 2003 draft.

“When I came in, I was young,” Davis says. “I learned from the older guys. The older guys didn’t take no shit. That kind of stuck with me the older I got. I was kind of stubborn, wasn’t listening. When I was in Cleveland, they were trying to lose all the games. Who wouldn’t be mad? Would you be mad as a player if the coach wanted to lose all the games? You would. But you’ve got to blame it on somebody. They wanted to lose all the games and get LeBron. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like it.”

The Cavaliers won just 17 games in the 2002-03 season. They drafted James first overall that summer.

James/Davis
“One-two punch” is how Davis imagined himself playing with James. “Then Silas came in,” he says. “Me and Silas had a past in Charlotte. I don’t know why Coach Silas was mad, but I’m thinking it was all about LeBron and the transition of trying to make him the number one. I mean, I was ready to ride with him one-two ’cause I was doing my thing.”

“They were kind of messing with me because I didn’t need no plays. I was on fire, but they wanted LeBron, so it kind of got weird. They started taking me out, started labeling me, saying I was talking crazy to LeBron. It got kind of weird.”

Cleveland traded Davis to Boston that season, where he joined Antoine Walker8 and Paul Pierce. Davis worked on his craft, solidifying his rebounding and jumper, as the Celtics qualified for the playoffs. He became a fan favorite in Boston and continued his high-flying antics and penchant for showboating. He tried his through-the-legs dunk again against the Lakers.

“But I moved too fast,” Davis says about the attempt. “I went from the wrong angle and I messed up. So I got it back and I did a 360.” The play was Davis in a nutshell: the ambition, the athleticism, and the waywardness all on full display.

Even players with the most irrational sense of confidence need to start somewhere. Stephenson found his against Sacramento in November. When the Kings forced Indiana into overtime, Stephenson was surprised to find himself still on the floor. It was only the third game of what he considered his make-or-break season. He had never played serious minutes when it mattered this much. But he was unfazed, connecting on a 3-pointer in overtime, helping to force a second overtime. The Pacers won easily in the second OT.

Lance Stephenson
Stephenson had spent two years studying Danny Granger, Paul George, and others who played ahead of him. They knew the defensive signals, the calls, when to shoot a gap, how to trail a shooter. This was all new for him. Cincinnati mostly stuck to zone defense. Its offense was unsophisticated. But in the NBA, you can’t tell your coach you’re in a zone and can’t be pestered with plays.

“You can’t be too wild in this league because everybody’s smart,” Stephenson says. Assistant coach Brian Shaw kept telling Stephenson that players like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady did not arrive in the NBA as All-Stars.

“He always had the ball skills, the bravado,” Shaw says. “That was a big part of his game, but like a lot of young players, you get in this league and you are playing against grown men. Now you’re not the biggest, strongest guy anymore. Offensively, he needed to get confidence in his perimeter game, which he has now. But he had to learn how to guard scorers at his position. That was probably the weakest part of his game. At that position, you have to learn how to guard the best scorers night in and night out.”

Granger has missed the bulk of the season with a knee injury, so Stephenson was added to the starting lineup in the season’s seventh game. George slid down to small forward to make room for Stephenson as Indiana’s shooting guard. He’s started every game since. “I don’t ever want to come off the bench,” Stephenson says. “I want to be known as a starting player. So, I’ve got to keep working. If I keep doing that, the sky’s the limit.”

Vogel points to another game, against Denver, when Stephenson made little impact. Vogel told Stephenson that when he was not at his best, neither are the Pacers. “That’s when he realized how important he is to this team and that he’s not a fill-in for Danny Granger and keeping his seat warm,” Vogel says. “He’s a major factor at both ends of the ball in our success this year.”

The Pacers are undeniably better with Stephenson on the floor. His averages of eight and a half points and four rebounds per game may not impress, especially for New York City’s all-time leading high school scorer. But he has already succeeded where other phenoms have failed.

“Particularly in New York, he was made out to be the savior,” says Walsh, a native who presided over the Knicks when Stephenson played in high school. “To a degree, he came into this league very, very young. He’s still very young. I think he has made the adjustment to being a great talent and trying to get his game ready for the NBA game. A lot of guys can’t [escape] the tag. This kid has gotten out of it and he realizes what he wants to do.”

The Pacers, amazingly, have not missed a beat without Granger, a smart and collected leader on the court who emerged as the face of the franchise after the brawl. But Stephenson helped make the transition without him easier. Now, the Pacers are again eyeing a rematch with Miami in the playoffs. This time, Stephenson will have a chance to actually influence the outcome on the court.9

“He’s still Lance,” center Roy Hibbert says. “He still does the things that he does, but he does it in an aggressive nature.”

Walker/Davis
And Ricky is still Ricky.

He bounced from Boston to Minnesota in 2006 before reuniting with Miami in 2007. After Dwyane Wade injured his knee and shoulder, Riley reacquired Davis to pair him with Shaquille O’Neal. “I made the mistake of trading him,” Riley told reporters. “He’s a very talented kid. He was not a problem here. We just needed to move and get bigger players at that time.” Davis’s knee ached by then. But he played on it anyway — he was in a contract year. It’s hard to find a place in the NBA for a jumper who cannot jump. Davis’s outspoken, reckless reputation was secure by then, but the league will overlook anything if you can play. If you can’t, though?

Davis departed Miami for the Clippers. Then he became a global basketball wanderer. But he’s not satisfied with how things ended, or ready to be relegated to the history books like other troubled stars.

“That’s my whole dream now,” he says. “I’m not taking nothing for granted. I still got it. Just seeing where I’m at and how many guys of my talent are out — A.I. [Allen Iverson], Big Dog [Glenn Robinson], the same type of caliber guys — when they did that to them, I don’t know. Certain guys like that, trying to get in. [Latrell] Sprewell — of course he asked for too much money. But for the guys who don’t do nothing wrong, like me — just hurt. Just forgotten. It’s cool to be forgotten because I played like shit the last two years, but I was hurt. So it’s cool. I understand that.”

“I don’t got a DUI, none of that. I might have got in the drug program. But who ain’t did that? But ‘Why?’ is my question. Why can’t I get back in? They don’t look at it like, ‘You’ve almost got 10,000 points.’10 I just want that 10,000 points. I’m about 80 points away from 10,000. Is that normal?”11

Lance Stephenson, the boy they called Born Ready, is just starting to get born. Meanwhile, the man who witnessed a profound transformation in the league believes he is again prepared for the NBA.

“I’m ready,” Davis says. “That’s it. Ain’t no ifs, ands, or buts. I’m ready.”

Filed Under: NBA, Sports

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA's prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams