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Stephenson and Oliver Commit to Play NCAA Hoops. Oliver?

July 5, 2009 under College Basketball

CollegeBasketball1Lance Stephenson, one of the most talented high school basketball players in the nation, committed to the University of Cincinnati this week after a long and tumultuous recruiting process. Stephenson, out of Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, set the New York state scoring record while leading the Railsplitters to four consecutive city championships. He was invited to the prestigious ABCD camp as an eighth grader, has been the subject of a documentary, played in the famous summer league at Rucker Park, been named a McDonald’s All American and palled around with rapper Jay-Z. An amazingly gifted athlete, Stephenson was recruited by all of the elite college basketball programs in the country. So, why Cincinnati and why such a late commitment?

Stephenson’s prep career was bumpy from the start, as he transferred out of Bishop Loughlin High School after just three days. He was suspended from school for an altercation with a teammate that reportedly involved his throwing the teammate through a glass table. His on court behavior of showing up teammates and railing at referees became commonplace over the course of four years and seemed to be tolerated because of his incredible skills. Until he met Bob McKillop. The Davidson University coach cut Stephenson from the U.S. national under 18 team last summer mainly due to his inability to work with his teammates. “Lance is a tremendous basketball player,” McKillop told reporters. “The question is what was happening with those other four guys on the court, when Lance is on the court? Five percent of the game is played with the ball in your hands. The other ninety five percent is played without the ball in your hands. Lance had to work on that. We try to implement the team concept of passing more than dribbling. That was something other players got better and better at.” From that point, it became a long year for Stephenson.

In October, he was arrested for allegedly groping a female student inside the school. That case is set to go to trial on July 15th. His recruiting visit to Maryland sparked a furor after he went on a tour of the facilities of athletic outfitter Under Armour, whose founder is a Maryland alum deemed by the NCAA as a booster; someone prohibited from contacting a recruit. Maryland subsequently dropped out of the process, as did Arizona, Memphis, Kansas and St. John’s. Ironically, Cincinnati, a school that fired its coach just two years ago over the issue of the questionable character of some of its recruits, was the last school standing and became Lance’s safety net. Maybe, just maybe, the circumstances by which Stephenson’s star was dimmed will serve as a wake up call to some of the young AAU superstars who are pandered to by parents, coaches and sneaker companies. No matter the level of talent, nothing trumps love of the game, dedication to teammates or the drive to be part of something bigger than yourself.

Steve Oliver is not one of the most talented high school players in the nation. He owns none of the career scoring records at his alma mater, Xavier High School, attended instructional camps that his parents paid for and has some of his games recorded on home video. A hard working athlete with the dream of playing college basketball, he chose the College of Mount Saint Vincent for its academics, financial aid package and the opportunity to play Division III hoops.

Oliver also experienced fits and starts throughout his career. Taller than his elementary school teammates, he spent much of his time playing center but, at six feet tall, was forced to remake himself into a guard in high school. After spending countless hours working on his shooting and ballhandling, he was told that his quickness was an issue, prompting hundreds of sessions jumping rope. When upper body strength became a problem he headed to the weight room. Along the way he battled things like fatigue, second guessing and time management, all in pursuit of the chance to play at the next level.

Off the court, Oliver integrated himself into the school’s community; serving as a mentor to younger teammates and traveling to Mexico and Tennessee to build homes for impoverished people. His rewards came not in the form of scholarship offers but in the respect of faculty and coaches. He received the Coach’s award for his leadership on the basketball team and was presented with the Alumni award at graduation for his outstanding character and devotion to the school.

When he shows up at his first collegiate practice in October, he’ll be facing many of the same obstacles that he overcame at Xavier. He’ll be fighting for playing time and the coach’s confidence while gearing up to play in front of sparse crowds on winter weeknights when most of the basketball world is home watching the big boys on ESPN.

One of those big boys will be Lance Stephenson, someone seemingly more interested in what the game can do for him rather than the other way around. So shoot me an email and let me know how Cincinnati is doing. I’ll be sitting in the bleachers watching Steve Oliver show me how much he loves the game.

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