ZIONSVILLE, Ind. — Lance Stephenson loves the simplicity of silver, white and black, which cover the NBA player’s 8,440-square-foot estate.
Big, black decorative letters spell out his nickname, “B O R N R E A D Y,” on one wall. Two paintings of silver Buddhas, one upside down — Stephenson thought they’d look cooler that way — hang side by side. But the pièce de résistance sits in the corner of his living room: a platinum, life-size replica of a horse.
“Indiana, you know,” Stephenson said. “I figured a horse would fit in here.”
The horse indeed fits Indiana, and somehow so does Stephenson.
After several years of bouncing around the league without a steady home, Stephenson seems to have found one in his second tour of duty with the Pacers. Now in his second season back with the team that drafted him in 2010, he is the tongue-wagging, hip-gyrating, showboating guard injected into the veins of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“The energy is just contagious,” said Bill Manlove, a season-ticket holder in the section devoted to Stephenson, “The Born Ready Crew.”
Just how did a city kid bred on the swagger of Brooklyn street ball become so beloved in one of the NBA’s most culturally conservative markets, where the humble ethos of “Hoosiers” still lingers? It’s the story of a marriage between a flyover state with an underdog mentality and a brazen, overlooked second-round pick made good.
Stephenson couldn’t find acceptance in five other NBA cities but returned here to wide-open arms. In Indiana, basketball conquers all.
Indiana’s adopted son
The limelight followed him as a teenager.
He starred in his own reality show as a high school junior. By his senior year, he mean-mugged on the cover of Slam magazine. He was a phenom in the big city, graduating as the career leading scorer in New York state’s high school basketball history. Even after a year at Cincinnati, in which he was named Big East rookie of the year, he had to fly to 17 pre-draft workouts in search of his NBA shot. He arrived in Indianapolis as a relative unknown in June 2010 when then-Pacers president Larry Bird chose him with the 40th pick.
“Nobody had expectations for Lance,” said Tom Lewis, founder of Pacers fan blog Indy Cornrows.
But Indiana has a soft spot for the overlooked. Maybe because “Hoosiers,” a movie celebrating the underdog, is so ingrained that it seems to be a requirement for state residence — “I’ve seen it 12 times,” bragged Manlove, whose father was an extra in one of the scenes. With Stephenson, fans had found another stray.
Behind closed doors, he treated Pacers practices like Game 7, causing veterans to admonish: “Rook, you got to relax! This is just practice!” He nonetheless spent most of his rookie season as a question mark, fans having no clue that such fire and energy was bottled up in a suit on the bench.
Stephenson won the hearts of Pacers fans by not backing down from LeBron James. (Brent Smith/Reuters)
By the next season, he was becoming a cult hero, coming out of nowhere to score 22 points in the regular season finale against the rival Chicago Bulls. There he was again in the playoffs, holding a choke sign after Miami Heat star LeBron James missed a free throw in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“As soon as he did that, everybody was like, ‘I don’t know if the kid can play, but that’s great,’ ” said Scott Lagler, another longtime fan.
In 2012-13, he started 72 games. The next year, he averaged 13.8 points, flopping theatrically for calls and celebrating big shots by squatting low and wiggling his hips.
“He’s got that type of swagger to him. That’s how he gets himself going, gets himself excited,” said Cory Joseph, a current Pacer who played against Stephenson from 2011-17. “Sometimes it tends to get under people’s skin.”
He was an irritant, but he was Indiana’s irritant. And he was James’s thorn.
For three straight postseasons, the Pacers ran into Miami’s Big Three as Stephenson conducted a master class on how to frustrate The King, once going so far as to blow into James’s ear.
“Lance has swagger to go up to the biggest, baddest dude in the NBA and blow in his ear and let him know he’s here,” said Dominic Dorsey, a native and Pacers fan. “And that’s Indiana.
“They call us Naptown: Everybody sleeps on us,” Dorsey continued. “Here’s the thing: Nobody expects us to sneak up from behind and come away with the win. You’ve got Lance Stephenson on your squad, you think you might just have a shot.”
Just happy to be here
At first, Stephenson didn’t know what to make of this place.
“It’s more country-like to me,” Stephenson said of Indiana. “I’m from the city. I mean, there’s always something to do in New York. . . . When I got here, I didn’t know what to do.”
He was entering a market unlike New York in other ways, too. Indianapolis, the state capital, is a contradiction at the crossroads of America.
The Pacers play in downtown Indianapolis, a rare dot of blue in a statewide sea of Republican red, but where Stephenson has settled, 22 miles away in quiet Boone County, residents voted 60.4 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was tapped as Trump’s running mate and, in October, the vice president returned for a Colts game — walking out when a handful of players knelt during the national anthem. A Republican state lawmaker recently announced plans to push legislation that would force the Colts to offer refunds to fans offended by kneeling players.
Stephenson may ooze confidence and have no problem preening on the court, but he is reluctant to wade into political waters.
“There’s been some stuff that went on, and I wanted to talk about. I feel like . . . ” he said, with a pause. “My words ain’t really going to help what’s going on. I don’t feel like I can really change . . . ”
“I feel like I would be hurting myself more than anything, trying to speak my own opinion and how I feel,” he continued. “So I just stay quiet, because I don’t want that type of energy and that stuff around me.”
Indianapolis has long been a pocket of liberalism — at least by Indiana standards. The Pacers long had a reputation for signing more white players than the average team. In 2004, when asked by ESPN whether the NBA needed more white superstars, Bird replied, “I think it’s good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited.”
Following a few franchise-altering events — most notably “The Malice at the Palace” in 2004, when Indiana players fought with fans in the stands in Detroit, and a 2006 incident in which Stephen Jackson fired a gun outside of a strip club — four of the Pacers’ top seven players were white.
“A lot of people in Indiana want a white face for their professional basketball franchise,” said Lagler, who is white.
When Dorsey, a community organizer who’s black, planned and participated in more than a dozen Black Lives Matter protests in his hometown, he read the ugly opinions posted under reports about the events. In Dorsey’s view, a professional athlete in Indianapolis should tread carefully before tweeting #blacklivesmatter, so he doesn’t blame Stephenson for his decision to remain silent.
“The comments that you’ll see from thumb thugs and Internet warriors just sitting there watching the broadcast, saying, ‘How dare you! Go get a job! Welfare queens!’ ” Dorsey said. “[Trump] being in office has emboldened that type of behavior and that type of rhetoric. If you value your fans and you just want to make your money and go home, why would you step into that arena?”
Stephenson hoped to re-sign with Indiana but, after the sides failed to come to an agreement, he left for Charlotte. That set off a journey of playing for five teams over three seasons. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer)
Stephenson said he doesn’t censor himself because he plays in Indiana, but he remembers how low he was before this second chance. He doesn’t want to risk it.
“I was going through team to team and couldn’t figure out a role, what team needed me,” said Stephenson, who was cut in March by the Minnesota Timberwolves, concluding a journey in which he suited up for five teams over three seasons after leaving Indiana in free agency. “I was, like, at my weakest.”
Then, just as Bird was stepping down as team president in April, he brought Stephenson home on a three-year contract.
At Stephenson’s home debut April 4, the ovation was so loud that he had to stare at the rim to keep from crying. After games, fans followed him to his favorite hangout, Hooters.
“He saw my shirt and wanted it,” said Jared Beeler, who was wearing a gold “Born Ready” T-shirt at the restaurant. “I couldn’t say no.”
Fans would give Stephenson the shirts off their backs because of nights like Jan. 12. In the Pacers’ 97-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephenson was back to bothering James. After hitting a three-pointer, he got in James’s face on defense and remained there after a whistle. When James delivered a forearm to his chest, Stephenson exaggerated the contact and flashed an incredulous expression as he searched for a referee. James got hit with a technical foul. Indiana, of course, loved it.
“You hear about guys having a quiet 20-point, eight-assist night?” Indy Cornrows’ Lewis said, before screaming, “Lance! Does not have a quiet night. If he has a 10-point, five-assist night, it’s loud!”
When he’s in Indiana, Stephenson isn’t the kid from Brooklyn. The second-round pick with too much swagger. The castaway forgotten by the NBA. He is their humble Hoosier.
“I feel like I get all the energy from all the fans, and it just go inside of me and I just fight for them,” Stephenson said. “I do whatever I can to win for them, and I feel like the fans make me the player that I am now. … I feel like this is home to me.”