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A Few More Thoughts On Lance Stephenson

If you're interested in Lance Stephenson, the New York City basketball phenom I wrote about in the current print issue, it's probably worth my mentioning that he didn't announce his college decision this week, as I'd reported in my article that he would. This development caused has no end of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending among the people who follow college recruiting and who were counting on Lance to give them their fix--which prompted Lance to somewhat poignantly protest:

“It wasn’t a change,” he said. “It’s just been hard for me and my family to make a decision. I’m just going to wait it out.”

He added: “This is my life. I want to go somewhere that I’m comfortable and I can play at.”

Then again, the fact that Lance remains undecided about his college destination has only increased the drama and triggered a whole new round of speculation about where he's going to wind up, so maybe his indecision is good for the recruiting chattering classes--in addition to being good for him.

Speaking of what's good for Lance, there was one thing in my article that I only touched on briefly, because it wasn't really central to my thesis, but that I think I could afford to spell out a bit more, and that has to do with Lance's family. By conventional sociological measures, the Stephensons are doing everything right: it's a mom and a dad who are very (very, very) involved in their son's life. If Lance wanted to go to college to study botany or become a transit worker, his family's stability and care for him would serve him well. But because he wants to be a basketball star, his family situation might actually be working against him. 

In a lot of instances with star high school basketball players, especially when they're being raised by single moms, there are various men (coaches, agents, runners, whomever) who try to become father figures to the players. Sometimes these "father figures" are just exploiters, sometimes they have the kids' best interests at heart; but, either way, in a lot of instances, they know how the system works and they know how to game it so that they're able to shepherd the kid to the NBA. In Lance's case, his parents seem very intent on keeping these outsiders away--something that's made easier by the mere presence of Lance's dad. But here's the problem. There are a lot of corporate CEO's with Harvard or Wharton MBA's out there who'd have a hard time playing all the angles of the game that is trying to make it to the NBA. And here you have a family, with two young parents who don't have anything in the way of graduate education, trying to do it. That's going to be a very tall order for them.  Indeed, some of the things that have, in my opinion, made things more difficult for Lance--namely, his decision to play his high school basketball in New York City, a city that these days seems to ruin more star players than it creates--are the result of decisions made by his parents. It's almost enough to make you wish that some shady street agent had gotten ahold of him at the age of 14 and sent him off to one of those prep-school-basketball-factories. Which just goes to show you how perverse our sports culture has become--when that becomes the sort of outcome you wish for.

When I wrote this piece on Sonny Vaccaro last year, he explained to me why he no longer watched much college basketball, complaining:

"No one gives a shit when the nine o'clock game starts how these kids got on the court. They just care who wins or loses."

I think he describes a lot of basketball fans, myself included. And I have to admit that the more I've learned about how these kids got on the court, the more guilty I feel about enjoying college basketball as much as I do. That said, I'll definitely be watching the games tomorrow night and I'll be rooting like hell for Carolina to win. But I'll be a lot more conflicted about it than I used to be.

Jason Zengerle