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Lance Stephenson unplugged: Grateful, humbled and hopeful to continue on with Indiana
He returned on a 10-day contract when many Pacers were out — and then finished out the season. "I love this game and I just felt like my time wasn’t up."
Lance Stephenson is beloved in Indiana.
It’s a relationship that has stood the test of time as the guard from Brooklyn left the Pacers not once, but twice in free agency.
In large part, it may be because the Pacers and their fans were with him from the beginning, since draft night 12 years ago. They selected Paul George first at No. 10, then Stephenson at 40. Larry Bird saw talent, appreciated Stephenson’s competitive fire and how he was built different.
To this day, Stephenson still calls him each year for his birthday on December 7.
Undoubtedly, the storyline that moved Pacers fans the most this past season was Stephenson being brought back for a third stint (as I first reported on here). His connection with them is unique, and it’s something he’s frequently asked about. He says they’re like family, that he’s most comfortable here at “home” and that it feels like he has superpowers after putting on a Pacers uniform.
“It’s just love,” he said. “I’m passionate about the game and want to win — and the fans feel the same way. When you go out there and play as hard as you can, and you do the dirty work, defense, passes. It’s not all about scoring, it’s about doing everything to help the team and I think the fans got that connection with me.”
At the end of the season, Stephenson was requested for a community event at a nearby Kroger. The one at 65th and Keystone. He was scheduled to take pictures and sign autographs for an hour, but it went way past that after an estimated 500 fans came through to see Born Ready.
“It was a lot,” he said afterward with a big grin. “It’s a blessing for them to come out and make me feel great, man. I was very emotional, but I made sure I signed everybody’s stuff. I didn’t want to leave early.”
Bert Brown was the first one in line for the meet-and-greet session. He arrived with a lamp shade, of all things, for Stephenson autograph. So now every time he turns on the light to his man cave, Stephenson's signature shines brightly.
As you see below, Stephenson lit up with a smile during this interaction.
After playing less than 17 minutes off the bench for the Lakers during the 2018-19 season, he was left without an NBA deal. So he went over to China for couple years. In March 2020, the Pacers were impacted by injuries and worked toward signing him when the pandemic hit. So it never happened.
For several years now, Stephenson has been trying to get back in the NBA and, ideally, back home with the Pacers. He proudly kept his house in Zionsville and spent a lot of time here. He trains here, raises his kids and can often be seen at Fever games in the summer.
Finally in December, when the omicron variant rapidly spread across the NBA, teams were in desperate need of players. So Nate McMillan, one of his former Pacers head coaches, gave him an opportunity in Atlanta on a 10-day hardship contract.
And then when that expired, he was reunited with the Pacers at last. It began as four separate 10-day contracts before the team finally signed his first standard NBA deal in almost four years. (Malcolm Brogdon missed much of the season with a sore Achilles, T.J. McConnell underwent hand surgery in December and the Pacers tried a few others as a third-string guard.)
Stephenson, 31, put on a show in his home debut against the Brooklyn Nets, his hometown team. He electrified the crowd as he scored their final 20 points in the first quarter. It was one of the highlights of the season.
“Lance has given us a different vibe as a team,” head coach Rick Carlisle said during the first month. “The spark that he has provided, the personality … there’s a change in our team, a change in disposition, the body language, the enthusiasm. It’s been great to see.”
Added rookie Chris Duarte: “The crowd loves him. I had heard about him before, how crazy he goes here. Seeing that in person was unbelievable.”
Stephenson is a basketball junkie. He’ll play anywhere anytime. He was disappointed when the All-Star break arrived in mid-February; he had been out of the league for two years and wanted to keep going. He watched the festivities and was disappointed by the dunk contest, but he had a proposal to fix it.
He was thrilled with enjoyed this opportunity to return to Indiana, play in front of Pacers fans once again and do what he loves. But the losing, despite being shorthanded due to injuries, was difficult for Stephenson and others to take. They lost the final 10 games of the season and ended 25-57 — their worst record since the 1984-85 season.
After the season, scans revealed that Stephenson had loose particles in his right knee so he had surgery to clean that up (as I told you about on here). He’s now back on the court, in the weight room and around the Pacers’ facility every day.
He’s not ready for this relationship to end. He wants to be on the Pacers as long as they’ll have him, and he hopes that’s at least a few more years.
“I love this game and I just felt like my time wasn’t up,” he said of his return this past season.
However, he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. And the Pacers added two more guards to the fold at the NBA Draft last week in Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard.
All along, the team’s decision on him hinged on how the rest of the roster filled out. They pivoted midseason, made three trades and landed their highest draft selection in 34 years. Before the draft, it was clear there was mutual interest in continuing the partnership, according to league sources.
“As we build out this team, I want to say this: It’s gonna take a little bit of time,” team president Kevin Pritchard said last week. “The draft is one part of a chance to build a team, a chance to remake a team.”
It may all come down to a numbers game. Stephenson is willing to accept a lesser role where he’s leaned on more for providing positive energy and helping the young guys learn the NBA.
The three players they drafted are 20, 22 and 19. Tyrese Haliburton, the face of the team, is just 22.
Ultimately, the Pacers front office has a tough decision to make, something they will wrestle with over the next few weeks. “I love point guards,” Carlisle notably said after Nembhard was added to the mix.
Below is an extended conversation I had with Stephenson — on the love from Indy, a significant change in his diet, why his 14-assist game meant more than his 30-point home debut and much more.
(Note: It has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
You’ve been working for this return for four years. To see it come to fruition, how rewarding has that been for you? This is all you wanted.
I’m very grateful. Being able to play again. I was sitting in the house hoping I could get back in the league and working out every day and grinding and trying to keep my body in the best shape ever. I was playing pick-up, kids coming up to me saying I’m still good, that I should be in the NBA. And I’m here now. If it wasn’t for those kids keep coming up to me and motivating me every day and telling me I look good, I’m in shape and I should be out there, who knows where I would be right now. I continued to keep on just to show the kids ‘Don’t stop, keep going.’
How bummed out were you during the pandemic because you were about to sign here (as I reported), and then everything paused.
I was very upset because it was so close. Then the pandemic and the next day I was about to sign here. I was definitely mad. Then the bubble happened and I couldn’t get in the bubble (because he wasn’t in the NBA that season). And then I was waiting, working out and hoping to get another chance. So then I went to the G League because I was tired of sitting on this couch.
How happy were your parents about your return? I know they’re not in town, but in Las Vegas.
My family is very excited. I’ve been out so long that it felt like to everybody that I was not going to get back in. Man, I stuck with it and kept grinding and believed in myself and never gave up. I took every day like I was going to make it.
I saw you have a special moment with Nancy Leonard in your first game back. Was there anyone else that stood out to you?
I feel like the whole building. It’s like I feel like I know everybody. Seeing everybody just makes me feel happy.
What was your experience in China like — which led you to where you are today? Would you define that as your transformation point? You’re out of the league and recognized you had to change some things to get back.
China was a great experience. I got to be a leader on the team, get like 38 to 40 minutes per game and being the go-to guy. I ain’t have that since like college and high school. So I went out there as the main guy that controls the team and looks forward to helping them winning the game every day. It was a great experience and I don’t regret it at all.
What did you focus on in your quest to get back to the NBA?
Learning how to use screens better and finding people. I fell in love with making my teammates better. I watched a lot of players and film of how I used to play. I tried to figure out when I come back in, how can I be even better? It was being more poised and trying to make the best play possible every time.
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Why did you keep your Zionsville home? Why did you make that your primary residence despite no longer playing here?
It feels like home. I’m super comfortable. If you get a comfortable house, you just don’t want to leave it. I built a court back there, changed my pool, fixed up my movie theater. I feel comfortable and I never wanted to leave the house. I’m happy I kept it because I’m here now.
What do you mean “changed your pool?”
I made it look a little bit fancier.
How do you spend your off time now? You probably don’t go to Hooters much.
Watching TV, watching Power, playing a little NBA2K and enjoying the family. I’m not doing too much. I don’t go to Hooters no more because I’m on a little diet. I don’t eat chicken.
(Sidenote here: If you didn’t know, Hooters is a longtime favorite of Lance’s. He’d go to the downtown location often after games. While on the Lakers, he invited fans there after the game. Unfortunately, the Lakers had to fly out so it didn’t happen. But I wrote a big feature about it.)
Wait, what inspired this change and what does your new diet consist of?
Yeah, I don’t eat chicken. That’s why I’m a little slimmer than I used to be. I was in China and I wasn’t really feeling the meat. It was getting me sick a little bit. And I was out there so long, like 6-7 months, I got used to not eating chicken. So when I came back, I told myself I’m going to stick with it. I eat seafood, but I eat a lot of vegetables and fruit. I just stick to seafood. No steak, no burgers, no chicken, none of that.
I feel like that’s all you used to eat. Am I wrong?
Man, I miss it. I tasted it one time and I ain’t feel right so I stuck with it.
How have you felt better because of this dietary change?
I wake up a little more energized, my soreness goes away faster and I feel a little bit quicker, a little lighter on my feet.
Speaking of feet, we saw you continuing to wear your And1 shoes. We used to see you rotate in Jordan shoes and other classics. Why did you consistently wear And1s in every game?
It just feels good. I feel comfortable, it fits my feet right. I’m superstitious so you know I keep wearing the same shoes and the same brand. I feel like every game I’m going to play the same way.
Is playing different now that your kids can see dad play in the NBA? Whereas, I think before, it felt like your brother was maybe five years old. Now they can also see and enjoy you playing in the NBA.
My kids are old enough to understand the game and seeing their dad play is a very inspiring. My daughter won a championship so she’s inspired watching her dad since the young days. It was her first championship so she called me with the exciting news.
What type of player is your daughter?
She’s a point guard defender.
(Note: His last Instagram post isn’t about him. It’s of her — his eldest daughter Liara — playing basketball.)
Does she have your handles?
She’s getting there. She’s still young. She’s 13 and she’s learning how to dribble in front of people because you know it’s hard at that age to get your handles. She’s learning every day and getting better.
That’s the YouTube generation. Do they go back and watch your highlights or big games?
Ah yeah. My daughter does my celebrations. They do everything they do, so I kind of watch what I do because I don’t want them to do everything.
I’ve always wondered, because I understood your decision to go to the Lakers — LeBron, Hollywood, that has your name all over it. But at the same time, is there regret for leaving a good thing here in Indy a second time?
It was a good chance to try to get to a ‘chip, but it didn’t work out the way I wanted. I got a lot of other things off the court like commercials, movies and stuff like that. I don’t regret it. It was a great experience and I learned from it. I actually got to work out and learn from LeBron and (Rajon) Rondo, (JaVale) McGee — all the guys who actually have ‘chips out there. It wasn’t something I regret because I learned a lot from those guys. It made me slow down my game and more poised on the court.
What was your biggest takeaway after playing with LeBron?
Just how they approach the game every day, how they’re like coaches on the floor. There’s a lot of guys that know the game, but just to play with a guy who knows as much as the coach and he knows where everybody is supposed to be at, knowing every play. It was just a different atmosphere and it made me look at the game even deeper than what I used to looking at it.
Rick Carlisle said the Mavs tried to recruit to you Dallas in 2014. What was it like learning and playing for him for the first time?
It’s a great experience. His communication skills are on point. He told me as soon as I came in what he needed form me and what I needed to do to help the team. When you have a coach like that, it makes the game easier, it’s helpful for me to know what I need to do. The communication from Day 1 has been on point.
Do you notice how you impacted the bench? Because before you got here, the bench wasn’t standing up and wasn’t cheering. It was quiet.
I didn’t realize it, but I’m happy to be that guy to get everybody going and get everybody inspired to play every night. It’s tough when you’re losing and a lot of guys are out and we can’t have our full roster, but I’m just trying to get my guys motivated and go out there, play their best and try to win the game every night.
Were you at all surprised that when you checked in, the place went nuts? You got the loudest applause, as if someone just hit a game-winner. Every time.
I love it. It makes me want to go out there and get something and play harder and try to win the game. When you got fans behind you like that, it makes you feel good to go out there and play.
What it’s like hearing one of your songs played pregame when you warm up? Because you have four or five songs by now.
I’m going to send them my new ones because I got better ones now. The old ones — I don’t really like them no more.
Against Utah, you recorded a carer-high 14 assists and 10 of them were off Domantas Sabonis’ scores. You two had it going. When you’re locked in like that, especially with a big, what is that like? That’s you at your best.
It’s fun. I like to score, but to make my teammates smile and happy and to make the crowd go crazy, that’s better than scoring to me. I just like to make people smile and happy. I’ve always been that way and I enjoy it. So I feel like that 14 assist game was way better than that 20-point first quarter — even though that was epic. (Big smile)
What was the message from the front office after the season?
We’re going to talk a lot during the offseason and try to figure out something. My goal is to get my body better and better so I’ll definitely be in tip-top shape.
Part of your message to NBA teams was how you’ve matured and willing to be the veteran on a team, helping young players. How do you feel that worked out?
I think I did a good job with that. The young team that we have is very talented. I talked to Tyrese (Haliburton) a lot and I felt like as the season got going, he became more aggressive and more in attack mode toward the end of the season — since I was telling him, ‘Man, if you attack you’re going to open a lot of other things on the floor where you can help the team.’ As the season got going, I feel like I was helping the young guys better every day.