At that point, the 6-foot-6 Brooklynite wasn’t even in the rotation, appearing in just four of 11 Indiana Pacer playoff games, which followed up a second NBA season where he tallied 2.5 points per game on average.
Two years later, Stephenson memorably blew in James’ ear in another playoff series at the tail end of his two best and most noteworthy NBA seasons in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
It’s only fitting that the aforementioned choke gesture was reminiscent of Reggie Miller, the greatest Pacer of all-time, the organization where “Mr. Born Ready” made himself into a legitimate NBA player and a household name.
All he ever needed was someone to let him be him.
“Definitely,” the Abraham Lincoln High School alum told his paper when asked if he found a home away from home in Indiana. “I’m very happy here. The team is winning, they believe in me, they let me be me. I remember when I wasn’t even playing on different teams. Just to have this opportunity to be able to show the world what I could, man, it’s a blessing.”
The eccentric enigma grew up in Coney Island and was a heralded basketball prodigy since middle school. While at Lincoln High, Stephenson netted 2,946 career points, the most in New York State history until earlier this year, and was named a McDonald’s All-American as a senior after leading Lincoln to four PSAL city championships and two NY Federation state titles.
In the NBA, it wasn’t always this blissful. Stephenson went through professional hell to get here.
After rising to prominence in 2014, Stephenson opted for free agency, even after receiving a five-year, $44 million offer from Indiana, who selected him in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft.
Stephenson subsequently signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets, uniting him with fellow New Yorker Kemba Walker, a hopeful new beginning, but it would be just the first of six stops over the next three seasons.
The Stephenson experiment failed in Charlotte, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans and Minnesota, the latter of which signed the Brooklynite to two 10-day contracts, but rejected keeping Stephenson for the season.
But then an old friend in Indiana came calling, signing Stephenson to a multi-year deal this past March, stabilizing the perplexing talent back where it all began in June 2010.
“It messed with me a little bit, but I feel like God put me through that to humble me,” said Stephenson, who, by the NBA All-Star break, was averaging 9.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists while coming off Indiana’s bench. “I believed in myself, kept working hard, working on the little things and watching a lot of film.
“I actually learned from the players I did play with, like Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Z-Bo [Zach Randolph], Marc Gasol,” Stephenson added. “I’ve seen what they’ve done off the court to get better and I took full advantage of that.”
For a number of reasons, it never worked elsewhere. The cuffs were on, the fit wasn’t ideal, too many guards...whatever it was, it just didn’t work.
An older, wiser, more collected 27-year-old Stephenson has his own theory in a moment of reflection.
“A lot of guys, you can’t put a leash on them, you’ve just got to let them play,” he said. “In the NBA, a lot of teams that I’ve been on didn’t let me be me. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity on a good team, a playoff team. I feel great being back in Indiana.”
Being undervalued, becoming a star, moving to a new city, having that star fall, being unceremoniously shopped around, and later unwanted has resonated with Stephenson.
In 2018, he’s not the supremely skillful back-up who is struggling to find minutes. He’s no longer bouncing around from team to team, wondering if he’ll ever find solidity.
Now, he’s home.
Perhaps it isn’t Brooklyn, where he’ll visit every year to face the Nets, like he did last Thursday in a Pacer victory, bringing out 13 people in the process as opposed to his normal 22 because “tickets are expensive, man.”
But Indiana let him be. Now, as an eight-year NBA veteran, Stephenson, perhaps the greatest high school player in New York City history, can look back and ultimately be grateful.
“This is a tough place to be, it’s hard to get here,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that are good, they’re just not here. It’s a blessing to be here with a team that believes in you, and believe that you can help them. I embrace it.”