New Los Angeles Lakers guard Lance Stephenson might be — at least in part — best known for his most memeable moments one the court. From the time he put himself on skates to the infamous moment when he blew in the ear of his now-teammate LeBron James, he’s had no shortage of “Shaqtin a Fool” nominations.
But while those highlights are zany, they shouldn’t mask this: Stephenson says he absolutely takes the game seriously, so much so that he can’t even get along with his competitors away from it.
”When I’m on the court I’m bringing everything. I’m trying to prove myself, I’m trying to kill my opponent,” Stephenson told theScore in a mini documentary on his career. “That’s why I’m not friends with nobody on the court, because I feel like this is too much business, man.”
Stephenson’s total lack of fear and absence of a desire for friendship have perhaps most publicly been displayed in his various showdowns with James, or more accurately, how he’s one of the few players in the league who doesn’t back down one inch from LeBron.
Even if he doesn’t always understand why he did whatever latest strategy he just tried after the game is over.
”I don’t regret it but it’s something I look at like ‘Why did I do that? What made me do that?’” Stephenson said of the time he blew in James’ ear. “All he did was smirk. He didn’t say nothing, he just went like this (shakes head). So I’m like, ‘Yo, that ain’t work?’”
Stephenson never stopped trying to irk the King, but he never felt like he saw James’ armor crack even a little until their most recent playoff showdown, when Stephenson helped the Indiana Pacers push James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink in a seven-game first-round series.
”I think the closest to me getting him frustrated was this year. He started talking back, pushing me and stuff. He never said nothing until this year, he was like “What’s wrong with you, yo? I’m tired of this sh--,” Stephenson said. “I was like, ‘Man, I think I’m really getting to him!’”
Stephenson’s antics didn’t get to LeBron enough to stop him from eliminating the Pacers, but they might have earned James’ respect, and reinforced to him that he wanted a guy like Stephenson on his team.
Not that Stephenson thought his play would have that type of effect. When Magic Johnson called Stephenson in free agency to let him know James was interested in having Stephenson on his team, Stephenson was as surprised as most of the rest of us.
“I was like ‘What? After all the stuff I did, he wants me?’” Stephenson recalls saying. “We’ve had a lot of serious moments in the season, where we was talking junk and going after each other.”
Still, Stephenson is pretty sure why James wanted him.
“I feel like we’ve got the same mentality and we want to bring it every night. To be that guy that fights with him and fight to win games. To help the Lakers win and have fun doing it,” Stephenson said.
Now he just has to get used to the idea of being teammates with James after being adversaries for so many years.
“I’m looking forward to that and seeing what that experience is like. It’s going to be different, trying to be friends with LeBron,” Stephenson said with a laugh. “Actually shaking his hand and working with him, and learning from him, and seeing him every day.
“It’s going to be an interesting year, so I’m up for all challenges. That’s the type of guy I am.”
After all, Stephenson is used to challenges. After imploding in the first year of his deal with the Charlotte Hornets after leaving the Pacers for the first time in 2014, Stephenson bounced around the league, ricocheting from the Clippers, to the Grizzlies, to the Pelicans and then the Timberwolves, a period he chalks up to teams not understanding him.
”Moving around to different teams, it can be tough on you. It can break your confidence, it can break you,” Stephenson said. “I felt like a lot of teams didn’t understand me, they didn’t understand what I brung to the table and what I can do to help a team. All the negative stuff that you hear about me, I just think that they didn’t understand me. I’m a quiet, laid-back, funny dude. When I show my personality, people get to see the real Lance.”
After that sojourn around the league, Stephenson finally returned home to Indiana and the Pacers, an organization that clearly does understand how to get the best out of him and a place it’s clear he considers his NBA home and where he’s played the best years of his career.
That sense of home is probably why even Stephenson — who isn’t exactly known for his touchy-feely side — can admit he was a little wounded when Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard said that “sometimes he (Stephenson) was the best player on our team and sometimes he was the best player on the other team.”
”I felt hurt, because they didn’t explain to me what I didn’t bring, or what I did wrong,” Stephenson said. “When I’m on that court, I don’t feel like I would ever do anything to help the other team. I’m bringing it every single night.”
It’s far from a guarantee how often Stephenson will get to bring it for the Lakers this year given the team’s crowded wing rotation, but considering that James apparently wanted him around to “sic on people” like he used to get sent at LeBron, it seems a safe bet that Stephenson will get his chances.
After traveling around the league like an NBA vagabond for the last several years and in a season he’s hoping to use to find his next long-term NBA home, Stephenson is excited for whatever opportunity he gets to play alongside James.
”You’ve got to like a guy like that, that’s that hungry for the game. I’m very hyped for the season right now,” Stephenson said.
All quotes transcribed via The Score. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.