- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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NEW YORK -- Dawn along Coney Island Beach is when Lance Stephenson Jr. enjoys the remnants of solitude. His days are long. His time is in demand.
While slogging through the sand on Brooklyn's southernmost tip, Stephenson is alone in thought. He's focused on each step, on pushing closer to greatness. The morning run is when he envisions unleashing a killer crossover dribble, ponders where he might attend college next fall, or contemplates school assignments he needs to complete.
Chasing greatness begins at 5:30 a.m. on streets named Surf, Mermaid and Atlantic. After an intense hour workout, which includes pull-ups and dips on a jungle gym in a nearby playground, Stephenson heads down Ocean Parkway to school.
For the faint at heart, the rigorous daily regimen is just that; reflecting the work ethic needed to rise above the competition and atop the analyst's charts in the high school basketball Class of 2009.
The 6-foot-6-inch guard no longer needs introductions. In the grassroots basketball universe, Stephenson is sun, the moon and the star.
The sun: players revolve around him, feeding off his energy. He's the center of the prep hoop universe.
The moon: a cold, desolate place, but one that breeds the cool mannerisms and individual drive to conquer greatness.
The star: his is shining brighter than ever.
Stargazing is the norm when Stephenson takes the court; he is the fan favorite. He regularly drains Sharpies signing autographs, but it's his signature moves and cocksure attitude that attract basketball aficionados.
Stephenson, like neighborhood legends Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, was earmarked for greatness at an early age. Stephenson, dubbed "Sir Lancelot" or "Born Ready," has grasped the Brooklyn torch with flair.
On Friday, Stephenson and 23 of the nation's elite boys' high school basketball players will compete in the Boost Mobile Elite 24 (ESPNU, 8 p.m. ET), a unique, summer-ending all-star game at the famed outdoor court at Rucker Park in Harlem.
The event's third incarnation is a celebration of the outdoor game, popularized by urban street legends. Thirteen of the 24 chosen players are rising seniors, including Stephenson.
Stephenson is no stranger to the event, having played in last year's game.
"Crowds can be tough [at Rucker] but I'm used to it," Stephenson said. "Outdoor games are about up and down court and showmanship. People want you to show them what you have. It's pretty much the same at the Gardens in Coney Island."
That's where Stephenson, the latest Brooklyn prodigy to lace them up for Lincoln High, toils and resides. He's a few blocks from the amusement park, home of the renowned Cyclone Roller Coaster, Nathan's Hot Dog stand and the New York Aquarium.
The mist usually lifts from the shores of the Atlantic shortly after sunrise. By that time Stephenson and his father Lance Sr. or "Stretch" (a name derived from a six-inch summertime growth spurt as a teen) have completed the "killer" workout.
Running, pushups, pull-ups, proper stretching and jump shots comprise the daily routine. (Stephenson and his father complete it in an hour, allowing both to be on time for school and work.)
The workout is patterned after the one created for Telfair by his half-brother, Jamel Thomas. Stephenson began running the beach with Telfair when he was 12.
"At first, Sebastian just sprinted in the sand leaving me way behind," Stephenson said. "But to be the best that's what I needed to do."
Running in the sand gives athletes a tough workout in a short distance; in Stephenson's case the route lasts 22 blocks (approximately two miles) on the sand, followed by a return trip on the boardwalk.
The back and shoulders benefit greatly from running on sand, because balance is stressed. Quadriceps (four muscles in the front thigh) bulge. Fast and slow twitch fibers generate short bursts of speed and strength, giving the legs their spring. Training in the sand cushions the knees, saving on wear and tear of the joint and surrounding soft tissue.
"After running on sand when I run the boardwalk it's like running on air," Stephenson said, grinning.
After that it's off to the Surfside Houses, a 15-story housing project, where Stephenson runs five sets of stairs. Translation: He sprints 15 flights of stairs to the roof and back, equaling a set.
As if that wasn't enough, Stephenson interweaves 500 push-ups between runs.
No wonder Stephenson has packed on nearly 20 pounds since the end of the high school season in March. He now carries 225 pounds on his sleek frame.
His defined body would send Praxiteles, an ancient Greek sculptor, scurrying for a chisel and hammer.
Stretch Stephenson says the blue print for "the perfect basketball body" took form when he saw LeBron James at the ABCD Camp in 2001.
"That's the body type you need to absorb the punishment," Stretch said.
Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, Lincoln's coach said: "I've seen [Stephenson] play around the neighborhood this summer and he's bigger; more [muscle] definition. He's nearly unstoppable down low and his outside shot is going down; that's against experienced players. Imagine when he's back at Lincoln."
Stephenson and his father remained tight this summer. Stretch coached Raising Champions, a club team featuring Lance and several New York prospects.
Lance toyed with the nation's top-rated point guards at the Nike Steve Nash Skills Academy in June in New Jersey, then he attended the LeBron James Skills Academy, where 80 of the country's top prep players congregated in Akron, Ohio.
Last weekend, he played in outdoor tournaments at Orchard Beach (City Island in the Bronx) and the famed West Fourth Street Court in Greenwich Village. Tuesday he competed in a Marbury-Telfair sponsored event at the Gardens, just five blocks from home.
Stephenson ended the summer as the No. 7 prospect in the ESPN 100 player rankings. The knock on Stephenson was not necessarily his shooting ability, it was when and where he takes his shots. So instead of shooting racks of balls, Stephenson needed to understand why his shot was off target.
Enter Jerry Powell of Basketball Results, who has trained Stephenson weekly for the past three years. Powell reprogrammed Stephenson, drilling him in ballhandling skills, shooting and flexibility.
When Stephenson began, Powell noted he was "too stiff."
"Lance, like many athletes, did not know how to properly warm up or stretch," Powell said. "If your muscles aren't warmed up properly, you'll lose range of motion. Stretching properly before and after a workout helps prevent injuries."
It also helped Stephenson to become in tune with his body.
"Lance knows if he misses a jumper what we needs to do next time," said Powell, who currently trains NBA players Ron Artest, Al Harrington, Jermaine O'Neal, Mike James, Rajon Rondo, Marko Jaric and Dahntay Jones.
"The key is to make the adjustment immediately."
Stephenson has worked tirelessly on his long-range jumper -- he knows pundits question his shot's consistency. Powell continuously articulates why the drills will work.
"There is no offseason; Lance can't take anything for granted," Powell said.
Stephenson hasn't, and neither have the Lincoln Railsplitters. Last season, Lincoln (29-4), No. 11 in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 final rankings, captured a sixth New York PSAL AA city championship in seven years (and third straight) and a second consecutive New York State Federation title.
Before he closes out his illustrious prep career, Stephenson will choose a college. He won't tip his hand but hinted programs such as Memphis, Kansas, Texas, St. John's and Southern California are in the mix.
Two decades ago, St. John's might have been a no-brainer for a Brooklyn kid (see Chris Mullin or Mark Jackson). Despite the Red Storm's recent struggles, Stephenson is intrigued.
"I'm looking at them hard," Stephenson said. "It would be great to bring back New York and rebuild one of the great programs. It's close to home; my family could see me play, but I'm interested also in seeing new places and going away."
College will likely last only one year before Stephenson declares for the NBA draft in 2010.
Stephenson, though, won't fast-forward his upcoming senior season. Lincoln will make three appearances on ESPN as part of a tortuous national schedule with stops in Oklahoma, New Jersey and Florida.
"You put together a schedule like this to test your players," Morton said. "The nation will see what we see every day."
That's Stephenson at his best.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University
Lance Stephenson has the proper pedigree and work ethic to be the next New York basketball star, writes Christopher Lawlor.