Stepheson denied postseason again
Transfer missed out on UNC title run and is now a victim of USC's self-imposed ban
Forty pounds of pure muscle.
From across town, that's what UCLA coach Ben Howland notices when asked how USC power forward Alex Stepheson has grown since high school. Already legendary for his rebounding and weightlifting feats at Harvard-Westlake High in North Hollywood, Calif., Stepheson these days is ripped like a modern-day Trojan warrior.
"It's amazing just how massive and strong he is," Howland said. "He just manhandles people in the post the way he throws you around."
But even the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Stepheson was floored two weeks ago when USC coach Kevin O'Neill told his overachieving team that it would not be eligible for the postseason due to self-imposed sanctions.
Stepheson called his parents after the meeting and told them he'd be home shortly, making the 15-minute drive from campus. In order to come to grips with what he had just heard, he needed his family.
"He was hurt," said Art Stepheson, Alex's father.
For a second straight season since transferring from North Carolina to be close to his ill father, Alex Stepheson was barred from potentially playing in the NCAA tournament.
Last season, the NCAA denied a transfer waiver that would have granted the junior immediate eligibility. He was relegated to the scout team and could only watch as the rest of the Trojans advanced to the second round of the tournament and his former Tar Heels teammates cut down the nets after winning the national championship.
Three hours before the title game, Ty Lawson and Deon Thompson took the time to get in touch with their former teammate.
"They just wanted to say, 'You're a part of this,'" Stepheson said. "For them to call me and say that meant something. Watching the game, I wasn't bitter at all. I wasn't regretting anything and wishing I was there. I was happy for my guys."
Said Art Stepheson: "I probably was more emotional about it than he was. Naturally, I wish my son could have been a part of it."
Father and son took in the game together on the big screen in the den, but the centerpiece of their relationship can be found in the part of the house Art calls his "man cave." Professionally mounted on the wall inside is a collage of pictures of Alex playing basketball, dating back to when he was small.
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"It's embarrassing," Alex said, smiling. "He has posters and any newspaper clippings. Anything off the Internet, he has lying around in his cave. He tells and shows his friends. He's just proud of me."
Art, who played power forward himself in Brazil, Mexico and Spain, taught Alex the fundamentals at a young age -- things like how to catch and how to box out. They staged backyard battles of one-on-one until Alex's sophomore year in high school, when the kid won for the first time.
Art stopped wanting to play after that, and soon, college coaches such as Howland, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams also became witnesses to Alex's overpowering style of play. It helped Alex that Harvard-Westlake employed a strength coach who once had the same job in the NFL.
Alex ultimately chose to leave home for North Carolina, but in January 2008, he went back home for a week away from the team when Art was hospitalized with a heart ailment. Art told him things were fine and to go back to school.
But Alex spent the rest of the season considering transferring to a university closer to home, and after the Tar Heels lost in the Final Four, he thought about it some more before telling Williams of his final decision and getting his release.
Stepheson said he was aware of rumblings that he transferred so he could improve on the 14.5 minutes, 4.3 points and 4.5 rebounds he averaged playing behind Thompson and Tyler Hansbrough during his sophomore season in Chapel Hill.
"I heard it, but at the same time, I didn't really look into it or even give it a second thought," Stepheson said. "They weren't in my situation."
At USC, it's been one unpleasant surprise after another. The NCAA ruled that Stepheson would have to sit out a year. The coach he signed on to play for, Tim Floyd, resigned in June after being accused of giving money to an O.J. Mayo associate. NCAA violations related to Mayo resulted in this season's 11-6 team having its postseason dreams dashed. The Trojans won't even be allowed to compete in the Pac-10 tournament.
The constant has been the presence of Stepheson's parents at the Galen Center. They're watching their youngest child starting for the first time and averaging 10.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
Art, whose health has improved, not only shows up wearing a replica No. 1 Stepheson jersey, but also sets his DVR to record every game. He said he watches the tape "probably five times" and still wants to go over it with Alex when he comes over to the house.
So when O'Neill says Stepheson will have to work on his shooting over the summer, don't think Art doesn't already know this.
"I don't really see the game because all I'm watching is Alex," Art said. "I'm trying to train myself. It's just a natural thing. When Alex is making a layup, I'm making a layup."
Alex stops by a few times a week to do the dishes, take out the trash and carry groceries. His mother, Diane, has been on disability retirement due to back problems. And he continues to encourage Art to exercise and eat healthy.
From where does Alex derive his inner strength?
"Family is everything," he said. "They understand the journey and the struggle and everything I've been through. They're able to feel the same things I feel.
"It seems like a string of events have happened that are unfortunate. But I'm still staying positive."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.