KRAVITZ: Lance Stephenson and Indiana? It’s an odd love affair that somehow works

Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson reacts after hitting a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Bob Kravitz

Ever since the Indiana return of Lance Stephenson, the Indiana Pacers' prodigal son, I've wrestled with this question: Why does this town, this state, love Lance the way they love him? Why is it that the only true success he's ever known in the NBA has come during his time in Indiana, and why has this town embraced him like he's some homegrown farm kid who grew up hitting jumpers on a basket affixed to a barn?

Then I spent about 10 minutes standing by his locker, listening to him talk about Friday night's breathless 97-95 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, about his double-double and how he poked the bear (LeBron James) and lived to tell about it, and like a thunderbolt of enlightenment, it struck me.

"You know why you fit here?" I suggested to him. "Because the one thing you share with this area is a true passion for basketball."

He agreed.

"I think it's because of the fans and because the coaches are letting me be me," he said. "They're letting me make mistakes and letting me play through those mistakes. Because I'm not going to harm the team or mess up the game."

Say what you will about Stephenson, Good Lance or Bad Lance, sometimes Crazy Lance, but the guy loves the game the way Ron Artest, another combustible personality, loved the game. He loves the game the way Indiana loves the game, spiritually if not stylistically, and so he's become a beloved figure around here. His style is Rucker Park streetball, doing tricks, putting on a show, winning while entertaining. Indiana's style is more conventional, more of a fundamental, jump-shooting, play-the-right-way approach to the game. And yet, when Stephenson goes out in the city, "I'm mobbed – autographs, pictures, it's crazy," he said with a smile.

Before the game, there he was, passing the basketball to little kids at courtside, imploring them to pass him the ball so he could take warmup shots. And late in the game, when Indiana had finally sewn up the victory after Lebron James' contested 3-ball from the wing missed by inches, he was making his way down the front row of fans, high-fiving each and every one of them.

They love this, too: Stephenson will not bow down to anybody – not Lebron, not anybody. He's a lot like his organizational patron saint, Larry Bird, who fell in love with Stephenson's talent and passion long ago. Bird always chafed at the pre- and post-game bro-hugs with opponents, looking at each and every opponent as a sworn enemy. Stephenson is the same way. While everybody wants The King's friendship and respect – Paul George, anybody? – Stephenson is not even slightly interested.

"I'm not trying to be the other team's friend," he said. "I'm trying to be my teammates' friend. I'm not talking to you (the opponents); I've got nothing to say to you. I want to kick your butt."

Normally, James won't even acknowledge Stephenson's presence as an existing lifeform, but he went there Friday night after the game. Yes, Stephenson got under his skin, drawing a technical on James with 7:53 remaining in the game. There's a first time for everything.

"Lance is just a little dirty, that's all," James said evenly. "He's a little dirty. We've got history. I already know that. I've known since school that it's not the guy who tells the joke who gets caught, it's the guy who laughs. They caught me on the retaliation."

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) is defended by Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) is defended by Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Then he added, "But he played well tonight."

Yeah, he did. He played really well, one of several Pacers who played well, Stephenson helping guide the Pacers out of a 22-point first-quarter hole and finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. He had lots of help – from Darren Collison, who scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting…from Domantas Sabonis, who had 12 points and 15 rebounds…from Al Jefferson, whose eight points got the Pacers headed back in the right direction…from Victor Oladipo, whose 3-ball from the top of the key with 2:09 remaining turned out to be the difference in the game.

Stephenson was asked if he thought he finally cracked the James' veneer.

"Looked like I did (get under his skin) today," Stephenson said. "First time he's ever reacted to me…"

Well, let's not give Stephenson too much credit there. James still had a fine game (27 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists), and more than anything else, he was likely done in by the fact the Cavs were on the second night of a back-to-back and the final game of a 5-game road trip.

But, hey, it makes for a simpler narrative if we just say Stephenson somehow threw James off his game.

Ever since Stephenson returned to the Pacers with six games remaining last season, he's been the team's heartbeat. That group flat-lined their way through 76 games, and then when Stephenson showed up, they suddenly took flight, made the playoffs and got swept by Cleveland.

He provides this team with something else, and that's personality. He's like your annoying little brother; sometimes you want to backhand him, and sometimes you want to embrace him. Like when Collison was sitting at his locker after the game Friday, giving an interview, only to get popped in the back of the head by the passing Stephenson.

"God, I hate when he does that," Collison said dryly. Then he broke into a smile.

Like I said: An annoying little brother.

Does he do stupid stuff? Of course he does stupid stuff. He's a goof at times, but by God, he's our goof, and as long as he's not hurting his team, what's the harm, really? Look, we'll call him out when he's out of line, like he was last year when he scored a meaningless layup with time expiring against Toronto, nearly setting off a scuffle. And 99 times out of 100, it's not smart to poke the bear, as he did by drawing a technical foul on James with 7:53 remaining. He got away with it – this time – but as a general rule, it's not smart to give James another reason to cut out your heart. We remember Game 4 of the 2014 playoffs against Miami.

In the end, though, Lance is Lance, and if you're waiting for him to pivot and become something he isn't, well…never mind. He's an excitable boy, to quote the late, great Warren Zevon. He's an exposed nerve ending in shorts. If there's a simple play to be made, Stephenson will find a way to turn it into something memorable, then play some odd form of air guitar in celebration. There was a play Monday – maybe you can find the video on YouTube – he made a pass to Domantas Sabonis in the lane, then fell backwards like he'd just been run over by a U-Haul. Nobody touched him. He just fell. For no reason.

"Why?" coach Nate McMillan said recently when asked about Stephenson's latest flourish. "I asked him in the room today. He didn't have an answer for me."

Every now and then, McMillan will shoot him The Look, a disapproving gaze parents reserve for their misbehaving children. The thing with Stephenson is, he knows when The Look is coming, so he makes sure to avert McMillan's stern gaze. McMillan, the consummate pro as a player, believes that if you (bleep) with the game, the game will (bleep) with you, that you must respect the game above all else. And, let's be honest, sometimes Stephenson forgets all of that.

"You ever seen anybody play like him, at least at the pro level?" I asked Victor Oladipo.

"No," he said. "Not at any level. Never seen anyone like him. That's why he's Lance. He's 'Born Ready.'"

He loves the game the way Hoosiers love the game. It's the reason the New York kid belongs in Indiana and only Indiana. And no place else.

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