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BENNER: Bird’s faith in Lance Stephenson now looks well-placed

March 2, 2013

A day after the bombshell announcement in May 1997 that Larry Bird was the Indiana Pacers’ new head coach, I was invited to Market Square Arena for a chat with Larry Legend.

I’d known Larry since covering him as a high-schooler at Springs Valley in 1973, and, like everyone, I followed his amazing playing career at Indiana State University and with the Boston Celtics. But this whole “coach” notion with Bird was another thing.

The team he inherited from the delightfully neurotic Larry Brown (and, understand, Brown is one of my favorite coaches of all time) had missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years but still was stacked with talent, including Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and the Davis boys, Dale and Antonio.

Anyway, I asked Bird what the Pacers needed to return to the league’s elite.

“We need Jalen Rose,” Bird replied.

What? Who?

Rose had been acquired in a trade two seasons earlier, but languished under Brown, frequently not even playing. Pacers fans—many of whom were also Indiana University fans who remembered (and resented) Rose from his Fab Five days at the University of Michigan—certainly thought Bird would view Rose as expendable.

Bird, even watching the Pacers from afar, however, believed Rose was an underutilized asset. Sure enough, the following season as the Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, Rose became the Pacers’ sixth man and was honored as the NBA’s most improved player. And many forget that, when the Pacers crashed through to the 2000 NBA Finals, it was Rose—not Miller—who led the team in scoring.

So why the trip down Memory Lane?

Lance Stephenson, that’s why.

Again, it was Bird, as the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, who saw something the rest of us didn’t.

Bird, of course, is now gone, spending his days in Brown County or Florida or wherever. But I guarantee he’s closely watching the team he assembled, and I know he has a trained eye on the 22-year-old Stephenson.

Sure, to this point, this is the team of rising superstar Paul George, the leadership of the venerable veteran David West, the point-guard play of Indy’s own George Hill, the defense and rebounding of Roy Hibbert, the improved play of the bench and, yes, the coaching of Frank Vogel and his staff.

But more and more as I watch the Pacers, I can’t take my eyes off Stephenson. The irony is that, when Bird drafted him, I wanted to cover my eyes and ask, what are you thinking?

Should have known better.

From my untrained viewpoint, Stephenson was a too-young, too-undisciplined street-baller out of Brooklyn and the University of Cincinnati. And a significantly larger question loomed over his character, especially since he had a rap sheet in high school and was charged with assault in an incident with a girlfriend less than two months after the Pacers had taken him in the second round (the charges were subsequently dropped).

As the Pacers were rebuilding their talent, they also were rebuilding their image. The last thing they could afford was a knucklehead, especially in this bruised marketplace.

And, yes, Stephenson has had his moments of immaturity, most notably when he gave LeBron James the “choke” sign during last spring’s Miami-Pacers playoff series.

And his role (and $35,000 fine) in the recent Warriors melee won’t help his image, although some, Hibbert included, would see it as a sign of a good teammate.

But this year, with Danny Granger’s absence creating an opportunity, Stephenson has emerged as a significant force on both ends. While George has been individually mesmerizing and the Pacers collectively are a pleasure to watch—those empty seats at Bankers Life Fieldhouse notwithstanding— Stephenson’s multiple skills are impossible not to notice. After two years of playing only sparingly, he has shown he can defend, run, dish, score and rebound. Other than that …

Stephenson still has flashes of brashness, although that is not necessarily a bad thing, and he’s not about to back down from a challenge, as the New York Knicks’ J.R. Reid discovered recently.

That said, I hold my breath with regard to Stephenson. One assumes Vice President of Player Development Clark Kellogg, the coaching staff and his older teammates are continuing to emphasize the meaning of the word “professional” to him.

But the kid could be special for all the right reasons, which means that even in Bird’s absence, we still feel his presence.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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