by Franklyn Calle
The stage was set for another historic moment at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Madison Square Garden was about to witness once again another historic basketball moment right in its own wooden floor. This time it was a high school basketball historic championship up for grabs. All the hype that started in the Brooklyn streets when Lance Stephenson was in the 7th grade came down to this game. It seems like it was only yesterday when Stephenson aka “Born Ready” exploded into the national scene in July 2005 after he gave the best high school basketball player in America at the time, OJ Mayo, all he can handle at the Reebok ABCD camp. That match-up will go down as one of the greatest moments in ABCD Camp history. Born Ready caught Mayo off guard at the start the game and was scoring from the perimeter as well as in the paint. He was making Mayo look bad to the point that OJ decided to make the game into a one-on-one match instead of a five-on-five. Oh by the way, Lance had just finished the 8th grade at the time while Mayo was about to enter his junior year in high school. It seemed as if the game was being played in Coney Island instead of at the Farleigh Dickinson University campus in Teaneck, New Jersey by the amount of people cheering Stephenson on. But somewhere in the middle of that epic match-up, Mayo turned into a monster and finished off the game on fire. I remember that on a couple of possessions, Mayo holding the ball would tell Lance to step-up and play defense more closer only to dribble a couple of times and score right on him. When it was all over, Stephenson finished with 16 points while Mayo scored 21. But the stat sheet didn’t quite explain what had taken place. At the time, no one had ever really challenged Mayo during his first two years of high school. Then all of the sudden an eighth grader comes in and plays at the same level as him. Both players shook hands afterwards with Mayo just relieved that he was able to finish the game strong while Lance seemed have a bit of bad taste in his mouth knowing that he was so close from out-shining and exposing the best high school baller in America. But in reality Stephenson had gained the attention and respect from Mayo himself, who called the Brooklyn native “real”, as well as from the national media, scouting services, and college coaches. Two months later, Stephenson was getting ready to start his high school career at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School. After the first three days of school, Born Ready transferred out the Fort Greene school and enrolled into Abraham Lincoln High School located in his own neighborhood, Coney Island. What would transcribe over the next three and a half year would go down as history in the New York City high school basketball world.
So here we are three and a half years later. Stephenson playing at the “Mecca of Basketball” was looking to win his fourth straight PSAL (Public School Athletic League) championship and become the first player to do so. So you know Slam had to be in the building to witness the historic accomplishment.
As the players took the floor for warm-ups, you could tell that Lance was in his own capsule. He jogged on the lay-up line so calm as if he was playing at The Garden floor for the 200th time, not his 4th. He showed no emotion, very quiet. He was alone shooting jumpers on the right wing across from the visitors’ bench for a while. One thing I took notice was that while his Lincoln team was sporting Under Armour and Adidas sneakers, he was the only player wearing Nike (That’s right Lance still loves his Nikes despite being left out of the Jordan Brand Classic). He was wearing the black/white/blue Nike Zoom LeBron VI to be exact. Now could it be that he wearing Nike for the championship game was a sign or hint as to what school he will be committing to in ten days?…Just for the record his three finalists are St. John’s-a Nike school, Kansas-a Adidas school, and Maryland- a Under Armour school… Well I guess we shall find that out in ten days if the sneakers had anything to do with where he might be leaning towards. But to be fair, I should note that he has been wearing Nike for most of the season.
So the ref blows the whistle and the game starts. We all knew that Lance was going to start the game strong as he was looking to surpass Sebastian Telfair’s (Minnesota Timberwolves) three PSAL titles after already breaking his scoring record last month to become New York State’s new all-time leading scorer. In the first 2:32 of the game, Stephenson scored six of his team’s first eight points through a jumper with a hand on his face, a fast break lay-up after stealing the ball, and a put back on a miss free throw, to give Lincoln an 8-2 lead over JFK from the Bronx. Later in the quarter, Stephenson would go all the way to the hole from the top of the key, blazing by three defenders for a lay-up. On the next possession, Born Ready hit nothing but net on a three point field goal. A minute and a half later with 26 seconds to play, Stephenson hit another three to give Lincoln a 21-12 lead and finish the quarter on an 8-0 run, with six of them from Stephenson.
After one quarter of play, Stephenson already had 14 points and 4 rebounds while shooting 6 for 8 from the field and 2 for 2 from behind the perimeter. Maryland-bound center James Padgett scored 5 points and grabbed five boards.
Within the first minute and twenty seconds of the second quarter, Lance stole the ball and flashed up the court for a coast to coast lay-up. But those would be his only points of the quarter as he picked up his third foul at about the halfway mark of the quarter and sat out the rest of the way. That is when the 6-8 senior Padgett stepped up and made sure that the Knights didn’t get comfortable even though Stephenson was on the bench. He dominated the boards as well as in the paint, scoring 8 points in the second quarter to give the Lincoln Railsplitters a 41-32 lead heading into the locker rooms at halftime.
For Lincoln, Stephenson led with the way with 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals while Padgett had 13 points and 9 rebounds while shooting a perfect 5 for 5 from the field.
For JFK, junior guard Naquan Pierce led the team in scoring with 12 points.
Stephenson was back on the floor for the start of the third quarter in which Lincoln was able to deliver the knockout punch. The 6-5 shooting guard scored four points in the quarter on a put back and two free throws but it was the role player that were able to expand the lead to 15 by the end of the quarter. Guards Darwin “Buddha” Ellis, a senior who is headed to St. Francis College, and Shaquille Stokes, a sophomore who transferred from national powerhouse St. Patrick’s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, both stepped up on both ends of the floor. Another transfer, Anthony Allen, who transferred from Apex Academy in Jersey, also had his presence felt. And Padgett just kept dominating the boards. Padgett actually is also a transferred as he went to Lincoln from Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn after his sophomore year.
Lincoln held JFK to only 9 points in the quarter. After three quarter of play, the Railsplitters were up, 56-43. Stephenson at the time had 20 points and 8 rebounds while Padgett already had a double-double in 14 points and 13 rebounds. Pierce led KFK with 13 points.
In the fourth, Lincoln continued to show poise and had no intentions of letting this game get close. Stephenson got to the basketball for a couple of lay-ups in the first three minute of the quarter. And when Lincoln took their largest lead of the game with 1:28 left in the game, 72-52, Stephenson was taken out the game to a standing ovation at MSG, where he might very well call home next year if he chooses St. John’s.
As the buzzer sounded, the Lincoln bench stormed the floor and celebrated the 78-56 victory which handed them the historic fourth consecutive PSAL Championship and gave Stephenson and teammate Ellis their historic fourth city title in their four years of high school. You can tell from the players facial expressions that they were just overjoyed to know that they were part of history. It was a long and bumpy season for the Railsplitters as they went from being ranked one of the top teams in the nation in the pre-season polls to getting knocked off the rankings and loosing 10 games in a very adamant schedule. For Stephenson himself, he has had some rough times the last nine months from being cut off the Team USA National 18&under squad last summer to the alleged sexual assault charges in the fall and everything in between. But despite all of the pressure and distractions, Born Ready found himself in the history books and possibly leaving the question as to being the best player to ever come out of New York City. You could see in his eyes that he was just relieved that it was all over.
Stephenson won MVP honors and finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 steals. Padgett scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, shooting 6 for 7 from the floor. Guards Ellis and Stokes chipped in 15 and 7 points respectively, while Allen finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds.
For JFK, Pierce finished with 17 points while senior Jeffrey Azru had 12 points and 6 assists. Senior Shea Spence also had a strong game as he scored 11 points while grabbing 9 rebounds.
For Lincoln head coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, it is his 7th city championship in the last eight years. But most importantly he got to avenge the 2000 and 2005 losses to JFK’s head coach Johnny Mathis at MSG.
Lincoln will now go upstate next weekend to play for the New York State Federation title where they have come out crowned champions the last two years.
In ten days, Lance will make his college announcement at Media Day of the McDonald’s All American Game on March 31st.
As people made their way out The Garden, I heard some wondering who might be the next Lance. Well looking at next year, there is a very familiar face in Coney Island that will be entering the 9th grade. He goes by the name of Ethan Telfair. That’s right Sebastian’s little brother who you may remember from the end of the “Through the Fire” documentary where he is working on his game at the park very early in the morning. Whether or not he goes to Lincoln next year is yet to be known but some close to him have told me that he might be looking to go in a different direction and attend another school. But then yet the same was said about Stephenson until he transferred into Lincoln from Bishop Loughlin on the first week of school of his freshmen year. Usually if you are from Coney Island and you can ball, then you are going to attend Lincoln High School.
But for now, Madison Square Garden can brag that once again an historic basketball game was played in its building. What other better place for it!