On Eve of Playoffs, Stephenson Aiming To Balance Past and Present Self

It’s the irresistible and unavoidable subtopic of the Pacers’ first-round playoff series with Cleveland, so it might as well be held up for examination one last time: Lance Stephenson, blowing in LeBron James’ ear.

It happened three years ago, when the Pacers met Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. Stephenson, for reasons known only to himself, stepped next to James during a dead ball in the second half of Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, leaned over practically cheek to cheek with James, and blew lightly in James’ left ear.

James hesitated a second, then smiled and shook his head. It was over that quickly, but has lived on eternally on the internet. You can find endless clips of it, and it’s been adapted for endless memes. For awhile there, a building couldn’t collapse, a runner couldn’t fall over or a baseball couldn’t roll out of bounds without someone posting a meme of a superimposed Stephenson blowing on it, him or her.

“It sucked,” Paul George said following the Pacers’ practice on Friday, before the team caught its flight to Cleveland for Saturday’s opener. “It sucked, because I knew he was going to see that for the rest of his career. It made him infamous. Everyone recognized him for blowing in the ear. It kind of took on a (life) of its own.”

And it’s being reincarnated by coincidental circumstance. Stephenson returned to the Pacers two weeks ago. His first game back in a Pacers uniform was in Cleveland, on April 2, when the two teams played a double-overtime slugfest won by the Cavaliers. Now his first postseason game will be played in Cleveland as well, forcing him to relive the moment.

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He’d rather not rehash it all, but he doesn’t hide from it.

“It’s funny,” he said, chuckling at the memory of all those memes.

“I’m not embarrassed at all.”

Stephenson has never talked with James about their intimate moment on May 28, 2014. He’s never had an opportunity to. Stephenson worked out for the Cavaliers on Feb. 1, along with Jordan Farmar, Mario Chalmers and Kirk Hinrich, but he didn’t run into James that day. Cavs officials brought it up, jokingly, then asked serious questions about how he would approach playing for the team and accept coming off the bench. They wound up keeping none of the four guards who worked out that day, prolonging Stephenson’s stay in purgatory.

For all the internet uproar, the incident didn’t have any real-world impact. The Pacers won the game, 93-90, to force a Game 6 back in Miami. Stephenson finished with 12 points, five rebounds and five assists. James had his worst game of the series with seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, but because of early foul trouble that severely reduced his minutes.

Neither player, nor their teammates, believe the breeze in James’ ear had anything to do with his performance that day.

“It’s all fun and games,” Stephenson said Friday. “Makes you play harder, makes the game more interesting.”

What’s relevant about that moment now for the Pacers is that Stephenson has refined his approach to games without undergoing any sort of overhaul that compromises his competitive spirit. The Pacers desperately need his confidence, energy and bravado. He knows it and his teammates know it. Although some fans and media members accused him of being a “cancer” in the Pacers’ locker room three years ago, nobody around or on the team saw it that way and nobody wants him to become a meek and mild version of his former self.

“He’s one of the most ultra-competitors, and that’s what people should have seen first,” George said. “I think he learned his lesson. He’s still going to be that competitor and get under people’s skin, but he’ll do it the right way.”

Stephenson won’t be able to escape the memory for awhile, however. The Cavaliers fans in Quicken Loans Arena no doubt will remind him of it, loudly and frequently, and media members will continue to broach the subject.

Reggie Miller, for example. The former Pacers star participated in a conference call for the TNT network on Thursday, and brought it up without prompting from reporters. But he also put it in perspective.

“Don’t we all want to sit back and see Lance Stephenson blow in the ear of LeBron James once again?” asked Miller, one of the all-time experts at getting under an opponent’s skin. “Come on, now! You guys know you want to see that. I want to see what Lance is going to do, Lance being Lance.

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“Okay, maybe not blow in the ear. But you do need x-factors on teams. When games become a little bit dirty, gritty, grimy — not dirty plays, let me clarify that — you need guys to go over the line a little bit. Lance kind of goes over the line a little bit … you’ve got to have players that do little things that motivate not only your team, but to get your fan base involved.”

Stephenson says he now has a better idea of where that “line” is drawn. He feels no urge to revive any of his previous “antics,” such as laying on the floor after drawing fouls or shimmying and shaking after hitting big shots, things his teammates shrugged off as “Lance being Lance.”

Stephenson is still an instigator, just in less obvious ways. He’s the life of the locker room, the guy who pokes a player in the chest to make him look down, then lifts his hand to tap him on the cheek.

“He knows how to make everything light and loose,” George said. “His real personality comes out in the locker room.”

Stephenson also is the guy who cheers loudest for his teammates from the bench and encourages or scolds them while on the court with them. That goes for practice as well, something that’s been missing this season for the Pacers, a laid-back and pleasant cast of characters who lacked a natural motivator before Stephenson arrived.

“You have to challenge your teammates,” Stephenson said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get better. They’re going to hear it from other guys when you play them, so if they hear it from me they’ll already be used to it. They’ll be like, ‘Man, that —- don’t work.’ That’s just part of being a competitive basketball player. I’m going to challenge my teammates. It’s only going to make the team better as long as you’re doing it right and not trying to fight.”

Since he brought it up, Stephenson did sort of fight one of his teammates with the Pacers. He and Evan Turner briefly scuffled one day in practice three years ago, the day before Game 1 of their first-round series with Atlanta. It didn’t last long, and there’s doubt as to whether any punches were thrown, but it made for some tense moments. Larry Bird remembers it as one of the worst days of his team presidency. He missed it, having stepped out for a few minutes, and returned in the aftermath of it. The Pacers lost the first game of the series by eight points, but bounced back to win Game 2 and went on to win the series in seven games.

There are two versions of the reason behind the conflict. One is that Stephenson felt threatened by the mid-season signing of Turner, who had been the No. 2 pick in the draft and was national college player of the year at Ohio State, and was protecting his turf by playing physically and trash-talking Turner. The other, Stephenson’s version, is that Turner believed he should have been starting ahead of the former second-round draft pick, and was antagonizing him.

“My first thought when we signed him was, ‘Man, we’ve got more help! We’re going to be good!” Stephenson said. “I don’t know what he was thinking. We just squared off, really, but it caused a lot of tension. It was quick and we moved forward from it. Me and Evan are cool today.”

Stephenson and his new Pacers teammates are cool, too. As far as he knows, Stephenson and James are cool as well. But the action is about to heat up, and more than ever, the Pacers need Lance to be Lance. Today’s Lance, though, not yesterday’s.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

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