Bird's office is practically on top of the Pacers' locker room, one floor above.
PLAYOFF CENTRAL: VIP Ticket Access, News, and More » "Stuff like that can bring your confidence down," Stephenson says. After all, he had practically rescued the rough-around-the-edges kid from New York, taking him in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft after just one uneventful season at the University of Cincinnati, and had nurtured him through four seasons with the Pacers.
"I went from being traded twice to being a free agent again and being on the minimum in New Orleans, then getting cut and then doing 10 days. Stephenson blossomed amid the Pacers' patience and nurturing, becoming a starter on two teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and, in his final season, nearly making the All-Star team, producing a league-high five triple-doubles and finishing as runner-up in the Most Improved Player voting. Presiding over the press conference to announce the re-signing of Paul George, he had spotted Stephenson at the back of the audience and said something along the lines of, "Don't worry, Lance, you'll be up here next year with your daddy." Even in the face of rejection that could have been fairly viewed as betrayal, Bird wasn't bitter.
For Stephenson, it feels like a welcome reunification after a difficult breakup and gradual reconciliation, a career-reviving, if not career-saving event.
For Bird, it's more like something that was likely to happen eventually, but the timing had to be right. Stephenson had been lost at sea for three years, floundering on the waves of the whims of NBA executives, lapping ashore occasionally, only to be cast back out to the waters. He had signed with New Orleans, suffered an injury, and been waived.
Stephenson had one year left on his contract for $9 million, at a team option. 7 after he suffered a groin injury that required surgery.
The Grizzlies could have released him, waited for him to clear waivers, and then signed him to whatever deal they wanted to offer. He was adrift for three months, until Minnesota gave him a 10-day contract. '" Bird could have sat back, smiled smugly and said one big, fat "I told you so" to himself, or for that matter to the world while all this was going on.
He had played for Charlotte, signing a free agent contract after his marketplace value was overestimated and his representatives had rejected the Pacers' every-nickel-we-have-offer. He had signed two 10-day contracts with Minnesota, suffered two more injuries, and was released again.
He had found a semi-comfortable fit only in Memphis, where he was traded on Feb. Injuries forced him into the playing rotation and he responded, scoring a career-high 33 points in one game, and surpassing 20 three other times.
It seemed a slam-dunk that Stephenson would return to the Pacers in free agency. He understood the business decision for Stephenson to test the free agent waters.
He had spearheaded a recruiting effort that produced an original video – more like a documentary than a highlight reel – to entice Stephenson, and made the obligatory a.m.
They weren’t the only ones: Fans gave him a standing ovation, which likely wasn’t surprising at all to Stephenson who notably compared his comeback to that of Michael Jordan returning to basketball.