By ADAM FISHER
FORT MYERS — It’s a scene you’re more likely to find in a commercially named professional arena rather than a cozy high school gymnasium.
The final horn sounds, the game is over, and before he can leave the court, the star player is swarmed by throngs of autograph-seekers. Cameras and recorders are shoved in his face as he does his best to answer questions while signing everything handed to him by fans.
In the locker room, the coach wants to address the team but is forced to wait almost 20 minutes while the star fights his way through the crowd.
Very few high school basketball players receive such treatment. For Lance Stephenson, it’s just another game and the attention that comes with being the best player in one of the world’s most recognizable cities.
“It’s not a distraction,” said Stephenson, the top-ranked player in the nation from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I’m used to it. I’ve been playing since I was little.”
Stephenson, who at 6-foot-6 can play guard or forward, showed Monday why he’s considered the best player in the country by HoopScoop.com and a top 10 senior by most recruiting services. He had 26 points and 12 rebounds in Lincoln’s 81-67 victory over Philadelphia-Roman Catholic in the Bank of America City of Palms Classic at Bishop Verot.
In what has been referred to as one of the most talented high school basketball tournaments ever assembled, Stephenson is the biggest name. He comes from the same school that produced NBA point guards Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, was dubbed “Born Ready” by the regulars at Manhattan’s famed Rucker Park and played in an ESPN-televised game just two weeks ago.
Stephenson started making national headlines long before he led Lincoln to three straight New York City championships. In 2003, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram named the Coney Island, N.Y., native the best seventh-grader in the country.
A year later, a video showed an eighth-grade Stephenson battling top high school player O.J. Mayo, now with the Memphis Grizzlies. The clips made Stephenson a YouTube sensation.
Since leading the Railsplitters to three straight city titles and two state titles in his first three years, the buzz around Stephenson has been amplified. He has his own Web site as a junior (www.bornready.tv), which produced a documentary on his entire season.
Stephenson also turned some heads when he hinted that he might play professional basketball in Europe next season until he is eligible for the 2010 NBA Draft. He has since said he won’t go overseas and is considering Kansas, Memphis, St. John’s and Southern California as college choices.
All the attention hasn’t seemed to faze his team, though.
“Nah,” said coach Dwayne Morton when asked if it was a distraction. “We’re used to it, too.”
In Monday’s fifth-place bracket game, Stephenson showed how easy he can score when he wants to. Heeding his coach’s advice to save energy early, he didn’t score until 1:12 left in the first quarter. He missed four of his first five shots and didn’t have a field goal until 40 seconds remained in the period.
Stephenson hit nine of his next 15 attempts. He is averaging 29.7 points a game in the City of Palms — less than his 34 a game average this season.
Roman Catholic’s Maalik Wayns, Rivals.com’s fourth-best senior point guard who is committed to Villanova, scored 27 points to lead the Cahillites.
While Stephenson doesn’t mind the focus on his game, several incidents this year have taken the attention off the court. He was suspended from school for five days in January for fighting with a teammate. In October, Stephenson was arrested on sexual assault charges after a classmate accused him of grabbing her inappropriately at school.
Despite the misdemeanor charges, Morton said Stephenson has grown up this season and is putting his off-the-court issues behind him.
“He’s definitely maturing,” Morton said. “He’s learning how to respond to different situations.”
Growing up has helped him on the court. Known as a stellar offensive talent and not much else most his career, Stephenson said he’s worked on improving his defense.
In Monday’s game, Stephenson guided his team to victory even when he wasn’t scoring. His six assists tied for the game-high with teammate Darwin Ellis, and he also had five offensive rebounds and two steals.
“I played better defensively,” said Stephenson, who called Monday his best game of the tournament. “There are some tough teams here. We just have to play hard and get ready for when we go back (to New York).”