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Midwest mayhem to California love: Lance and LeBron are figuring it out

Stephenson seems fine as part of The King’s crew

“It was definitely surprising [that LeBron James] wanted me to play with him,” Lance Stephenson said during the new Los Angeles Lakers’ first week together. “We ain’t talk about [the ear incident] though. I’m waiting for him to say something about it.”

OK. Wow. No ear incident conversation? At all?

James has danced with several antagonists over the course of his career — interactions that felt somewhat … personal. Travel back a decade and there’s DeShawn Stevenson — and the ensuing Jay-Z diss that proved the depths of James’ cultural clout. Paul Pierce, at least in terms of history and competitiveness, is James’ most personal one-on-one clash. Joakim Noah has low-key held a grudge against James since he dispatched Noah’s AAU teammate Lenny Cooke at the 2001 ABCD Camp — James’ introduction to the national spotlight. And the Golden State Warriors as a kind of staff, record label and crew have been James’ prom date for the past four Junes.

And then there’s Stephenson. He’s not really a rival in terms of wins and losses. He’s more gnatlike. Think of Stephenson as “Lil’ Chris” (from 1995’s classic Friday) the kid on the bike who constantly taunted Craig (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker). If James has any room left in his Hollywood portfolio, perhaps James’ SpringHill Entertainment can consider shopping a film based on him and Stephenson — a kind of Ride Along 3.

James-led squads have dominated in every facet over Stephenson’s. Stephenson has come close, as when the Indiana Pacers went seven games with James’ Miami Heat (in 2013) and with the Cleveland Cavaliers (in 2018). But he’s never beaten James when it mattered most. And James, of course, excels in every column of the box score.

“I love Lance. He’ll run through a wall for any one of his teammates.”

Yet their history is cemented in emotion — sometimes animosity, sometimes annoyance and, more often than not, hilarity. Stephenson has purposely touched James’ mouth. Stephenson coughed up $5,000 for a flop while guarding James that should’ve at least gotten him an Oscar nomination. Stephenson tagged James in the groin last season. He sneaked into the Heat’s huddle. And once, before Stephenson even became a regular rotational player, when James missed a free throw in Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, Stephenson was caught on camera performing the choking gesture. The latter is universally recognized as the start of Stephenson and James’ storied … whatever it is.

By far their most storied chapter is when Stephenson, desperate to throw James off his game even if only for a split second, blew in James’ ear. The moment occurred in Game 5 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. The moment went viral. James’ incredulous reaction screamed, You’ve gotta be kidding me right now.


Although he’ll get his chances on the offensive end, Stephenson’s true worth is expected on defense. When the Chicago Bulls traded for Dennis Rodman in the fall of 1995, they did so with the hope of “The Worm” having an immediate impact on defense. Stephenson isn’t Rodman, but he’s that unique, one-of-a-kind personality who excels in the right environment. And James is singing the praises of his former foe turned current family. There’s more: Rajon Rondo, Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley have already been dubbed “M.U.D. by LeBron” — short for Misunderstood, Underappreciated and Determined.

“I love Lance,” James said Thursday. “He’ll run through a wall for any one of his teammates. Lance makes mistakes, but at the end of the day, it’s all genuine. … He’s never doing anything to try and alienate himself away from the team. He plays hard, extremely hard. Guys make mistakes, but if they’re giving all they got, 110 percent, you can ride with that. I’m happy to have him.” Drake and Meek. Lance and LeBron. Feuds that turned a corner this summer.

“It was definitely surprising [that LeBron] wanted me to play with him.”

The past is in the past. But in a weird way, it’s that same past that Stephenson believes will open the way to a brighter and grittier future in the City of Angels. Michael Jordan embraced, despite Rodman being a former Detroit “Bad Boy” Piston, precisely what the multicolored hair-rocking, tattooed and pierced rebounding savant would bring to Chicago. Kobe Bryant recognized the value of Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes even if, when they were on opposite teams, there were testy moments. Bryant knew he could win with that type of fearlessness on his squad. “Anyone crazy enough to f— with me,” Barnes recalled Bryant saying in his free-agency pitch to join him on the Lakers, “is crazy enough to play with me.” James is no different.

“I think LeBron’s seen that we never back down from him. He wanted a tough group of guys around him,” Stephenson said. “I feel like he picked the right guys to definitely have his back.”

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.