03/02/2009 11:45 AM ET
Sneaker wars over Stephenson?
Maryland may have committed NCAA violations on Lance's visit
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Under Armour founder Kevin Plank (center) may have gotten too aggressive in trying to promote the brand's basketball attire when phenom Lance Stephenson made a trip to Maryland earlier this year. (AP)

NEW YORK -- Lance Stephenson plays basketball in Nike Air Jordans and competes for an Adidas-sponsored program at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.

Yet it is Stephenson's association with Under Armour, a Baltimore-based sports apparel company trying to become a player in the high-stakes world of grassroots basketball, that has drawn the most scrutiny in recent weeks.

The University of Maryland is investigating potential NCAA violations connected to Stephenson's official visit in January to its campus and the nearby Under Armour facilities.

The Washington Post on Sunday reported that Maryland may have violated NCAA rules by allowing the 6-foot-5 Stephenson and his family to visit and tour the Under Armour site. The company is owned and operated by Kevin Plank, a former Maryland football player and member of the school's Board of Trustees. Under Armour has donated more than $1 million to Maryland and has an exclusive deal to outfit the school's athletics teams.

The Post also reported that Byron Mouton, a former Maryland basketball player, spoke to Stephenson on the visit and encouraged him to join the program, a potential violation of NCAA recruiting practices.

In a statement on its Website, Maryland said it was "diligent in regards to following NCAA rules and regulations" and added that its "business relationship with Under Armour, as the department's exclusive apparel provider, is a relationship common throughout collegiate athletics."

As far as Mouton's contact with Stephenson, the University said: "If this situation did occur as described in the Post story, it would most likely be a minor violation, per NCAA rules, not likely impacting the eligibility and/or recruitment of the recruit."

The Under Armour Connection: Stephenson, the No. 1 senior in the nation according to the Hoop Scoop and No. 9 by Rivals, is one of the few elite seniors who has yet to pick a college and will likely choose from among St. John's (a Nike school), Kansas (adidas) and Maryland (Under Armour).

Yet the young man they call "Born Ready" has repeatedly said that the style of play (he prefers an up-tempo approach), the talent level of his future teammates and his relationship with the coach will be the determining factors. The sneaker affiliation of the school, he said, will have no bearing on his choice.

"Ah, no," he said in a recent interview. "I'm just going in there and see what's best for me and my family and how do I fit in the program. That's it."

Stephenson's Lincoln teammate, 6-8 forward James Padgett, has already signed to play for the Terps and that could also be a factor.

"He loves playing with me and he said I always motivate him to play harder in all the games and at practice," Stephenson said, "so he said that would be a good look."

Stephenson said he could announce March 21 after the PSAL championship game at Madison Square Garden. Lincoln is the three-time defending PSAL champ and is seeking a record fourth straight.

Under Armour signed a four-year, $2 million deal with Brandon Jennings, the American point guard who skipped college to play professionally in Italy and could be drafted into the NBA this June.

"The endgame is for Brandon to make it the NBA and be the impact player that everyone is predicting that he'll be," said Steve Battista, Under Armour's senior vice president of brand.

Under Armour has deals with over 70 collegiate programs and has all-school deals with Texas Tech, South Florida and Auburn, in addition to Maryland. The company won't have sneakers on sale for retail until 2010, yet it wants to establish relationships with Stephenson and other high school players so they can represent the company should they ever make the NBA.

According to an insider from another sneaker company who requested anonymity because he didn't want to appear to be taking sides, he would not be surprised if other top players were advised to consider Maryland because of its relationship with Under Armour.

"Kevin Plank wants to get basketball shoes out there so he can attack the basketball world," the insider said. "He wants [Under Armour] to be a global sports brand and basketball is a huge, huge category to be in to prove that you're relevant."

Sonny Vaccaro, who has worked for Nike, adidas and Reebok and has also met with the Stephenson family, said Stephenson would be a natural player to target in this year's class.

"Absolutely, when you look at it," Vaccaro said in a phone interview. "He's athletic. He plays the right position. If I were in the business, Lance would be someone I would consider talking to."

Still, given the present economic climate, Vaccaro said the money available to Stephenson would pale in comparison to what Jennings makes, let alone the millions Kobe Bryant and LeBron James signed for.

"The endorsement money is a pipe dream," Vaccaro said. "To think people are going to get the LeBron money in the near future, even Kevin Durant, that kind of money is not available."

In addition to targeting specific high school basketball stars, Under Armour has also targeted various high school teams, including Lincoln and Boys & Girls of Brooklyn. Boys & Girls has a specific line of sneakers, while Lincoln has "wear-tested" various Under Armour products.

"Our partnership is with Lincoln high school and the coaches/players have helped us garner key product insights as Lincoln is one of the elite high school programs in the country," Ryan Drew, an Under Armour spokesman, wrote in an email. "We are always evaluating up and coming talent."

Air Jordans over Under Armour: Stephenson wears Air Jordans even though he was not invited to the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic game at Madison Square Garden on April 18. Some have speculated that he wasn't invited because of Lincoln's relationship with Under Armour, but the exact reason remains unclear.

"You see Lance wear Under Armour?" asked Lincoln coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton at the recent Nike Super 6 at Fordham University. "If you [haven't] seen it, then we can't even talk about it...He continues to wear the Jordan shoes."

In any event, Stephenson was invited to the McDonald's All-American Game on April 1 in Miami, which he views as the more prestigious game.

Despite all the talk about Stephenson and Under Armour, he is seriously considering two schools with no ties to the company: Kansas and St. John's.

Moreover, if Stephenson does choose Maryland, the source said it won't be simply because of the school's five-year, $17.5 million deal with Under Armour.

"It does a complete disservice to [Maryland coach] Gary Williams to think that this kid is going to go to Maryland just because of what kind of shoes that they wear," the insider said. "And not because of his coaching resume of being one of the best coaches in college basketball. He has as many championships as [Kansas'] Bill Self or [North Carolina's] Roy Williams does.

"If Lance goes to Maryland it's not going to be because of Under Armour. A player in the caliber of Lance Stephenson, with the resume of basketball accolades that he has, is going to pick his college very, very carefully and not on what shoes the program wears because the stakes are too high."

Stephenson agreed.

"I just play ball," he said. "I just want to accomplish my goal and that's to go to college and be a successful player and go to the NBA."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com
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