Lance Stephenson won a record four Public Schools Athletic League titles with Lincoln High School and experienced his greatest triumphs at Madison Square Garden.
Yet when he returns to the Garden Wednesday for the first time as a collegian to face St. John's (10-5, 0-3 Big East), he doesn't expect a friendly response.
"Yeah, of course. Everyone wanted me to go somewhere close to home so I think they're gonna boo me much harder than Rutgers did," Stephenson, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound freshman from Brooklyn who plays for Cincinnati (11-5, 2-2), said Monday on a conference call. "It makes me play harder."
Stephenson received a subdued chorus of boos Jan. 2 when he was introduced before Cincinnati's 65-58 victory at Rutgers. During Cincinnati's 83-76 loss to Seton Hall Sunday at The Prudential Center, he was heckled with derisive chants of "Born Ready," referring to the nickname Rucker Park announcer Bobbito Garcia gave him at the Boost Mobile Elite 24 event.
But Stephenson never seriously considered attending Rutgers or Seton Hall. He did consider St. John's, the hometown school, until just before committing to Cincinnati June 30, a story broken by SNY.tv.
"While I was disappointed that he chose the Bearcats over us, I respect his decision," Bob Gunther, a longtime St. John's fan from Baldwin, N.Y., wrote in an email. "As the father of two college-aged children, I understand how difficult the decision becomes, even without the additional pressure of a Division I sports team decision."
St. John's coach Norm Roberts hopes the fans focus more on supporting the home team than on booing the Bearcats.
"I don't think kids should ever get booed, no matter what," Roberts said. "I don't think that should happen. But I hope the fans will be there to support us and help us because when we go to Louisville we got not only 12 guys against us. We got 16,000 against us when we go there. So we need to try to make our environment as tough as it possibly can be for other people when they come in."
Roberts had failed in previous years to land big-time, program-changing New York recruits, losing out the year before on Sylven Landesberg of Queens (Virginia) and Kevin Jones of Mount Vernon (West Virginia), and incurring the wrath of his fan base as a result.
Yet he appeared to have a real shot last year at Stephenson, who attended several St. John's games at the Garden and took both unofficial and official visits to campus.
"I think if I come here I could bring New York back, that would be a good look for me and St. John's," Stephenson told me a year ago after watching St. John's lose to UConn at the Garden. "I love playing in the Garden, the bright lights, the fire comes out of me so I'm ready for all challenges."
Yet in late March things turned.
On March 21, Stephenson and the Railsplitters won their fourth PSAL title over Kennedy at the Garden.
Stephenson, who had hinted strongly that he might announce his college choice after that game, did not, leaving the widespread impression that he wasn't headed to St. John's.
"I was going to announce that day but I wasn't too sure what school to pick," Stephenson said.
On March 31, the eve of the McDonald's All-American Game, Stephenson was set to announce for Kansas, but at the last minute told reporters he wasn't yet ready.
When John Calipari opted to leave Memphis for Kentucky April 1, it set into motion a whole series of complicated recruiting dominoes.
Xavier Henry, a shooting guard out of Oklahoma City who had initially committed to Memphis, decided to attend Kansas instead, complicating Stephenson's recruitment.
Henry ultimately landed at Kansas, leaving Stephenson unable to select his top choice.
His recruitment remained a matter of widespread speculation throughout the spring, and by early May it became clear that he would never end up at St. John's.
The Red Storm, in turn, signed guard Malik Stith and big man Justin Brownlee.
"They went to the next basketball player that they could recruit," Stephenson said of St. John's.
Said Roberts: "I'm happy with the guys we got because it really made our much team better. It made our team more well rounded so I'm very happy with the guys that we got. They're all quality guys that are going to be very, very good players."
By late June, Stephenson was visiting Cincinnati and ultimately chose to join his friend Sean Kilpatrick of White Plains under coach Mick Cronin.
"I felt Cincinnati was more of a family and I felt Mick could help me be a better play and I felt he was a better coach," Stephenson said.
Chosen as the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year and having been cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse of any amateurism issues, Stephenson leads Cincinnati in scoring (12.7 ppg) and is among the leaders in rebounds (4.8) and assists (2.8).
He could well be one-and-done before heading to the NBA.
"I think he's having a terrific year," Roberts said. "He's playing well. He's doing a great job of scoring the basketball, but also setting up his teammates. He was one of the best players in the country. Obviously we recruited him here and we liked him a lot. He's a terrific kid, comes from a great family. It's going to be one of those games that he's on the other side and we've got to make sure that we guard him the right way and defend, but there's a lot of good players on that team. It's not just one guy on that team."
Yet if Stephenson and the Bearcats come out on top, the Red Storm will drop to 0-4 in the conference and the heat on Roberts will turn up a notch.
"It's going to be great going to the Garden, playing in my hometown," Stephenson said "I just want to come out with the win."