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Catching up with...Mike Stephens. list member Phil Pallette interviewed Princeton recruit Mike Stephens and his high school coach, Denny Lewis in June 2001. Thanks to Phil for his work.

Napa High School - Napa, California. Tuesday, June 5, 2001.

It's baseball weather in the wine country; hot, sunny and a high blue sky. I arrive at the school shortly before mid-day. Final exams are taking place this week each day until noon, Thursday. Then it's graduation. There is ongoing remodeling taking place at this single-level school. I guess if you're going to have an earthquake, what's the fun of being on the second or third floor? Besides, real estate is relatively cheap out here; that is to say, relative to Manhattan, or San Francisco. With the exception of the tiny sandstone relic set back from the corner, the place looks like ultra modern 1970. An unemployed aroma of oak or jasmine forces exotic inhalations as I make my way to an administration office. All those hopeful trees that were planted thirty years ago now belong to high and shady rows. I ask an administrator what that wonderful scent from the trees might be. She is not sure, but she interprets it as the announcement of allergy season. When I mention my purpose in being there, I am told what a fine young man Mike Stephens is.

I meet with Coach Denny Lewis at his office, which is being remodeled. Coach Lewis played at San Francisco's Lincoln High School and is a San Francisco Hall of Fame guard. He could really play and was recruited to go to Cal by Pete Newell, who had recently won an NCAA Championship. So, no matter how modest Coach Lewis might be, Michael Stephens is lucky to have had a coach with big time playing experience that has been through the Pac 10 wars (even if it wasn't the Pac 10 back then - it fluctuated between being a five and eight team league in those days).

Coach Lewis states that his Napa High teams were not blessed with a lot of big players over the years and that he as a coach could not pass on the experience of working with a lot of big players to Mike. But I look at it a different way. Lewis has taught Mike how to play defense, team defense all over the court, and has seen Mike pick up the concepts of help defense when an opponent penetrates into the scoring area. Lewis is also an excellent teacher of shooting. In sum, Mike may be 6-10, but he has picked up small man skills like long-range shooting, a passing game and a defensive floor game that most big guys don't have. Coach Lewis now feels that it is time for Mike to start growing into his body and pick up some of the big man skills he will use in college.

While I am chatting with Coach Lewis, a 6-10 clean-cut lad quietly comes into the room. We shake hands and he sits down. This kid is blonder and taller than Wally Szerbiak, but somehow, this is who comes to mind. His facial features are not as severe. Maybe Gonzaga's Casey Calvary is a better comparison. Somewhere between a youthful version of those two guys. He weighs probably 220 plus. I forget to ask.

How much do you know about the Princeton offense?

How much do I know... They like to run the back door. It's something we do here sometimes. It's a very sophisticated offense. I've seen it first hand. They like to set screens and help their centers step out and take shots and things like that.

Are you aware of the demands on passing ability?

Yeah. Of course, their big men do not only low post shots, but they shoot outside, pass really well

Have they talked to you about the hook shot?

Yeah, all of the coaches have talked to me about the hook shot.

You already shoot a left-handed hook shot in the low post from six feet away?

Coach Lewis - We're working on it.

Mike Stephens - I'm working on it.

Coach Lewis - We're trying to get a true hook shot rather than a push shot.

Mike Stephens - Since I was taller than most people I just do a regular push shot and he's trying to help me get elevation with both hands. So, I'm pretty good with both hands. I can shoot pretty well around the basket, so I'm working on it right now.

How do you rate your low post hook shot?

From 1 to 10? Probably a 6.

What are your plans for the summer?

Until I leave to go to summer school, just working out, working on my game, lifting weights, trying to get stronger and heavier. I am going to come over [here to the gym]. Coach Lewis is going to help me with some stuff, do some boxes, get my legs back into shape. Just hang out with some of my friends; some of my friends leave earlier, before I do. Just go to graduation parties, etc.

Did you do some rehab?

I did to a certain extent. After a couple of months I did some biking, light leg workouts, calf raises, some leg presses and some squats.

How about swimming therapy?

Yeah, swimming therapy, just getting the fluid to move in back of your legs was something they also encouraged.

They scope your knee at all?

No. No surgery. Just some deep bone bruises.

This is something Coach Lewis might be able to answer real well, but I was wondering what you knew about Pete Newell's Big Man camp and is it something you have ever put on your agenda to attend?

In the future I have, hopefully. But right now I've heard it's very expensive and the top centers in the country go there from all over. Even professionals.

Coach Lewis, do you have any comments about the Big Man camp?

I have never seen it. It's one of my goals to go down and go through it. I am real close with Ned Averbuck and Bill McClintock (former Cal Golden Bear players for Newell). They have taught at the camp and they put on a mini-version of some of the stuff when we went up to Santa Rosa. Tremendous footwork. And this is the key to everything he [Pete Newell] does.

So you probably taught Mike a lot of that stuff.

He has pretty good footwork. He really does. He has worked on most of the stuff. His problem was he shot the ball too well facing the bucket. He was the best 3-point shooter we had on our team. So at times, we had trouble demanding that he be a back-to-the-bucket player. But he has good footwork, and this is a key. He has good hands and good footwork.

Mike, you were talking in that Chronicle interview about how you compensate against a player who is bigger, quicker or more experienced.

My mental approach I would think would be better than most players. I am not as athletic as most people I play against, but I use my intelligence in playing defense. If they jump higher, then I'll box them out. Or if I get double-teamed, I can find my open teammate for a jump shot or a lay-up. I suppose my mental approach to the game would probably be better than most people's just because I prepare myself for what I am trying to do.

Who are some of the toughest guys you have faced?

When I went to ABCD I didn't really catch the names, but like Eddie Curry. I didn't get to play against him. But like Michael Fey (from Olympia, Washington and going to UCLA), I played against him; Kevin Tolbert going to Michigan State, I played against him. (Aside: He blocked my shot. Yeah, he jumps quite high.) I only heard about those big-name players when I first got there. I played against a lot of the people that are going to Division I schools, but I couldn't name them off the top of my head.

You met some of your future teammates when you [visited Princeton]. Did you get a chance to scrimmage with them?

No. When we were there, that was during their practicing so we just sat on the sideline and watched them do their drills and practice sessions and stuff like that.

Who were you with?

Judson Wallace.

How did he impress you?

He has a nice shot. He's pretty quick for 6-8.

So, what have been your favorite subjects here at Napa High?

I love math. I love numbers. I'm going into financial engineering at Princeton. Because my dad does banking, I have always enjoyed numbers when I was a little kid. Even in middle school and high school I have had great teachers ? very student-oriented teachers that really helped me out a lot.

I met your calculus teacher outside the gym Sunday. I thought at first he was a student. He said you were a very good student.

Oh, Mr. Gregory? Yes, I like Mr. Gregory. He's a nice guy. He's pretty good at basketball, too, if you ever see him play. He doesn't miss many jump shots.

Okay, well, it's too late to recruit him.

(Coach Lewis recalls that Mr. Gregory broke his leg his senior year at Sacramento High, where Kevin Johnson [Cal Bears and Phoenix Suns] was ready to step in as a 9th grader.)

You have already talked about what you would like to do with your life, as far as the financial engineering is concerned.

Yeah, finance or marketing. The NBA is a kind of a far-fetched goal, but to be practical I think I have a legitimate shot at playing overseas. I mean I've seen figures and you can make reasonable to pretty good money playing overseas. And then maybe get my chance to play...

Do you have any serious hobbies?

I like to listen to music.

What kind?

I like rock. I'm starting to get into classic rock, more like the 70s, like the Led Zeppelin type stuff. I actually can play instruments. I can play the piano, and I played the trombone a while ago for about six years and I've played the piano for about twelve years.

Do you know any Mozart Sonatas?

No. I wasn't really a fan of [classical]. I like playing recent stuff, like I love theme songs.

How about "What a Fool Believes" by The Doobie Brothers? Late 70s?

No. And, just sports, I guess. I enjoy all kinds of sports. I don't know if you consider sports a hobby. I consider it a hobby because I enjoy playing.

Would you prefer swimming or volleyball?


What book have you read in the past year that you would recommend to someone?

There's a book I read this year that is called The Things They Carry by Tim O'Brien. We just read it in my English class this year. It was on the Vietnam War. Personally I enjoy biographical incidents. I love studying like World War II, and stuff like that. Books that have to do with or are based upon true incidents. It was just the knowledge that I gained from the book helped me feel like I got the most out of it, and I felt it was the most rewarding book that I read. I personally enjoyed the stories ? really interesting. And then I talked to some family friends that actually participated and they said "Yeah, it was just like that", so I got like the whole aspect of it.

How old were you when you first started playing basketball?

I think I was around 6. I played organized basketball when I was in the 1st or 2nd grade. The Catholic Youth League.

Here in Napa?

Yes, the CYO here in Napa.

Are you somebody who believes in being a gym rat, playing 365 days a year, or do you believe in taking some time off?

I believe in being a gym rat. I love basketball. If you asked anybody to describe me they'd probably say I am a basketball player more than anything else. With Coach Lewis, we put our time in. When I first started out I wasn't really enjoying it, but now I get to the point where I go to the gym every day, I shoot jump shots for forty-five minutes to an hour, then I will go lift weights for an hour-and-a-half.

When you release the ball, could you show me with your hand, is it here or is it here?

I release it up here.

Above your head. So, you didn't have any problems getting games, getting kids to play. Or is that sometimes a problem out here?

Competition-wise, games probably would be harder to find kids that are my age.

Coach Lewis - Mike's biggest competition came from his father and brother.

Mike Stephens - Yeah, my father and my brother - that'd be probably my biggest competition. I went one-on-one ever since I was a little kid.

You think you could beat me one-on-one?

(Hesitation). Probably. I've never seen you play, though.

Okay. Can you think of a play that you made this year that stands out in your mind?

There really wasn't really a play I could think of that comes to mind.

Coach Lewis - Sure. Skyline. We were playing against McAteer, which was the number one team in Northern California at the time we were playing for the championship. And one of their guard-forward types, very athletic, tremendous vertical type player, gets a breakaway. And he's coming down right to left, going in. So Michael takes an angle to go over the back and he goes over the top and pins the ball above the rim, which for Michael...

Mike Stephens - That's a feat in itself right there.

Coach Lewis - a feat. But this was a big time game. We had lost to this team by twenty earlier without Michael and then we came back in the championship and beat them by twelve. He was ten for fifteen [from the field] or something like that.

Did you ever measure your vertical leap, or does it matter to you? (Maybe you don't want that figure to get out.)

No. See, I don't really know. I wouldn't say very high. That's the one thing I'm trying to work on after my knee injury. I'm trying to get back my legs, trying to work on my vertical.

In your career here what percentage of your points scored are dunk shots?

Are what?

Are dunk shots. Less than ten percent?

Oh. Probably, barely, none. I've only dunked once in a game.

You'll fit right in at Princeton.

I mean, I can dunk. But personally to me, I'd rather just take a lay-up. Get the two points.

Coach Lewis - You miss a dunk, you sit.

Mike Stephens - Plus, that's a rule of Coach Lewis

Coach Lewis - If you miss a dunk in practice, you run how many?

Mike Stephens - Run ten sprints.

Coach, like every kid who goes to a Division I program, Mike is going to be competing for a starting position on a team that already has players. They are bringing in another incoming freshman about Mike's size, Dominic Martin. What's your comment on competing as the pyramid goes higher and the opportunities lessen as you get into college.

Well, the one thing about Michael is that every year Michael has gotten better and a lot of players don't get as big a plateau jumps as he has gotten. He still hasn't touched the surface of his skills. And this is really important for him. Those first couple of years he is trying to grow into a body, and now he is trying to fill a body. His whole maturation process now is going to change a lot because he is going to become a lot stronger than he ever was. He has skills that very few big players have. When you have a combination of great hands, tremendous hands, and soft hands. He's a great passer. As I've said before, someone who shoots as well as Michael is a rarity at this age. He is fundamentally very sound.

Can he dribble?

Well, we don't let him dribble a lot, but he thinks he's a guard, which is nice.

So what part of his game has improved the most?

His biggest improvement is his understanding of basketball. He understands concepts a lot better than most players. He probably doesn't understand why he understands the concepts, but he does understand defensive lanes, he understands different areas of attack, he's a great shot blocker, and he doesn't jump well. He averaged five or six blocked shots a game, and we probably didn't get 'em all. Most teams wouldn't go against him because we didn't have size, so it's a help situation. He understands angles.

How do you replace him?

We don't. I've never had big players. In my twenty-seven years here, I had one player over 6-5 basically, and then I had Mike. I used to have a lot of munchkins. We ran all motion stuff and flex. It was harder for me than anything because I am not really versed as someone who is used to having big players. Michael did a lot of stuff on his own and by not having tremendous background from a big player coach, he's going to really thrive in the advanced areas. He's going to really mature. His level of play is going to surprise a lot of people.

Do you think kids today are generally too caught up in the shooting as opposed to fundamentals?

Kids today don't understand anything when it comes to defense. They understand how to cheat, how to overplay. We play a style of basketball that is all full court pressure and we're very good at it. We are not good when we get the ball in the set. Once we get in the set and we have to play defense, our kids are not very good, which in a way helped Michael because guys were blowing by a lot of our players outside so he got a chance to block shots inside.

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