By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – As if things aren’t wacky enough these days around the Indiana Pacers – a 7-foot-2 center disappearing like a David Copperfield trick, closed-door intrigue within a locker room that used to boast about its lack of drama – consider Lance Stephenson‘s “Bird Cave.”
That’s the name Stephenson has given to the little notch in the railings at one end of the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It’s down in the corner near the end of the Pacers’ bench, maybe 15 or 20 feet away, right in front of the seats where Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh, Kevin Pritchard and Herb Simon – the team’s brain trust and owner – sit.
It’s a small space enclosed by metal bars on two sides, with four sometimes seeming a better idea when you see Stephenson head over there all agitated and animated.
And so it goes with Stephenson. The mercurial Indiana shooting guard can glare and angrily gesture at coach Frank Vogel when getting yanked from a game, as he did Monday in Game 1 of the Pacers’ series against the Washington Wizards, and then be fine – saying the words of humility at least – afterward.
So, too, can Stephenson vacate his seat on the team’s bench when he has subbed out, head over to his little nook (or is it more cranny?) in full view of nearly everyone in the building and – when it all works right – emerge with less emotion and more focus.
He fidgets. He shifts from foot to foot. He bends over. And he burns off nervous energy, which he has at Tasmanian devil levels.
“I just try to stay loose,” Stephenson said this week. “And I hear what Larry’s got to say sometimes. When I sit down… I don’t want to not be ready when I come in. So I come over here and hear what Larry has to say sometimes.”
“Like if I’ve had a bad start, he’s like, ‘Man, you gotta pick it up. Let’s go. There’s a lot on the line.’ Or he’s just like, ‘You’re doin’ good. Keep it up.’ … I need it sometimes.”
Vogel, a little more traditional, would rather Stephenson plant himself on the bench and remain in ear shot. But that’s a battle in which the head coach has surrendered, given the limited downside (besides decorum) and the benefit Stephenson gets – or thinks he gets, anyway – from doing it.
“I put him in a few times and he didn’t hear me, so he stayed on the sideline over here,” Vogel said. “I told him, I like him to sit. He said he likes to stand and stay loose. So I said, ‘Well, sit there first. If you feel like you need to get up and stretch or let some energy out, then go ahead.’ ”
Stephenson mostly goes ahead.
“I know people think it’s a negative thing that I stand over there, that I’m not engaged with the team. But it’s definitely to stay loose and be ready at all times. Even when [former Pacers big man] Jeff Foster was here, he used to stand over there or be on the bike sometimes.
“Sometimes I’m nervous. Sometimes I’m over-hyped. I just need a breather over here. Sometimes I just need to stay loose and sometimes I need to hear what Larry gotta say.”
Because Stephenson’s little space actually is part of the space fans in that section use to enter and exit the arena bowl, he invariably does a little community relations work while he’s there, intended or not.
Said Stephenson: “They say ‘C’mon, pick it up.’ Or ‘Hey man, nice to meet you! What are you doin’ over here?’ Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. A guy tried to touch me one time. I was like, ‘Hey! Back up!’ ”
Even the Bird Cave has its rules. So what if Stephenson’s the only one who knows or understands them.