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VOL. 129 | NO. 146 | Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Globetrotting Stephens Eyes Eventual Return to NBA

By Don Wade

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North Texas told D.J. Stephens no, said they no longer had a basketball scholarship for him. Remember that?

Former University of Memphis standout D.J. Stephens is prepping for his second season of professional basketball after having a stint in the NBA last season.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The only reason Stephens wound up at the University of Memphis was that a new young coach named Josh Pastner needed bodies to fill out the roster after John Calipari left for Kentucky and took everything but the nets off the rims at the Finch Center.

So Pastner responded to a mass email from Stephens’ AAU coach and offered a scholarship sight unseen. Stephens cried at this news. When he reported to Memphis and Pastner saw what he could – or couldn’t – do on a basketball court, Pastner joked, “I was the one crying.”

And then Stephens, despite his asthma and “old-man knees,” to quote Pastner, went out and had himself a fine, high-flying, fan-favorite career for the Tigers.

This summer, he has been a frequent visitor at the Finch Center – working out, putting up 3-point shots, trying to improve his ball-handling skills. Still fighting the odds.

Stephens spent much of last season playing professionally for a team in Greece. But he did get a 10-day contract from the Milwaukee Bucks and in three games of very limited action averaged 2.7 points and 1.7 rebounds. So he’s in the NBA record book for life, no matter what happens going forward.

He finished out last season with a pro team in Istanbul, Turkey, and at this moment Stephens says his agent is reviewing offers from teams in, no particular order, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, Greece, Turkey, France and Poland.

“Pretty much mark up the map,” Stephens said. “My agent’s crunching numbers, trying to figure out the best fit for me and I’m just letting him do his job.”

Overseas, as in Memphis, fans responded to the 6-5 Stephens’ high-hops game.

“People tend to fall in love with that quick,” he said. “That’s what everybody praises me for, my high-flying dunks and blocks. The fans over there go crazy.”

That’s actually a general statement. In Turkey, the basketball fans borrowed from international soccer fans and behaved like ruffians.

“A lot of the basketball clubs over there have a soccer team associated with them,” Stephens said. “So it’s pretty much those same fans. I’ve been in a couple games where the fans throw things on the court – lighters, coins.”

Everything from bad officiating to bad play to a hard foul can get it started.

“They go nuts,” Stephens said. “In one or two cases they had to clear the gym and we finished the game with no fans. Usually the away team, you have this big barricade that comes over the top of your bench where people can’t throw anything from behind you, but the people on the side or that are across from you can still hit you with something if their aim’s pretty good.

“The fans are really emotional and care about their team. They don’t really care about their own well-being. So if they get beat up in the process, I guess they just think that’s a part of it. It’s crazy.”

All that said, Stephens says the team in Turkey treated him better, though he said appreciated Greece for the scenery: “It was really beautiful. The views are second to none.”

But both places had this much in common: they were a long way away from his fiancée and his daughter, who is now almost a year old.

“My daughter was born five days before I had to go over overseas,” he said. “To watch her grow up on a computer screen, that was kinda tough on me but I have to go provide for my family.”

And he can provide much better on an overseas salary than he could playing in the NBA Development League here.

“Once I played in the NBA that really helped me out,” Stephens said. “I have that resume now. It took my stock up. The team I was on in Turkey, we had five or six players making over a million dollars. There’s money out there to be made.

“I know I’ll get back to the NBA eventually. I don’t know if it’ll take one, two, three or four years, but I know I’ll be back.”

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