Trying to Break the Spell

BY ANDREW BLOM // MARCH 7, 2012 //

“I thought this was the year,” said A.J. Stephens. “I had something to finish and I’m mad about not finishing it…again.”

Stephens is a 6-foot-5, 255-pound basketball player nicknamed “The Beast” because of his aggressive style on the hardwood. At age 24, the junior communication major was named The Commonwealth Coast Conference Player of the Week on Feb. 6 and was having a stellar season for the Colonels. But that season came to a premature end this month, and The Beast is once again wondering if he’ll ever enjoy a happily ever after.

A.J. Stephens didn't play in many games this season due to poor grades, but when he did play he shined for the Colonels. However, Stephens failed to finish out the year with the team after walking away from his coach and teammates. // PHOTO COURTESY OF CURRY ATHLETICS

On Feb. 8, Curry traveled to Springfield, Mass., to take on conference rival Western New England University. The Colonels would go on to lose the game, 71-70, but Stephens wasn’t on the court or even on the bench when the final buzzer sounded. Receiving just nine minutes of playing time, he left the game and his teammates early and sulked his way into the locker room.

“I was not happy with the situation,” he says, alluding to his limited playing time while coming off the bench in a non-starter role. In earning Player of the Week honors just days earlier, Stephens averaged 18 points and nearly 12 rebounds over a three-game span. “Two games in I thought I proved myself. I could have contributed more.”

After the game, Curry head coach Malcolm Wynn asked for Stephens’s jersey, essentially kicking him off the team. Stephens says he reluctantly handed it over without a fight.  “Maybe if I said something I’d still be playing,” says the Stamford, Conn., native. “I have times where I struggle, and I’m not being mature enough.” Wynn declined to comment for this story.

Basketball has long provided Stephens with opportunities to succeed in life. But something always seems to get in the way, and it’s often Stephens himself. After graduating from high school—an All-State player his senior season, he averaged nearly 30 points and 16.5 rebounds per game—Stephens says he received scholarship offers from such places as Seton Hall University and Hofstra University, but he was unable to accept due to poor grades and test scores. He would attend Barton County Community College in Kansas in September 2006, but lasted just two weeks because the head basketball coach was upset by Stephens’s poor work ethic.

“Every coach seems to have that problem with me not being in shape,” he says.

Stephens moved on to South Plains College in Texas, where he stayed for two years. He played basketball his first year at the school, but was unable to continue because of poor grades, he says.

Stephens took the 2008-09 academic year off and moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., explaining that he needed “a change of scenery.” When he returned to Connecticut in May 2009, he says he thought about the campus tour of Curry he took in 2004 and decided to call Coach Wynn. Soon, Stephens was enrolled in a summer class at the college and was accepted shortly thereafter.

In his first season at Curry, Stephens started seven games and averaged 17.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. Months later, he became a father. Stephens opted to leave college once again, this time taking a year off to be with his new son, Jay’sir Stephens, in Connecticut.

Stephens says it was his own mother who ultimately convinced him to return to Curry this academic year to resume his education and passion. “Basketball means a whole lot to him,” says Queenie Stephens, by phone from Ohio where she now lives. “He proved a lot by keeping his grades up this year, and I know in his heart he wants to play now.”

But with the season now over—Curry finished the year 11-15, 9-9 in conference play, led by junior Sedale Jones’s 21 points per game—Stephens can only hope for yet another opportunity to realize his potential. Stephens was academically ineligible to start the season and only played his first game  on Jan. 28, the team’s 18th contest. He played in only five games thereafter. Still, he was the Colonels’ second-leading scorer with 14.2 points per game.

“This kid is pretty damn good,” says Adam Kaplan, a freshman communication major and a member of the men’s basketball team. “Type of guy you love to play with, who just made a mistake. He’ll learn from it.”

Stephens says that he hopes to work things out at Curry and plans to meet with Wynn to discuss his future with the men’s basketball team. Without basketball, he says it’s unclear whether he’ll even return to the college.

“Hopefully, we can start this chapter again,” says Stephens. “I want to finish this, so I can have a story to tell my son.”

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