He heard the roar of the fans: “Defense. Defense. Defense.” Standing in the tunnel in complete agony with what doctors told him was a re-separated left shoulder, all D.J. Stephens heard was: “D.J. D.J. D.J.”
Echoing throughout the FedExForum, the high-flying University of Memphis senior forward could hear the fans bemoaning a heart-wrenching comeback by the opposition.
“Doc, I have to go back out there, my team needs me,” Stephens told the team physician.
Without the assistance of medication, Stephens bounded back onto the floor as the mood of the arena flipped. Upon noticing the 6-foot-5 fan favorite from Killeen — a town few, if any, in attendance even know the location of — the Tigers fans shot to their feet with a deafening concert of applause and cheers.
With seven minutes left in the game, the former Harker Heights standout returned to the floor to see Memphis trailing Harvard 46-44 after leading by as much as 20 just 12 minutes prior.
Back on the court, the Tigers’ emotional spark tied it with a put-back dunk and then blocked an easy layup on the other end that led directly to a fast-break score for teammate Chris Crawford to pull Memphis on top again 48-46 with 6:27 left to play.
Like he’s done throughout his “crazy” and, at times, difficult four years at Memphis, Stephens helped the Tigers pull out a 60-50 victory Jan. 19 over Harvard.
“They told him he was done for the game, he was in major pain, and … he could tell how much his team needed him,” Memphis head coach Josh Pastner recalled earlier this month. “And he didn’t even take any pain (medication), he just came out and played. … He was unbelievable.”
Following more than five hours spent in the air, Stephens arrived at the BOK Center court in Tulsa, Okla., an hour and 25 minutes before Memphis’ Conference USA tournament semifinal game Friday evening.
That morning, Stephens flew out of Tulsa to bury his grandmother, Emma Lee Stephens-Bell, 72, who died March 11 in Harker Heights. But there wasn’t much time to mourn for Stephens.
Hours after attending her funeral at the Greater Peace Missionary Baptist Church in Killeen, he pulled in his third double-double of the season with 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in an 86-75 win over host Tulsa.
“I didn’t sleep well the night before … so I was pretty tired, but I knew going into that game that my team was going to need me and I still needed to play,” Stephens said. “I just decided to dedicate whatever I did to my grandmother.”
The next day, Stephens had 12 points, five blocks, four rebounds and three steals to help No. 20 Memphis win its seventh Conference USA tournament championship in the last eight years with a 91-79 double-overtime victory over Southern Miss.
The win secured a third-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance for the Tigers (30-4, 16-0 C-USA), who enter as the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region and will open Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich., against the winner between No. 11 seeds Middle Tennessee (28-5) or St. Mary’s (27-6).
“I’m happy where we are right now, I’m happy where we could possibly go, we just have to stay focused,” Stephens said.
Ready to walk away
A major reason for Memphis’ success this season has been the progression of Stephens, whose above-the-rim play on both sides of the ball has created a high-flying, athletic identity that has infused itself within this year’s Tigers squad.
Except, just five months ago, that identity nearly walked away from the game he’s loved since he was a child.
After battling severe patella tendinitis in both his knees as a junior, among other injuries, Stephens was seriously considering redshirting or outright quitting the sport before the season.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college and I wasn’t sure if I could even play professionally … I was really discouraged coming into this year,” Stephens said.
Through his first three seasons, Stephens was little more than a part-time player.
If anything, the player affectionately called the Killeen “Human Highlight Reel” during his high school days was mostly a sideshow, known for his jaw-dropping and eye-bugging dunks that made him a YouTube celebrity.
But it’s been his all-out effort, be it on sensational dunks or hurling his body into wealthy alumni sitting courtside to save a ball from going out of bounds, that has earned him a huge following among Memphis fans.
“I’m a kid from Killeen, Texas, and we have kids from Memphis in the starting lineup, (yet) when they call my name and I get the loudest applause, that just means a lot,” Stephens said.
Despite his crowd-pleasing plays, it wasn’t until this season that Stephens has seen any real playing time. After making just seven starts in the three seasons prior, Stephens has started the last 26 contests, averaging 23.3 minutes per game.
Leading Conference USA in field goal percentage (.662) and blocked shots (83, 2.4 per game) Stephens was named C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year last week, the Tigers’ first C-USA All-Defensive Team selection since 2009.
And after the storybook season he’s had this year, the once-awkward and gangly kid from Killeen is even drawing NBA consideration.
“I think there’s a place for him in the NBA, because he can help you win games, especially with energy,” Pastner said, guaranteeing Stephens will win the annual NBA All-Star Dunk Contest in his rookie season, even if it’s against dunking virtuosos LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
Stephens even acknowledged being in “awe” of his dunks after the fact, often watching his own clips on YouTube to get a second-hand look at ones he experienced first-hand.
“He wanted to jump over a car (at Memphis Madness) and I wouldn’t let him,” Pastner said. “I’m just telling you, the guy will win it.”
The growth hasn’t just come on the court for Stephens, who is set to graduate in May. Stephens and his girlfriend, Memphis alumna Stacie Payne, are expecting a child in August.
“It’s a great experience for me (about to) graduate from college (in May), starting my pro career and starting a family all at the same time,” Stephens said. “I’m ecstatic about it. When I found out, I was happy and I’ve been happy ever since.
“I’m looking forward to becoming a father. I’m looking forward to becoming a husband and starting my family.”
Hopefully by the time his child is born, Stephens said, it’ll be as a fiancé after he’s earning a regular NBA paycheck and is driving his own car — with no reliable form of transportation, Stephens still depends on Payne to drive him around.
“Hopefully after this summer, I’ll be in a great enough situation to where I’ll be able to support her and my kid and everything will be alright,” Stephens said.
But while his future in the NBA is still up in the air, Stephens’ main focus right now is just on making the most of the time he has left at Memphis, knowing every game could be his last.
“I just want to win as many games as we possibly can and get a national championship,” he said.
Contact Alex Byington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7566