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Inside the Lion’s Den: The quiet roar of Lamar Stevens

How Stevens’ relentless desire to win morphed into a unique leadership style the Celtics will need.

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Penn State men’s basketball has no sympathy for night owls. For half a decade of summers between 2017 and 2021, early Friday morning practices were not only a staple of the program, but a day to look forward to. The team woke up at 4:30 a.m. to compete in the Lion’s Den, a weekly competition at practice to see which players would come out on top.

The Penn State captains each picked their squads and battled in head-to-head scrimmages, with the winner receiving a WWE belt with the Penn State logo displayed proudly on top and “King of the Climb” etched below.

Only one name has been etched onto Penn State Men’s Basketball’s King of the Climb belt: Lamar Stevens.

Stevens’ King of the Climb victory in 2017 is still on the belt to this day. No one else has put forth the effort to get their name on the hardware. And by the time his senior season with the Nittany Lions came around, Stevens made it his mission to win the belt every single time it was up for grabs.

“He made it one of his goals,” Stevens’ college teammate Jamari Wheeler told CelticsBlog. “Every Friday, he’s going to win. He’s going to be the champion. He’s going to be the king. He’s going to win the belt. And for the most part, he did that that last year.”

Jamari Wheeler

For four years at Penn State, Stevens gave his all to the program, and during that time, he never let the belt out of his sight. It didn’t matter that it was just practice. It didn’t matter that it was summertime. All that mattered was winning, even when it was against his own teammates. And when Stevens failed to take home the jewelry, he made life hell for whoever did.

“Oh, he was mad,” said Wheeler. “And he would let you know that you were going to have to see him in practice or he’ll be back next Friday to come get it. But that whole week in practice, he’d let you know [that] it’s his. He’d come with an attitude.”

Stevens plans to bring that same mentality to the Boston Celtics.

“Every day, every opportunity I get, I want to go hard, I want to push myself to try to achieve the limits that I’ve always felt I had but others may not have seen,” Stevens told CelticsBlog. “So, I feel like every day is just an opportunity to continue to prove myself. To myself first and then to teammates and just be a great teammate.

Stevens’ drive is infectious. During one practice, Mike Watkins, who played center at Penn State, dunked on Stevens. Both sides were getting rowdy, but Stevens responded in the best way he knew how: He took the ball, ran down the other end, and dunked on Watkins.

“He dunked right back on Mike,” Wheeled recalled. “Came right back at him. He didn’t curl his head or none of that. He was just like, ‘Okay, let’s play. We can keep doing this. Go possession for possession.’ That was something I really remember in practice. It was really crazy.”

On an Exhibit 9 deal in Boston, Stevens’ circumstances were different, but his work ethic remains the same. An Exhibit 9 deal is a non-guaranteed training camp contract that forces a player to work their way onto the team. Now that the preseason is over, his contract has turned into a non-guaranteed standard deal.

Stevens’ hard work paid off, as he knows he will “always going to control my energy and effort” no matter the situation or roadblocks in front of him.

That said, no one’s challenged him in the same way Watkins did yet.

“Nah, nobody’s crazy,” Stevens said. “Everybody knows [not to try me]. Nobody’s tried me yet. I want to. I was thinking about that today because I would definitely jump.”

Boston’s star-studded group has athletes up and down the roster, but Stevens had his eye on the biggest fish of all — Jayson Tatum — and with his hope to get the best of the Celtics superstar comes a healthy dose of mockery.

“I want to block JT’s dunk,” Stevens said. “We saw how the kid on the Sixers blocked his dunk. I made fun of him for that.”

Philadelphia 76ers guard Jaden Springer denied Tatum at the rim in the Celtics’ first preseason game. Stevens hasn’t let Tatum forget about it.

For the first time in their careers, Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be playing without Marcus Smart. Without his voice in their ears, Stevens has the chance to be a new guiding force.

“He’s not afraid to stand up. He ain’t afraid of anybody,” said former Penn State assistant and current Fordham head coach Keith Urgo. “And that’s why the stars love him. Everybody who’s met him, all the stars from Donovan Mitchell to whoever, fell in love with him. And I think that’ll be the same thing with Jaylen Brown and Jayson. They’ll fall in love with him, too, because he’ll do whatever is necessary for them to be successful.”

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Stevens spent the first four years of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mitchell joined the squad last offseason. And while one was a bench player and the other an All-NBA guard, their relationship ran deeper than their roles.

During a December win over the Atlanta Hawks, Mitchell was getting killed on the defensive end. Mitchell got scored on repeatedly to the point where a timeout had to be called. Once the Cavaliers got back to the huddle, Stevens put him on blast.

“He came to the huddle and said I was getting my ass busted when they scored on me twice,” Mitchell said after the game. “I don’t think anybody scored on me after that.”

Stevens’ willingness to speak up no matter who’s in front of him makes him a perfect fit on Boston’s bench. Between Tatum, Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jrue Holiday — the Celtics aren’t short on stars. And with Stevens in tow, they aren’t short on leaders, either.

“It just starts with the relationship that you build with the guys,” Stevens said. “And I think they all know that I care about them, and I love them, and I want to see them do good. And I really care about the success of the team. So sometimes, [it’s] just being willing to put myself out there for the greater good of the team.

“They might not like it in the moment, but they know my intentions are in the right place, and I’m just trying to push them and us to be great and to achieve higher things that we might not have thought of.”

Penn State v Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

In his senior season, Stevens dominated the Philadelphia basketball scene, earning All-State and All-District honors playing for Roman Catholic High School alongside future Penn State teammates Tony Carr and Nazeer Bostic. They ranked first in Philadelphia, top-15 nationally, and won the state championship. “I always saw him as that superstar,” John Harrar, Stevens’ teammate at Penn State, told CelticsBlog.

Stevens spent four years at Penn State, developing his game and his own leadership style. He had an image in mind, and he set to work perfecting it.

“He used to call himself, and I mean, everyone called him [it], Junkyard Dog,” said Harrar. “Just playing hard defense. His rim protection, all that stuff. So, I think he’s just a guy who will get there and then find a role for himself and do whatever the team needs.”

The hard work paid off. Stevens earned All-Big Ten honors twice while at Penn State and cemented himself as one of the greatest Nittany Lions of all time. He helped lead them to an NIT championship in 2018, and by the time his senior season rolled around, he was the unquestioned star and leader of the team, and they were on pace to make the NCAA Tournament.

“He’s the hardest worker on the team,” former Penn State head coach and current Florida Gulf Coast head coach Patrick Chambers told CelticsBlog. “And we all know when the hardest work on the team is your best player, for me at Penn State, that’s what you need. That’s why you’re successful. That’s why you win an NIT championship when you’re supposed to be in the NCAA Tournament, by the way. But that’s a whole other discussion.

“And then you come back two years later, and you’re top-10 in the country because he’s carrying the weight. He’s chopping wood, carrying water. And that’s what you need.

In 2019-20, Penn State was on pace for their best season in 11 years. Stevens was in line for a special accomplishment, too: Taylor Battle’s Penn State scoring record. He was seven points shy and eyeing his next game against Indiana. But then the world shut down.

The COVID pandemic shut down the season. No NCAA tournament for the Nittany Lions. No televised showcase to elevate Lamar Stevens’ draft hopes. “He was going to be talked about on every show leading up to the tournament,” said Urgo.

And he never got to break the school’s scoring record.

“This dude had every reason to put his head in his pillow and just end it, cry about it, because it was COVID, and he didn’t get to play in that Big Ten game, and he missed it by seven points,” said Harrar.

But as leaders do, Stevens kept moving.

“That was crushing,” said Chambers. “But his response to this, his mentality, his approach. I mean, just keep moving, just keep working. And I think that’s the fabric that you’re getting.”

He kept leading even after all his plans crumbled around him.

“I think it’s just who I am as a person,” Stevens said. “If I start something, I want to finish it, and I want to give my all to it. It was four years of my life that I dedicated to that team and that school. So, I just felt like it was only right for me to go out and just give my all to my teammates [and] to myself. That’s just how I’ve always been my entire life.”

2018 NIT Championship Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Coach Chambers introduced Stevens to what they call a “Routine of Greatness.” “It’s just like something that you do every day that just contributes to greatness,” Stevens said. “You know [that] every day you’re doing things to take steps towards greatness and achieving things that you want to just kind of reminds you, ‘What are you doing it for?’ Every little thing is a positive improvement in the right direction of where you want to go.”

Stevens applies this routine to his entire life. Will this mindset take hold with the Celtics? How will it affect the team’s best players?

“JT and JB, they’re high-level players, and they attack practice with a serious mindset. So, it’s been great,” said Stevens. “They’re super competitive. I’ve always just been a guy who just talks trash and tries to poke the bear and see what you’re really made of, and they both love it.

“It’s been a great back-and-forth thing that I’ve gotten when I’ve had the opportunity to guard them. And they know I’m just a competitor. I want to win. And I think like-minded people find each other and like each other.”

When he signed on, Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe reported that the Celtics told Stevens they hope he can help replace the toughness that Smart and Grant Williams brought to the table. “I’m excited for that opportunity to bring what I [can] bring to the team,” Stevens said at Celtics practice on October 3. “Hopefully it can uplift us.”

Smart was traded for Porzingis. Williams left in free agency and signed with the Mavericks. Two leaders on the court and in the locker room, both gone.

“I’m not really thinking about last year,” said Stevens. “Grant and Marcus, I think they do miss them, and they’re great players. But I’m me. I’ve always brought that toughness naturally. So, I’m just focused on bringing in my version of that toughness and being me and doing all that I can to help us achieve the goals that we want to achieve.”

The Celtics swapped out depth for star power this summer. And with the shift comes more shot-hungry mouths to feed and less time for bench players like Stevens to earn minutes.

But that’s not what he cares about. It’s like those Friday mornings in State College: winning is the only goal. And if constantly getting in the ears of Boston’s stars is the way to find success, then that’s what Stevens will do.

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