Feb. 21, 2013
A Second Chance
By Matt Dougherty, Patriot League Assistant Executive Director for Communications
Note: The following story appears in the 2013 Patriot League Basketball Tournament program.
Shock waves were sent throughout the Patriot League when the word came out in the late spring of 2011 that Stephen Lumpkins would not be returning for his senior season at American.
A team that had just finished 22-9 overall and 11-3 in the Patriot League was expected to be a top contender again, but Lumpkins had another path calling his name. He had just been selected in the 13th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals, and was ready to embark on a professional baseball career.
Lumpkins appeared in 10 games for the Rookie Arizona League Royals in 2011, then threw in five more in 2012 before realizing that he needed a change in direction.
"I was out in Arizona playing baseball and I had played about two seasons, and it wasn't really going as well as I thought it was going to go and I wasn't really making any progress," Lumpkins said. "I was going to come back to American regardless this year, even if it was just for a semester, to finish my degree."
While Lumpkins knew he was done with baseball and knew he would come back to American to complete his degree, it was not as clear if he would return to the basketball court.
"Towards the end of the baseball season, I was just emotionally done with it. I knew I was coming back to school, but I didn't know if I wanted to play basketball or not," he said. "I went back home and talked to my family a lot about what I wanted to do next. I went to the gym with my dad a few times and just kind of worked out. I kind of knew I wanted to come back to play basketball, but I just wanted to make sure because I had not played much in a year and a half. I got in contact with the coaches and one thing led to the next."
Lumpkins' return did not get set into motion until July, meaning he had just over three months to get ready for the 2012-13 season and prepare to play collegiately for the first time in 20 months.
"I think it was tough at first," he said. "I needed to get back and get my basketball skills back. I felt pretty good and it started to come back pretty quickly. I think a lot of it was just the conditioning and getting my body into doing basketball movements again. In baseball there really isn't as much running and activity as in basketball. I think my skills picked up faster than my conditioning."
What he was coming back to was largely a different team than the one he left. Gone were standouts like Vlad Moldoveanu, Troy Brewer and Nick Hendra from the 2010-11 squad. But Lumpkins was able to transition back with some friendly faces that include a group of seven seniors for the Eagles in 2012-13.
"It was a little bit different coming back," he said. "I had played with Danny Munoz a lot and remained in close contact with him while I was playing baseball, but a lot of the guys I was closest with on the team had graduated last year or even the year before. A lot of the guys on the team this year didn't even know who I was so it was a bit of a process in getting re-acclimated."
Lumpkins' teammates would, however, now get the benefit of playing with a Patriot League champion. He played as a freshman when the Eagles won their second of two consecutive crowns in 2009, and learned from a group of veteran standouts like Derrick Mercer, Garrison Carr and Brian Gilmore. Now, it was Lumpkins' time to instill veteran experience for a group that has been stopped in the Patriot League semifinals for three years in a row.
"Winning the Patriot League and winning a championship is really hard," he said. "My freshman year I got here and we won it, and it was a great experience. You don't really realize how hard it is until you go through it a couple of times and don't win it. My junior year we had a team that we thought had a very good chance to win the Patriot League, but we got upset by Lafayette in the semifinals. A lot of things have to go right and a lot of hard work goes into it to win."
One area where Lumpkins' hard work has always shown up is on the boards. His return has led to an ascent up the Patriot League rebounding charts, with Lumpkins becoming just the fourth player in League history to crack 800 career rebounds and ending his career in the top three in the record book.
"The biggest thing is just going for the ball," he said. "It's a learned skill, you just need to watch the ball and see where it's going to go off. As far as offensive rebounding, you just have to go every time. You're not going to get every rebound, but if you don't go then you're never going to get it."
Of course, he had a good teacher to learn those types of skills at a young age. Stephen's dad, Larry, played collegiately at Northwestern University and showed his son the ropes early on.
"My dad has been the biggest influence on my basketball career, we were always playing in the driveway and the backyard. I started playing when I was like 4 or 5 and I just always liked it and stayed with it," Lumpkins said.
A Marketing major, Lumpkins is hoping for a career in a business-related field or a stint playing professional basketball after graduating from American. But first he hopes to finish his senior year the same way he started his career as a freshman.
"Now that we're in Patriot League play I want to give my team the best chance to win every night. I want to win the Patriot League and go back to the NCAA Tournament one last time," he said.
That would be a fitting end to a second chance senior season.