Lawrence native and Princeton University senior Myles Stephens was named to the All-Ivy League basketball team this year. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer.)

Myles Stephens spent the past four years establishing himself as one of the all-time greats in the storied history of Princeton University men’s basketball. Then again, there was really no place to go but up after Stephens nearly decked the program’s iconic architect before ever donning a Tigers uniform.

During the summer of 2015, prior to his first college semester, the Lawrenceville resident was playing one-on-one on campus when unbeknownst to him, former coach Pete Carril had become an interested observer. As the game wore on, the Hall of Famer slunk up behind Stephens for reasons that only Carril knows to this day.

“He was real quiet,” Stephens recalled. “I did a step back move and I didn’t know he had crept behind us on the court. I landed and I knocked into his chest. He was stumbling back, going down on his back at 81 years old. I flipped around a little and I kind of caught him before he hit the ground and I laid him on the ground nice and softly.”

Carril looked at the freshman-to-be and in his deep, gruff, deadpan voice, merely said “Nice catch.”

“It’s my first time ever meeting and talking to him,” Stephens said, still laughing at the memory. “And here I am, bumping into the legend and almost knocking him down.”

Making the catch before Carril hit the ground was the first of many great plays Stephens would make for Princeton. He ended his career as the Tigers 10th all-time scorer with 1,346 points and 10th all-time rebounder with 561. His 509 field goals are eighth on the career list.

He was a first-team All-Ivy League selection twice, including this year, and a second-team pick once. Stephens was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore and coach Mitch Henderson thought he could have won it again this year (though he did not). He was named Most Outstanding Player in the first-ever Ivy League Tournament, which Princeton won in 2017.

Stats and honors aside, the 6-foot-5 Stephens was impressive in numerous other ways.

“A lot of people don’t know, he played through pain, he played through adversity and never said a word about any of that stuff,” Henderson said. “He shouldered a lot while putting up pretty amazing stats. I asked him to do so much —guard the other team’s best player, rebound and score—and he did all those things. He’s such a hard player to define because, I just don’t know that many guys that get asked to do what he’s asked to do night in and night out. In today’s game there’s just so many good players between 6-3 and 6-6 that cause problems and he always drew that role of defending them for us.”

In discussing Stephens’ impact, Henderson felt it had as much to do with intangibles as with sheer numbers.

“Just his understanding how hard it is to win was important,” the coach said. “Myles always accepted the role that we asked of him, which is taking on the biggest and toughest challenge for the other team and not being afraid of that assignment. In doing that he didn’t say a word. To me there’s an unselfishness there that we’ve always wanted in our program. Myles embodied that and took a massive load off everybody else all the time.”

Stephens’ career began in the Lawrence travel league in 5th grade and he teamed with current Seton Hall (and former Trenton Catholic) standout Myles Powell to win the league title in seventh grade. He spent two years playing for the Pennington School and winning a Prep B title before transferring to St. Andrew’s in Delaware. Despite missing his senior year due to injury, Myles had already shown enough to recruiters through his AAU career with the NJ Roadrunners and Delaware’s We R 1.

Henderson, who emphasized recruiting more New Jersey players when he took over in 2011, was immediately impressed by how Stephens moved defensively. Stingy defense has long been a Tigers staple.

“He established himself as one of the best defenders in the country,” Henderson said. “And every year he got better and better on the offensive end.”

Stephens averaged 5.5 points coming off the bench as a freshman, and in three years as a starter he averaged 12.5, 15.3 and 13.6 points and 4.6, 6.3 and 6.4 rebounds. He shot a respectable 48 percent for his career and finished with 80 blocks and 68 steals. All this came as news to Myles on Senior Night.

“They announced my stats and everything, and I hadn’t realized what I had accomplished while playing,” he said. “I was just playing, not paying attention to that … It’s nice to know that hard work didn’t go unnoticed and to know that people understand that hard work can accomplish things. It’s nice to know that mine did that for me.”

That work went well beyond basketball as Stephens also endures the academic rigors that comes with attending one of the world’s most prestigious schools. As a history major, he is doing his 75-page senior thesis on the socio-economic impact of Negro League Baseball on integration in America.

“I’m not the biggest baseball fan, but I’m really interested in African American history,” Stephens said. “This lets me combine my passion for sports and passion for African American history and look into this topic in a deeper sense; in terms of the tensions surrounding integration in the black community. Some people wanted integration, some people didn’t for various reasons. It was a long process. The depression and World War II came along and that catalyzed the conversation with integration. All these things came at same time, kind of like a perfect storm for Negro League baseball to thrive. And then to let the conversation for integration to be put forth.”

Stephens himself integrated his own home – with half of his basketball team.

One of the things Henderson asks of his New Jersey upperclassmen, is to try and aid the players who come from great distances when they need it. Thus, Tony and Kelly Stephens opened their home to their son’s teammates and cooked a nice Thanksgiving dinner in November.

“We had six or seven guys over my house this year,” Stephens said. “I’m an only child, there’s usually just the three of us. We had a whole house full so it was nice.”

According to Henderson, that gesture was just one of many by the Stephens family.

“They have been very welcoming to the players that don’t live close, they’ve provided support in so many different ways,” the coach said. “They’ve provided a home away from home for so many and been supportive. Off the court and on the court we’ve been very fortunate with Myles as part of our family, he’s made our program so much better.

“His parents are present. They’re willing to do the little things you need in a program; just being unselfish. There’s a lot asked of people. Being a college basketball player in a family is not easy. It’s fun, but there’s a large commitment and a time commitment. Myles has always been willing to do the little things for players off the court.”

With all the great things Stephens has provided, it seems a little unfair that he only reached the NCAA Tournament his sophomore year; and that Princeton lost a memorable game to Notre Dame in which a potential game-winning 3-pointer appeared to be right on the mark before bouncing off the rim.

And the Hollywood script writers who handle sports scenes screwed up this year. In a storybook world, Stephens should have been able to complete his career by trying to lead his team to another Ivy Tournament title. Instead, on Mar. 16, he found himself sitting on the bench with five fouls as Yale used an 8-1 run to erase a 71-66 deficit and go on to an 83-77 semifinal victory. The Eli’s run came immediately after Stephens exited.

“We had them right where we wanted them,” Henderson said. “When we lost Myles to fouls, we changed.”

“It was frustrating,” Stephens said. “I think that was the second time I ever fouled out in college. It was just hard watching. You’re trying to lead the young guys out on the court and it’s hard down the stretch knowing there’s nothing I can do on the court but just watch them. I was just trying my best to support them from the bench and lead them in a different way.”

While that game ended his college career, there is still more basketball ahead. Stephens is looking to play professionally, either in the NBA if he receives interest, or with a top-flight league in Europe. He plans on getting an agent when a clearer picture appears.

Until then, he will work on that senior thesis and cherish what will be four of the most unique years of his life.

“Princeton was kind of what I expected,” he said. “I expected it to be difficult, I didn’t expect it to be easy in any way. When you get here it’s just a different type of mental and physical drain that the whole process takes on your body and mind in terms of athletics and academics. It’s doable but it is difficult. I expected it, but there’s nothing you can do to prepare for the whole experience.

“But it’s been great. You learn so many lessons, time management, leadership skills and just so many different life lessons you’ll be able to take beyond the basketball court.”