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How Lamar Stevens Unleashed an Underdog Mentality on the NBA

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The Talking Series is a weekly segment that delves deeper into topics discussed by guests on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast.

When J.B. Bickerstaff was named head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2020, many in the league viewed the team as underdogs. However, Bickerstaff quickly began molding his squad of young, talented players into a force to be reckoned with. In 2021, less than a year into Bickerstaff’s tenure, a moment from the bench ignited a fire within the team and laid the foundation for a new era.

The pivotal moment caused excitement to ripple from the bench to the court and from the locker room up through the stands. Coach Bickerstaff quickly recognized the potential of this organic moment and harnessed it to reshape Cleveland’s culture.

The player responsible for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ renewed hope is Lamar Stevens. After being passed over in the 2020 NBA Draft, Stevens signed a two-way contract with the team. But it wasn’t until a year later that the young forward unexpectedly breathed new life into the struggling franchise by giving them their bark.

Recently, we welcomed Stevens to the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. Before heading over to watch that interview, it’s worth taking a closer look at the rising star and the junkyard dog he unleashed on the NBA.

The journey of Lamar Stevens

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Stevens developed a passion for basketball at a young age. As he was honing his skills on the court, his parents instilled valuable lessons that would shape him into a good leader and an even better person. They worked hard and gave back to the community.

“I watched my mom and dad lend hands to family and friends,” he says. “That’s something I’ve always taken pride in.”

These values were like seeds; along the way, mentors would nurture and water what his parents had planted, creating the right conditions for his leadership to flourish.

Soon, the world would see his natural talent. During his time at The Haverford School, a prep school in Pennsylvania, Stevens made the All-State and All-District teams. After transferring to Roman Catholic High School for his senior year, he made the All-State and All-District teams, adding a championship to his résumé.

He then played for Penn State University, establishing himself as one of the top players in the Big Ten Conference. He was a three-time All-Big Ten selection and, during his senior year, was named to the First Team All-Big Ten. Stevens also ranks among Penn State’s all-time leaders in scoring, rebounds, and games played.

During college, his coaches taught him to focus on what he could control. “You can’t control certain things, but you can always control your energy, effort, and attitude,” Stevens says. “Those are the things I make sure I bring every day because that’s all I can control.”

It’s also where Coach Pat Chambers taught him to step into a leadership role and be an example for those around him.

Lamar Stevens of the Cleveland Cavaliers clapping
Courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers

The bark heard ’round the league

There’s some disagreement on when Stevens first let out the bark, but there’s no debate that his actions united the team, grounded them in purpose, and allowed them to discover their identity. Stevens’ physical, gritty, tough playing style emerged as a beacon of hope when the Cleveland Cavaliers needed it most. The seeds of leadership planted all those years earlier had finally borne fruit.

The legendary bark symbolizes the Cavaliers’ scrappy, junkyard dog mentality. In a league hyper-focused on polished brands, Cleveland is a reminder that basketball is a physical game won and lost in the paint—where determination often prevails. This mentality quickly swept through the organization and is now firmly embedded in its culture.

A born leader, Stevens is talented, skilled, and ready to leave it all on the court. These attributes make him the kind of player every team wants, which is ironic since they missed their chance in 2020. Now, they face an entire Cavaliers roster influenced by his hard-nosed style and team-first mentality.

“I’ve developed a relationship with the guys where I might call them out, but they know I just want what’s best for everybody on the team,” Stevens says.

Junkyard dog culture

Last season, after claiming their fourth straight victory, Coach Bickerstaff headed for the visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden. He entered and began barking. His players responded in kind. The label of being an underdog, once a point of contention, was now something the team took pride in.

After the barking subsided, the coach began an after-game tradition honoring the player who left it all on the court. While on the podcast a couple of months ago, Bickerstaff discussed the highly coveted Junkyard Dog Chain, saying, “we don’t give it to the highest scorer; we give it to the guy who scrapped the most.”

The Junkyard Dog Chain, designed by The Foundry at Jared, is a 14K gold industrial chain that anchors a giant C-shaped pendant. The front is encrusted in natural garnets, and the team’s motto runs along the bottom. The flipside pays homage to the fans by showcasing Cleveland’s 216 area code, nods to their city by depicting the skyline, and honors the team’s history by commemorating the 2016 Championship and several iterations of their logo.

For Stevens, the response to his bark, which was his way of telling his teammates to scrap like dogs, has been both exciting and surreal. “If we have a team pulling in the same direction and fighting for the same thing, I think that’s incredible,” Stevens says. The thing about massive change is that those responsible for it rarely think their actions will have a lasting impact. However, doing the right thing is never inconsequential.

The Junkyard Dog Chain and the tradition surrounding it have become a rallying cry for the Cavaliers.

A game played with heart

This story is about a talented player whose values helped his team discover their identity while earning him the chance to show the world what he can do. It’s also about a coach seeing potential in players others overlook. Stevens’ path to the NBA may have been unconventional, but his leadership skills, talent, and ability to inspire have proven that he belongs on the big stage.

At a time when highlight reel plays reign supreme, the Cavaliers’ junkyard-dog mentality is a refreshing return to basketball in its purest form: a game played with heart. Since stepping into the spotlight, Stevens has made it feel like anything’s possible. Now, the world can’t wait to see what the future holds for this rising star and his team.

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