Elijah Stephens: A portrait of resilience
From Waco to Washington, AU’s freshman phenom is turning heads
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Some people are born with the natural height needed to play basketball and others are born with an intrinsic feel for the game that elevates them beyond the competition.
On the other hand, some are born with a one-in-a-million determination to succeed and can attain greatness despite the obstacles placed in front of them seeming insurmountable.
Why is Bogues’ stealing prowess so noteworthy? Standing at just 5-foot-3-inches, Bogues is the shortest player to ever have played in the NBA. Bogues did not need size, natural skill or athleticism to stake his place in the world of basketball; instead, he worked until he carved out the niche that allowed him the massive success he experienced during his career.
“No one knows how big your potential is … when you start,” Bogues once said.
Like Bogues, Elijah Stephens was born without the natural size to succeed at the game of basketball. He had to earn his seat at the table every step of the way, from the Waco high school basketball scene to the Adidas AAU circuit to the college recruitment process.
“[My coaches] could always go out and find a tall guard that can … do the same thing,” Stephens said with a confident self-awareness.
Since he began playing the sport in his backyard with his brother in the second grade, the freshman guard has faced obstacles in his basketball career.
Standing at just 5-foot-9-inches, Stephens may be the exact average height of an adult male, but he is the shortest player on the AU basketball team by nearly half a foot and is 10 pounds lighter than the next-lightest player.
The average NCAA basketball player stands just below 6-foot-5-inch, meaning Stephens faces an eight-inch vertical limitation when he takes the court.
Stephens’ home of Waco, Texas, is also not a basketball recruiting hotspot — only 15 Wacoans play basketball at the collegiate or professional level around the world, Stephens among them. The only active NBA player from Waco is Kenrich Williams, an undrafted fourth-year forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But Stephens’ toughest test came while he was in middle school and his mother passed away in a car accident.
“That just drove me to want to achieve something with basketball even more,” Stephens said. “It just gave me a spark.”
Stephens said he is perfectly aware that his basketball path runs entirely uphill.
“I had to put in [twice as much] work, and I had to show that I could do something that nobody else could, whether that be passing, vision, scoring or knowing the game,” he said. “I had to specialize in something that somebody else couldn’t do.”
Scoring over 2,000 points in high school and playing for Southern Assault, one of the best AAU programs in the country, Stephens would have been on a collision course with one of the top basketball programs in the country had he been taller.
Luckily, Stephens’ stature was no deterring factor in AU assistant coach Eddie Jackson’s holistic scouting process: “[Being shorter] is not a knock for me. They’ve been short their whole life,” Jackson said.
The way Jackson sees it, height is not important as long as a player is comfortable in his body.
When it came time to decide on college, Stephens said it was an easy choice.
“American showed the most love,” Stephens said. “We’re more like a family here … they just wanted me for me.”
Admiration shines through when Jackson speaks, as the coach doesn't lack compliments for the young guard.
“He’s very humble, he’s very easy to get along with,” Jackson said. “He’s a coach’s dream. He’s a very smart player, he picks up things very fast. You tell him once, and he’s trying to implement it right away.”
Jackson, who said he watched two dozen of Stephens’ high school games, played a huge role in bringing the guard to AU.
“We have a good relationship where we can talk about life, obviously we talk about basketball, we talk about school, dreams and goals and that sort of thing,” Jackson said.
When Stephens is on the court for the Eagles, he makes sure his presence is felt. Averaging 6.4 points per game, locking down whoever dares try to score on him and passing with the vision of an NBA veteran, Stephens is already an explosive player with a near-limitless ceiling.
“Elijah is a young man who’s developing,” Jackson said. “He’s away from home, and he’s learning on the fly as a freshman playing a whole lot of minutes.”
Stephens’ passion is about more than just what’s in front of him.
“He’s very goal-oriented, and he’s just an all-around outstanding young man,” said Jackson.
Stephens’ ultimate goal in the AU basketball program is an ambitious one: take home a Patriot League championship and appear in the NCAA tournament, a feat AU has not accomplished since 2014. Given his grit and his drive, Eagles fans would be remiss to count out a March Madness appearance before Stephens graduates.
“He’s small in stature, but his game is so much bigger than his size,” Jackson said. “We’re comfortable wherever Eli is on the floor.”
As his AU basketball career progresses, only time will tell if Stephens’ jersey will hang in the rafters of Bender Arena or if his natural disadvantages get the best of him for the first time in his life.
Given Stephens’ unrelenting work ethic and unparalleled ability to overcome adversity, the former is a far safer bet.