On March 6, 2011, American University junior forward Stephen Lumpkins walked off the court in Bender Arena in disbelief. He had scored 19 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but he had also missed the second of two free throws with 27 seconds in regulation as the host Eagles were stunned in double overtime by the lowly Lafayette Leopards in the Patriot League semifinals.
The only consolation was that the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Lumpkins would have another shot as a senior at getting back to the NCAA Tournament which they had reached his freshman year. But three months after that bitter loss to Lafayette, Lumpkins, who had been an outstanding pitcher at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Cal., was equally shocked to be chosen in the 13th round of baseball’s draft by Kansas City and by the Royals’ offer of a $150,000 signing bonus.
Lumpkins, who had been drafted by Pittsburgh in the 42nd round in 2010 and pitched a few innings for the Bethesda Big Train that summer, was hoping to play in the New England Collegiate League in the summer of 2011 in preparation for giving the sport a full shot after graduation. But now, he was forced to choose. To AU coach Jeff Jones’ chagrin, Lumpkins went with the sure shot of becoming a pro athlete.
“It was a really difficult decision to leave AU and it was on such short notice,” Lumpkins said this week in Bender. “I had had a great experience here. We had a really good team and we had just had a great season.”
Jones, who had figured on Lumpkins being a leader for a team coming off a 22-9 season, now had a huge hole in his lineup.
“I certainly understood Stephen wanting to explore that option, but how it all transpired left a bad taste in my mouth,” Jones said. “I just kind of felt like we were left in the lurch. Less than two weeks before that, a very good player was transferring and wanted to come to American. Not only we were losing Stephen, we lost that kid, who would be a starter for us this year.”
Having been away from baseball for so long, Lumpkins posted a 7.02 earned run average in 10 games (eight starts) in rookie ball in 2011. That was foreseeable, but he followed that rocky beginning by allowing seven hits and eight runs and walking 11 in just 3-2/3 innings of relief last summer for a stratospheric 19.64 ERA.
“I have nothing bad to say about the Royals,” Lumpkins said. “They’re a first-class organization. They were real good to me. I gave it 15 months where I was it was baseball full-time, no basketball. I wasn’t making any progress. It got to the point where they weren’t really happy with what I was doing and I was pretty miserable. I was going out there and failing over and over again.”
So Lumpkins decided to end his big league dreams and return to AU hoops. Only trouble was that Jones needed to be on board. Shortly after having hip surgery on Aug. 1, the coach heard from assistant Kieran Donohue that Lumpkins wanted to come back.
“I wanted to talk to Stephen, not about his decision to leave, but how the process evolved,” Jones said. “We agreed it could’ve been handled better and he was going to be in school regardless. He convinced me that he wanted to be part of the team and that he would be all-in.”
Lumpkins’ teammates were thrilled because a talented, veteran big man had rejoined the mix, one who had always been their buddy.
“I talked a lot to Stephen while he was playing baseball so I knew he was frustrated,” said senior point guard Danny Munoz, one of Lumpkins’ best friends. “But only in my dreams did I expect to play with him again. He’s still a goofball, the clown in the room, but on the court, he’s working harder, especially at the little things. I love the way he attacks the rim, the way he attacks the glass and competes down low. He’s a more complete player than he was before.”
Jones believes that Lumpkins has a different perspective after his year away from campus.
“You can tell he’s more mature,” Jones said. “He’s more confident, more vocal. He’s a better leader. He’s having fun. He was one of the focal points before and now we’re making a concerted effort to get the ball inside so he and [center Tony] Wroblicky get the lion’s share of the shots.”
AU was crushed in its opener at Minnesota on Nov. 9 before winning 61-55 at Quinnipiac on Monday as Lumpkins hit seven of nine shots and scored 19 points. Tonight against Mount St. Mary’s, the 22-year-old business/marketing major will play at Bender for the first time since that gut-wrenching night against Lafayette more than 20 months ago.
“I had never really experienced failure before the baseball experience,” Lumpkins said. “It made me appreciate just being here and playing basketball. I had to lose some weight and shake off the rust. I’ve done that now. I don’t have individual goals this year. I just want to win the Patriot League and go back to the NCAA Tournament.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin