DeShawn Stevenson returned to Cleveland last week and got an instant reminder that there will always be one city in the United States that reviles him. When the Washington Wizards' private plane landed at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the runway marshal warmly greeted each member of the team until he spotted the scraggly bearded Stevenson.
"I hate you," Stevenson recalls the airport employee telling him, to which Stevenson responded with an equally incensed retort. "I won't cuss, but I said something to him," Stevenson said.
Stevenson has become one of the most hated athletes in Cleveland ever since he dared to call reigning league MVP LeBron James "overrated" nearly two years ago. Fans there haven't forgotten. He was booed after he hit both of his three-pointers in the Wizards' 109-104 exhibition win against the Cavaliers, gleefully waving his hand in front of his face to rile the fans even more.
"It's crazy how it's still going on," Stevenson said of his feud with the Cavaliers and their fans. "Even if I'm in a different jersey, it's still going to have that effect and I'm going to bring that rivalry somewhere else, because this team don't like me."
Caron Butler can vouch for the incident at the airport. "Obviously, it ain't dead," Butler said of the rivalry, shaking his head.
Stevenson is accustomed to a poor reception in Cleveland, but last season, he had to deal with harsh criticism from his own fans. He shot a career-low 31.2 percent and was limited to just 32 games before succumbing to a back injury that resulted in season-ending surgery in March. "Everything is what have you done for me lately, right?" said Stevenson, who averaged just 6.6 points last season, after averaging 11.2 and 82 games in each of his first two seasons in Washington.
The Wizards tried to include Stevenson in their trade with Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, according to multiple league sources. But he stayed on the team, left to battle for the starting shooting guard spot he surrendered last season.
Coach Flip Saunders has been tinkering with the position throughout the preseason, using a different starter in each of the first five exhibition games, and has yet to make a decision. Stevenson said he isn't concerned with his role, so long as the Wizards win, and spent more time focused on taking better care of his body.
It started this summer, with him working out in Vancouver, B.C., with Alex McKechnie, the renowned physical trainer and Los Angeles Lakers' athletic performance coordinator. Then, taking the advice of Drew Cleary, the Wizards' strength and conditioning coach, Stevenson said he has adapted a "no animal diet" since training camp. Going vegetarian has resulted in him losing 12 pounds. Stevenson said he is down to 217 pounds after weighing 250 at the start of training camp last season.
Stevenson said he believes that his excess weight contributed to a nagging knee injury, which forced him to overcompensate and later caused his back to give out. "That's what hurt me last year. That's what everybody is telling me," Stevenson said. "I kept my weight down. My knees all right, my back's all right. I feel stronger, not tired. I'm kind of shocked that I'm out there and my back feels good."