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DeShawn Stevenson: NBA Cult Classic

Editor's Note: In an SB Nation first, each team site will be contributing an article on a cult favorite player today. Our Bullets Forever contribution, from Thomas, is none other than former shooting guard and defensive specialist DeShawn Stevenson. Join the conversation by voting for your favorite cult player in our poll or tweeting with the hashtag #NBACultClassics.

What originally drew me to the Washington Bullets was the Fab Five connection of Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, but what kept me staying was hope. Not Knicks-style hope where I thought someone like Shaq or Allen Iverson might come to DC, or Laker-style hope where I believed the team would win a title and soon. What I loved about those teams was that they allowed you to believe that if everyone just got healthy and the circumstances were just right, these underdogs might reward years of heartache and losing with a deep playoff run. That never happened, though, and once Webber left for Sacramento, my interest in the NBA waned.

Flash forward to November, 2007. After sitting through countless Redskins games, I was burned out on incompetent sports teams that were impossible to support. By chance I turned on a Wizards game against the Portland Trailblazers in which the team did something I hadn't seen in years -- win a game they probably shouldn't have by playing competently (in this case making a ton of free throws).

DeShawn Stevenson didn't make much of an impact in the box score that night, but I was struck by how he forced star shooting guard in Brandon Roy into a terrible game. This was the beginning of a still-strong love affair with the Wizards, and DeShawn Stevenson was my favorite player.

The 2007-2008 Wizards had two all-stars in Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, with Gilbert Arenas waiting in the wings and always being listed as about a month away from returning. As great as Caron and Antawn were, they never truly clicked with me the way DeShawn Stevenson did. While Butler and Jamison were measured in interviews and workman-like on the court, Stevenson's swagger and bluster gave me constant flashbacks to my favorite player as a kid, Michigan's Jalen Rose. Sure, DSteve wasn't the most talented guy on the court, but he felt like the heart and soul of the team. Don't get me wrong, though, he definitely was talented, and he always seemed to bring it when it mattered.

Picked 23rd in an awful 2000 NBA Draft, DeShawn Stevenson was a LeBron James-like high school prodigy who came into the league with a reputation for being a hothead who could jump out of the gym and handle the ball. Unfortunately, he was a two footed leaper and not super quick, so his career as a slasher and finisher never took off. He bounced around the league a bit and eventually signed a minimum contract with the Wizards to replace the departing Jared Jeffries as the team's designated defender. As an added bonus, DeShawn didn't seem capable of taking a bad shot, and put up about the same statline year in and year out - 11 points, a few assists, a field goal percentage in the high 40s, and a three point percentage in the high 30s.

Now, as a defender, DeShawn never drew the accolades of a Bruce Bowen or even a Dahntay Jones, but to me, he was as good as it got. While he wasn't a shot blocker or a ball hawk like Larry Hughes, Gilbert or Caron, absolutely no one lit DeShawn Stevenson up. No one. In retrospect, this might have been because elite wings didn't need to try against the Wizards, but in the entire time I watched the team, and especially in 2008, every great shooting guard seemed very overrated against DeShawn.

There was one guy who didn't seem overrated that year, though - LeBron James. LeBron was absolutely unstoppable against the Wizards. The team could foul him and he'd still get the bucket (and then the free throw, just to add insult to injury). Put a small guy on him and he'd just back him down. Put a big guy on him and he'd take him out to the perimeter, then slash to the rim. Double him and he'd find Wally Szczerbiak or Daniel Gibson in the corner, and those two absolutely never missed.

The only time LeBron seemed human was when Deshawn Stevenson bodied up to him one on one and played that physical, I-don't-need-to-foul-but-if-I'm-going-to-do-it-I'm-taking-your-head(band)-off style that always seemed to stymie Kobe, Roy, Carmelo, and every other great scorer who came to the District. The team never seemed to be content to do this, though, and games always ended with LeBron destroying Caron Butler or splitting a double team and leading Cleveland to a win.

The playoffs that year were insane. With Gilbert back and DeShawn trash talking LeBron, Cleveland, the Cavs franchise, and even Jay-Z, the 2008 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs opening round was appointment viewing for me. LeBron was the league's golden boy, someone who was loved and glorified everywhere I turned, and yet DeShawn Stevenson was there to stand up for the little guy against this basketball and marketing behemoth. The series saw three blowouts and three close games, with the Wizards going down in six in a humiliating loss at the Verizon Center (this was also the night the Jazz closed out the Rockets in six and was the last time Tracy McGrady seemed like he could singlehandedly lead a team out of the first round, which only added to my heartbreak). Yeah, there were moments where it felt great to be a Wizards fan - particularly that first game at the Verizon Center where DeShawn Stevenson outplayed LeBron James(!!!!) - but you could just tell the series was a losing endeavor after the Wizards blew a first half lead in game one against Cleveland.

That summer, I played a ton of basketball, both at the courts near my house and of the NBA 2K8 variety, and my admiration for DeShawn only got stronger. I emulated his shooting form, tried to re-create his dunk over Richard Jefferson, even copied his habit of holding his shorts while in a defensive stance. In 2K8, he averaged something like 20 points per game in my season, excelling as a monster three point shooter and a great dunker (two footed leapers are almost never good in-game dunkers unless they're wide open, but 2K8 didn't seem to be aware of this). After his humiliation at the hands of Lebron, I was dead certain that he'd come back better than ever next year and might even break out as an all-star, teaming with Gilbert, Caron, and Antawn to lead the team to a title.

Well, in the words of Stone Cold Steve Austin, that never happened. DeShawn had a back problem and it ruined his shot, making him one of the worst shooters in history over the next season. His defense was still reliable, but he wasn't the stopper he once was, with guys like Joe Johnson and Ray Allen finally seeming like true stars any time they met up with the Wizards. DeShawn was eventually benched, ending one of the league's longest streaks of consecutive starts, then traded away as part of the Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood deal with the Mavericks. Dallas famously won the title in 2011, and DeShawn finally got his series victory over LeBron.

In retrospect, DeShawn Stevenson was almost the definition of a replacement level player when you look at his production and his inability to get to the basket probably countered the spacing his three point shooting provided. His defense seemed great, but even to this day, I refuse to look into the advanced stats to verify it. Even though I've gotten heavily enough into advanced metrics and have watched enough games to be able to speak with confidence when I talk about who can play and who can't, I just don't want to risk shattering my illusions about DeShawn Stevenson.

For me, DeShawn Stevenson is more than just points, more than defensive plus/minus, more than even wins and losses. DeShawn Stevenson is a beard, a diss, a sense of confidence, Soulja Boy at courtside, comically high arching jumpers, shin pads and jersey tattoos. He's everything that makes pro sports truly epic, and made each game with the Cavaliers feel more like a movie or a big fight than a game between two teams of millionaires.

The Wizards' 2008 season was all about irrational hope, and DeShawn Stevenson embodied this more than anyone else on the roster. No, he wasn't a star, or even one of those Shane Battier types who puts up the box score of a role player but does as much to win games as any all-star, but on some level he seemed to believe he was. I believed in DeShawn that year, and for better or for worse, I still do.