Isaiah Stevens was assigned a project to write a book when he was in the third grade.
Stevens told the tale of three basketball players, including himself, helping lead Allen High School to the Texas state championship.
At a young age it was a surprisingly focused statement of intent.
“Well, 2018 that came to a reality,” said Pat, Isaiah’s mom. “Third grade I don’t remember even thinking like that, but it showed his mind was already on that plane as far as him winning the state tournament.”
It’s just one of an endless series of stories about the mindset of Stevens. Whether it’s basketball, youth flag football, Fortnite or just about anything else, he plans to succeed.
“Whatever it is, he wants to win,” Pat said.
Stevens is one of the best basketball players in Colorado State history. He’s the program’s all-time assist leader and will be honored Friday on senior day (9 p.m., March 3 at Moby Arena against New Mexico). Stevens and John Tonje could both return next season with the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted COVID-era players, but that decision will be made after the season.
To illustrate some of what makes Stevens tick, here are tales told by some of the people who know him best and spend the most time around him.
Slights fuel Stevens’ basketball ascent
It’s instructive to start with the motivation driving Stevens. He has a Michael Jordan-esque ability to take slights — real and perceived — and use them to fuel his already burning desire to succeed. Stevens even sells custom apparel with his logo and “Make Them Believe” slogan, an insight into his mindset.
Some of the stories are amusing in nature, but also symbolic of how seriously Stevens takes his mission.
Ali Farokhmanesh (CSU assistant coach): “He’s got that chip on his shoulder … He’s the 6-foot kid. They thought he was (just) good. ‘Oh, he won a state championship in Texas, he’s a good player.’ He just wanted to prove it to everybody. He’s still constantly trying to prove it to somebody that doesn’t believe.”
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Farokhmanesh: “I remember the first time I was like ‘who is the hardest worker here?’ I said it was Adam Thistlewood. (Stevens) got mad about it. He was adamantly, visually frustrated that I said it was Adam Thistlewood. That’s the best part about our team. Do I think Isaiah is (the hardest worker)? Yes, but we have such a competitive edge with who is the hardest worker and that’s what him and that group, Adam and those guys, set that culture of work ethic and being in the gym and how much extra you have to do outside of practice. I give him a ton of credit for kind of setting that culture.”
Brian Cooley (CSU assistant coach): “We have these one-on-one drills, it’s more a defensive drill than offensive. We try and encourage the guys to force the offense to take tough twos. I can’t remember who was guarding Zay (Stevens’ nickname around the program), but he made a step-back two, tough shot for most people. We’re encouraging the defender. We want them to know that’s good and we’ll live with that shot. We’re going ‘good D, good D’ and (Isaiah) got so mad, so angry. From there on out, any time Zay makes a shot like that in our one-on-one I try and poke the bear and go ‘good defense, we’ll live with that.’ ”
Pat Stevens (Isaiah’s mom): “That’s what he believes in. ‘You can doubt me if you want to, but just watch and see what the end will be.’”
The most obvious, or audible, way to know Stevens is upset with something and ready to kick things up another notch is when he starts talking. The trash talk is the signal that he’s entered what friends, family and coaches call “Zay Mode.”
Sam Jones (CSU assistant): “It’s not a look, you hear it. He starts talking. He starts barking at everyone and anyone all the way from Riv (Isaiah Rivera) to Baylor (Hebb) to whoever is in front of him. He’s going to bark and let them know ‘I’m here.’ It’s fun to watch.”
Rivera: “Every play. You saw today. Every play. I like to guard him, too. Me and him go at it. It’s all love that way. We’re real close. We just know that going at each other is going to make each other better.”
Farokhmanesh: “It gets loud. He starts talking more. He has a different tone in his voice. He gets angry, he gets more physical. Everything kind of just amps up and you just feel it.
“There was a time in the aux gym playing four-on-four and it got heated, there were words exchanged, they came together and almost came to blows and then right after he goes and gives that guy a hug and they talk it out. He knows at the end of the day he’s trying to raise the level of the team and demanding more, expecting more.”
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JR Blount (current Iowa State assistant, former CSU assistant): “Back when Ali and I were still practicing every day on the practice squad and you’re like ‘OK, am I really trying to deal with this 19-year-old kid?’ I’m trying to be somebody from Nevada and he’s like ‘yeah, I’m ready to take your head off.’ You find out that’s just who he was.”
Blount: “I had him at my house a few times and we’re playing Madden and dude is just as serious about his video games and he’s reading coverages and schemes and it’s like ‘alright man, I’m good, I don’t really want to play you anyway.’ ”
Tonje (teammate): “I don’t think there’s a single guy on the team he hasn’t argued with or had some type of run-in with at practice. He’s super competitive and makes us better for sure … I think there’s three times more trash talking in practice than in actual games.”
Blount: “Everything he does can be backed up and will be backed up. You just expect things. When he does stuff like the UNLV stuff this year you’re just like ‘yeah that’s going to happen. That’s what he does.’ He’s done it since his freshman year.”
Relentless work sets the stage for Stevens’ big moments
While the needling and talk is extreme, it’s also fully accepted within the CSU program (sometimes with a snarky grin) because of Stevens’ ability to connect with everyone. He’s fully respected within the program and knows just how to connect with teammates, whether that’s an arm around the shoulder or slap on the back. Everyone knows his relentless talking is also backed up by equally relentless work to make himself and the team better.
Niko Medved (CSU head coach): “It was very clear early on as a freshman in that summer to ‘alright, this young man is different. He’s different. He has it.’
“I think anyone who comes to practice or comes and watches us. In particular, if you were to come in the summer and we’re doing a ton of five-on-five. A ton of scrimmaging and playing against each other. You just watch the way he goes about his business and he’s treating a 4-minute game in June the same way he’s treating a conference game. That’s just how he’s wired.”
David Roddy (former CSU teammate, current NBA player): “During the fall we’ll try and get a weight room session in as well as conditioning. We’ll have open gym depending on whether guys are tired or not. We were all drained. We’re eating food, we’re done for the day. Something sparked up and we were talking trash to each other and someone mentioned ‘we can go right now’ and Zay was the first one to get up and orchestrate open gym. We ended up playing like 11 games or something like that of open gym five-on-five and everyone’s dragging and Zay is still competing, still looking the way he is in midseason form. That was a rough day for all of us.
“He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around.”
Jones: “I worked in professional sports for a very long time before I came to college hoops and he’s a pro. He’s a professional. Pros do it because it’s their job. They get up every day and they do it. He does it like it’s his job.”
Farokhmanesh: “We’ve had to tell him multiple times to get out of the gym. There was a stretch that he was shooting too much and going in there too often, to be honest. That’s the hardest part with him, finding the balance of how much should you be doing and how much do you need rest, too. I think he’s found that balance in the last year-and-a-half.”
Blount: “He’s a guy that you almost have to be like ‘don’t do too much.’ He’s the dude that’s going to be in at 6 a.m., again after lunch and then again at 3 and then shooting at night. The thing he matured at as I was leaving was bringing other guys with him. It’s easy to do it on your own and everyone is like ‘oh man, you’re so good.’ It’s really hard when you have to say, ‘hey man, you’ve got to come with me.’ He started to do that as I was leaving.”
Blount: “I can remember very specifically two or three times in the three years that he didn’t have a good practice and how much it affected the whole team. It would be like ‘Zay’s not having a good practice, we had a bad day.’ I remember how he responded the next day because you could easily tell him, ‘Look man, you took today off and everyone took today off. You affect everybody.’ He would come back the next day and change it.
“You don’t get that opportunity to coach those guys that often.”
Tonje: “I feel like his competitive spirit is contagious.”
Farokhmanesh (said with tears in his eyes): “He’s special. I don’t think we’ll have another guy like him. Hopefully we do, but he’s just different. That’s how much he means to us and everybody.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle on Twitter and Instagram @Kevin_Lytle.