WALTHAM — As much as he may resemble a stockbroker or college professor or perhaps the head of the Celtics’ legal team, Brad Stevens is their new coach, a fresh-faced, 36-year-old from Butler University in Indianapolis, ready to institute his progressive basketball ideas on the game’s highest level.
He has no NBA experience, having coached at Butler for 13 years — the last six as head coach — after playing at Division 3 DePauw University. His brilliance in leading Butler, from the little-known Horizon League, to the NCAA title game twice against titans Duke and UConn, was enough to convince Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to heavily pursue Stevens the moment Doc Rivers left for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Despite the Celtics’ failure that was the Rick Pitino Experience, Ainge said he had no hesitation handing the reins of the franchise, at such a crucial time, to Stevens — and he shouldn’t. Stevens wowed onlookers at his introductory press conference Friday with a perfect blend of confidence, humility, and passion.
Stevens is a fierce competitor and confident enough to assume control of the NBA’s most storied franchise, but respectful enough of the task to understand it will require more than a summer’s worth of study to prepare himself for the position.
Dealing with well-paid players who challenge authority on a regular basis is a difficult endeavor. And the moment Stevens, with his Richie Cunningham look, walks into a locker room, players may perceive that he will be easily manipulated.
But Ainge made a very distinct point about hiring Stevens.
“I think a difference is humility,” Ainge said. “I think as an organization, a six-year contract speaks volumes. I don’t think there’s any other coach in the NBA with a six-year commitment from their team. We’re investing in him as a person and I think a lot of times college coaches, I think those people that you mentioned, Rick Pitino and John Calipari, they are fantastic basketball coaches and they didn’t fail. The failure was from the organization standpoint and support. Those guys could have easily succeeded but we have to do this all together and give [Stevens] the support. He had to take a leap of faith in us.”
Pitino and Calipari, who left UMass to coach the New Jersey Nets, entered their jobs truly believing they knew more than most, even those with vastly more NBA experience. The NBA is a different game and has chewed up several college coaches with bright ideas and fresh concepts.
Jerry Tarkanian claims when he took over the San Antonio Spurs in 1992 he had no idea how to schedule practices and didn’t know the timing of television timeouts at the NBA level. Stevens will have the entire summer to learn the idiosyncrasies of the NBA game. He will have plenty of time to visit and develop relationships with every Celtics player and discuss the game with veteran NBA coaches.
The difference between Pitino and Calipari in the mid-1990s and Stevens in 2013 is preparation, attitude, and patience. Pitino, who enjoyed success with the New York Knicks in the late ’80s, was hired to save the Celtics from oblivion, and in his haste, he gave up on first-round pick Chauncey Billups after 51 games.
Pitino allowed his arrogance to cloud his judgment and his impatience led to his resignation in his fourth season. Pitino served as coach, general manager, and president. Stevens will simply be the head coach with a large support system to soften the bumpy transition to professional basketball.
After years of coaching lower-level recruits and competing against elite athletes from blue-blood college programs, Stevens was asked about coaching players who were five-star recruits and orchestrating game plans around world-class athletes.
Stevens said he has spent the past few years attending clinics and talking NBA with coaches, attempting to expand his knowledge. When discussing the possibilities of implementing his ideas on such a sophisticated level, his bright eyes lit up.
“I was amazed at the level of depth, the level of detail, the level of thought, I remember leaving each of those meetings ready to run through the wall, I was excited,” he said. “That’s kind of what you’re looking for. Any time you get an opportunity for personal growth like that. Those were things I really latched on to.
“I know there’s a lot of growing ahead. I’m the first to admit that. I’ve got a long way to go and I’ve got a lot to learn but we’re going to invest in our players and try to give them an opportunity to make this is as great an experience as possible.”
Most college coaches hired for NBA jobs were expected to win immediately, carrying their bulging egos into pressurized positions that required vast preparation and support.
Stevens, according to all involved, will have that support, and definitely patience.
“Remember, Doc was criticized when we got here, we lost a lot of games, we had huge faith in Doc, we never wavered,” co-owner Steve Pagliuca said. “We always thought Doc was a great coach, even though when some from the outside didn’t.
“We have that approach. There’s stability. There’s patience. We’re patiently trying to build a championship team. [Stevens] liked all those elements.”
Though mature beyond his years, Stevens couldn’t contain his excitement when pondering the possibilities of working without the constraints of a mid-major program, given the resources to succeed with a long-term, well-constructed plan.
“The lobs have a better ability to work, is that what you’re saying?” he asked smiling. “That’s right. That enhances the things you can run and do. That’s an exciting part about coaching at this level. The other side of the coin is the other guys on the other team can do that, too. That’s the great challenge. I can’t wait for that, that’s an enticing, exciting part of it.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.