WALTHAM — Four Celtics executives boarded a private jet early Wednesday that departed Hanscom Field in Bedford and, a few hours later, landed at Indianapolis Executive Airport in Zionsville, Ind., the hometown of Butler University’s Brad Stevens.
As soon as they stepped into the sunlight, an SUV scooped up Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, as well as president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and assistant general manager Mike Zarren, who is the team’s legal counsel and helped draw up a contract to make Stevens their new head coach.
Following a short drive to Stevens’s home in Indianapolis, the Celtics’ brass, Stevens, and his wife Tracy all gathered at the dining room table. While the Celtics, especially Ainge, felt Stevens was interested, they still weren’t sure that he’d leave Butler, where he had worked for 13 years, leading the Bulldogs to two NCAA title games while also turning down several plum college jobs.
Before they departed, Ainge left a signed copy of the deal on the table — six years, $22 million.
The length of the deal was unheard of for NBA coaches, especially those entering their first year with no professional experience, but the Celtics wanted to illustrate their long-term investment in Stevens as they entered a rebuilding stage.
As they boarded the jet to head home, Grousbeck and Pagliuca asked Ainge to stay behind, just to make sure that Stevens signed the deal. They had come to believe, as Ainge deeply felt, that he was “their guy.” They didn’t want to lose him. “I think we’re OK,” Ainge said.
About an hour after they landed in Massachusetts, a fax came in — the contract, signed by the 36-year-old Stevens. It was official, but an announcement was delayed because he wanted to tell players and others at Butler before they found out elsewhere.
That the news didn’t leak showed the secrecy with which everything unfolded; it helped that Stevens’s wife is also his agent. A few hours later, the Celtics announced that he was the 17th coach in franchise history, and the youngest coach in the NBA.
On Friday, the team introduced Stevens at a press conference at their practice facility.
The clocks in the gym housing 17 title banners — the shot clocks on top of the goals, the clocks on the scoreboards facing each other, the scores themselves — were all set to one number: 18.
“One of the things that I am so thrilled about is working at a place that has such high standards, and places such a value on culture,” said Stevens, who said he was reading a book about Bill Russell on his flight to Boston. Said Grousbeck: “I wanted a partner for Danny as well as a guardian of Celtic Pride and we got one.”
Stevens, wearing a green tie, sat beside Ainge, who called him his “first choice” to replace Doc Rivers, the Celtics’ coach of nine seasons, and the first person Ainge actually contacted, calling Stevens June 25 after a deal was completed to send Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers.
“I have watched and admired his poise, his intelligence, his teams, their effort, their execution under pressure,” Ainge said.
“I’ve always looked at him the last few years as a guy that was a great candidate to be a head coach [in the NBA], never really thinking it was going to be this soon in Celtics history, but [he] is a guy that I have targeted for a long time as a potential great head coach.”
Ainge and Pagliuca had a close-up look at Stevens during the 2010 NCAA men’s championship game, when they sat courtside and Ainge told Pagliuca that the best coach in college basketball was in the building that night.
Pagliuca, a Duke alum, agreed, believing Ainge meant Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. Ainge was referring to Stevens. “Part of it was I believed [Stevens was the best],” Ainge said, “but part of it was just to get under Pags’s skin.”
But in Stevens, Ainge saw much of himself — someone who is process-driven, believing that countless work eventually leads to success. “I teach my children those same principles,” he said.
Make no mistake, though. The Celtics are realistic about their current position.
“We all know what we are about to embark on,” Ainge said, “and he will have great support from ownership and from management. Yes, there will be transition, from the college game to the NBA game, but we will give him the support that he needs to make that transition fast.”
The calm-but-fiery Stevens acknowledged, “I know there’s a lot of growing ahead, I’m the first to admit that. I’ve got a long way to go, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
The NBA has long intrigued Stevens, even if that wasn’t well known. Matthew Graves, Stevens’s former assistant at Butler who is now the head coach at South Alabama, said in a phone interview that Stevens often spent Friday nights watching NBA games, studying the plays.
The next day, Stevens would usually call Graves into his office. “And he’d draw something he’d seen from the previous night, from a random NBA game,” Graves said.
Stevens said he has connected with several Celtics players, including mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo. “There’s no bigger fan of Rajon Rondo than me,” Stevens said, later adding, “I’m looking forward to sitting down and learning from him.”
Ainge said when he informed Rondo that he had hired Stevens, “Rondo’s reaction was, ‘Oh, was that the guy that coached Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack?’ I go yeah, yeah. ‘Oh yeah, yeah that sounds great,’” Ainge said.
Mack, now with the Atlanta Hawks, knows Rondo; they both hail from Kentucky. He said in a phone interview that he believes Stevens and Rondo will get along fine. “Stevens will do a great job of letting Rondo do what he does best, and Rondo will really appreciate that,” Mack said.
Stevens still needs to build his coaching staff, but two pieces remain in place from last season in assistants Jamie Young and Jay Larranaga, who is coaching the Celtics’ Summer League team in Orlando. Stevens is expected to head to Orlando Sunday, but only to observe.
“There’s no guarantees that he’ll be a successful coach,” Ainge said off to the side, as Stevens was being mobbed by reporters, “but he’s a guy who I’m buying stock in. In a big way.”
Later, Ainge added, with a wry smile, “Plus, guys from Indiana have done well with the Celtics.”