LAS VEGAS — He is the player probably most synonymous with the Brad Stevens era at Butler University, a wild-haired big man who thrust himself in the middle of every key play, diving for loose balls, clipping that key rebound, or scoring with his jump hook.
Matt Howard was the central figure of Butler’s two NCAA title game appearances and his bond with Stevens is unquestionable, so much so that the new Celtics coach delayed attending his first summer league to make good on a promise to Howard’s father to attend the 200th anniversary parade in Howard’s hometown of Connersville, Ind.
It was a commitment Stevens made months before to Howard, whose father was organizing the parade. And it exemplified the type of bond he had with his cherished big man, who led the Bulldogs to unprecedented heights.
“It meant a lot to [my dad] and I know everybody there and really to me that he honored that commitment to my dad,” Howard said after playing for the Memphis Grizzlies in the Las Vegas Summer League. “I really appreciated it. It shows a lot about Brad.”
There is probably no player with more stories about and experiences with Stevens than Howard, who flourished as an undersized center, exemplifying the underdog Butler approach. Stevens coached up players who were lightly recruited or unrecruited, helping the program emerge as a national power despite lacking players with the athletic prowess of those at larger schools.
Howard, 24, spent last season playing for Chorale de Roanne Basket in France and has agreed to a contract to play for Ratiopharm Ulm in Germany next season. Still chasing his NBA dream, Howard said he keeps in constant touch with Stevens, who took over as coach of the Celtics July 3 after six years as head coach of Butler and 13 with the school overall.
“It was a little surprising,” Howard said when asked his reaction when Stevens took the Celtics position. “I never saw that coming. Not that he isn’t a great coach, but there’s been so many jobs that he’s been offered and I didn’t know that any NBA teams were looking at him. He’s a great coach in my mind, best coach I’ve played for, and I think he’ll do a great job.”
While Stevens has established himself as one the brightest minds in college basketball, he was also able to relate to his players, despite more resembling their professor than coach. Stevens, 36, was young enough to relate to his players but savvy enough to command their respect.
“He has a great bond with us players and I think he really tries to get to know each player, how they tick and try to make them better,” Howard said. “And then within the game, I haven’t been around anyone who is so good at making adjustments. You go and watch Butler over the years out of timeouts, see how effective and efficient they are, that’s coaching. There’s so many angles and he’s always one to learn. I think that makes for a great coach.”
Howard said the consecutive national title game runs were no accident. Butler may have lacked the talent of its opponents but it was usually the more prepared team. Stevens’s preparation was evident to his players and the Bulldogs generally prevailed.
“We knew within the game he would make adjustments if something wasn’t going well and there’s such poise when things aren’t going well,” said Howard, who averaged 13.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in 141 career games for Butler. “You never see him rattled. What we were able to do was a huge part of Brad.”
Howard has a plethora of Stevens stories, including during the run to the 2011 national final when Stevens promised to do a back bump — leaping with his back to a player and bumping backs — after each tournament win. And there Stevens was in the locker room back-bumping players.
Being exposed to NBA players, including several on his Grizzlies summer league team, Howard said he is convinced Stevens will form strong bonds with the current NBA player.
“My whole career was with him at Butler and he’s a players’ coach,” Howard said. “He has great relationships with all his players. He really wanted to get to know them. I think that most guys that want to have a relationship do. If for some reason it doesn’t work out, it’s not because he isn’t trying. I know that’s what he’s going to do and I think he’s going to be fine because I saw it in my four years with him.”
Howard said his most poignant Stevens memory occurred during the recruiting process, when the coach used already committed guard Zach Hahn, a close Howard friend, as an intermediary without Howard knowing it. Hahn told Stevens everything Howard wanted in a college, his concerns and requirements. Stevens approached Howard with the perfect recruiting pitch.
“I thought this guy was a genius, what’s going on here?” Howard said. “They used [Hahn] to get through to me. Maybe that was the difference. In hindsight, it was the perfect fit.”