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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bob Ryan

Brad Stevens has a tough road ahead in NBA

Danny Ainge entrusted the Celtics’ head coaching job to 36-year-old Brad Stevens.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Danny Ainge entrusted the Celtics’ head coaching job to 36-year-old Brad Stevens.

But first, I digress, and it is pure self-indulgence.

I realize I am referencing a television show that went off the air 58 years ago, but that’s just the way it goes. I mean, I can still sing half the theme song. Because of that show, every time I hear or read the name “Brad Stevens,” I break into a little Mona Lisa-like smile.

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There once was a situation comedy called “I Married Joan.” It ran from 1952-55. It starred Joan Davis, a B-movie actress from the ’30s and ’40s who was quite a gifted comedienne in the Lucille Ball/Carol Burnett mold.

She played the ditzy wife of a distinguished buttoned-down judge. Daily life was a never-ending succession of mishaps and confusion. She was, of course, sweet and lovable, however scatterbrained. The judge loved his ditzy little gal, by golly.

The judge’s name was Bradley J. Stevens.

See? Wait, it gets better.

This Brad Stevens, the one you know, the one who took (speaking of lovable) Butler — Butler! — to a pair of NCAA championship games, one of which damn near ended with the Bulldogs holding the trophy; well, this Brad Stevens has a wife named Tracy, whose personal residence is as far from Ditzville as you can get. This Mrs. Stevens is an attorney. She is also his agent.

The wife of Judge Bradley J. Stevens an attorney negotiating contracts? That woman had trouble negotiating a grocery shopping list.

OK, I’m done. Where were we?

Oh, yes, we’re discussing the real-life 2013 Brad Stevens, the most fascinating, thought-provoking, and conversation-starting of all the 12 coaching hires taking place during this tumultuous NBA offseason.

Danny Ainge did it again as, ahem, I predicted he would. During the brief period when the Celtics were coach-less following the defection of Doc Rivers to Clipperland, I was, of course, asked many times over who I thought the next Celtics coach would be. My stock answer was as follows: “Danny Ainge is the most fearless and unpredictable general manager in the league on both draft day and trading deadline day, so why should it be any different when it comes to picking a new coach?”

Boy, did I get that right.

Nobody — N-O-B-O-D-Y — saw this one coming. And I’m not just talking about the stealth logistics aspect, the private jet trip to and from Indianapolis. I’m talking about the very idea of the 36-year-old Brad Stevens being the next coach of the Boston Celtics. On the very day the hire was announced, my newspaper, the Boston Globe, had a thoughtful analysis of the 11 possible candidates for the job. None of them was named Brad Stevens.

We all know the primary issue: Can a college coach jump into the 2013 NBA without any kind of NBA experience? Brad Stevens has none whatsoever. He did not play in the league. He has not been an assistant coach in the league. He has not been a video coordinator in the league. He has not even been a “one lump or two?” pick-the-draft-choice-up-at-the-airport gofer in the league. And recent NBA history has not been kind to folks such as him.

You know the list. In the last quarter-century such people as John Calipari, Leonard Hamilton, Tim Floyd, Lon Kruger, and Mike Montgomery have come and gone with little or no success. Rick Pitino? Doesn’t count. He had been a Knicks assistant for two full seasons before taking the Providence job. When he came to Boston it was after once having coached the Knicks. So scratch him from this discussion.

Here’s one people are neglecting to include in this list: P.J. Carlesimo. Best known as a head coach in the NBA for having his throat attack Latrell Sprewell’s fingers, P.J. actually made the playoffs his first three years in Portland, starting with the 1994-95 season. Not much good happened after that until this past season, when he stepped in nicely for Avery Johnson in Brooklyn. But don’t forget that when he first came into the league you can’t say he was overwhelmed. A minor asterisk: He was an assistant on the 1992 Dream Team.

There was a time when college coaches jumping directly into the league made a major impact. Such noted coaches as Butch van Breda Kolff, Joe Mullaney, Dick Motta, Bill Fitch, Cotton Fitzsimmons, and John MacLeod all entered the league between 1967 and 1973. Motta and Fitch won championships. VBK and Mullaney took the Lakers to the Finals in back-to-back years. MacLeod also coached in the Finals. You can throw Dr. Jack Ramsay in there, too. True, he had been the 76ers’ GM for three years before taking over the coaching duties, but until 1968 he had never sat on an NBA bench.

But times changed. In the 1975-76 season, there were six such head coaches in the league. Ten years later, the list was down to four. Ten years after that, the roster was down to two: Fitch, then with the Clippers, and Carlesimo, with the Trail Blazers. (Fitzsimmons was an eight-game interim coach for Phoenix).

The history since then is pretty clear and unambiguous. The college guys have been abused. I do see Coach Cal’s hand up in the back of the room. Yes, John, you did make the playoffs in your second year. Three-game sweep, I believe. So Danny is trying to buck a three-decade run of coaching failure here. Danny is not stupid, I assure you. He had Brad Stevens targeted from the get-go. He doesn’t need to have the list of failed college coaches recited to him. He’s competed in one form or another against all of them. He just thinks Brad Stevens is the Chosen One.

He’s certainly not alone.

Jim Boeheim had this to say. “[Brad Stevens is] the best young coach I have seen in my time.” Consider that the Syracuse mentor is hardly unfamiliar with the NBA. He’s been an assistant with Team USA and its NBA stars and megastars through victorious world championships and Olympics.

Better yet, how about this from Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of Team USA? “He’ll do great with the Celtics,” says the man who came this close to being coach of the Celtics in 1990 himself. “It’s a great hire by Danny Ainge.”

The age? No problem, says Coach K. “I think age is overrated,” he says. “You either get the job done or you don’t. You can do it or you can’t. He’s proven he can do the job.”

There is so much to learn. Stevens has never coached an offense with a 24-second clock. He has never concocted an offense to combat the NBA’s incredibly sophisticated defenses. He has never coached four games in five nights. He has never been in a circumstance where his last practice was a distant memory.

That’s before even discussing the personality aspect. He will be tested, starting with his best player, the inscrutable Rajon Rondo. This will all be interesting to watch.

What Stevens has that none of the other college guys had is the security of a six-year contract. That is an amazing commitment on the part of Ainge and his owners.

Just the fact that Stevens has taken this job means he’s not quite what we thought he was. He has spent his entire life in a Midwestern cocoon, which leads to the question as to whether he will make the adjustment to the hurly-burly of the East. But he may have been more curious and ambitious than we thought. Larry Bird remarked that it was known Stevens had put out NBA feelers from time to time. And he is getting out of a 12-year contract.

It’s a brilliant move for Brad Stevens, for sure. He pockets the money (more than $3 million per), no matter what. When the six years is up he either keeps going or picks the best available college job.

At that time he will be the same age Erik Spoelstra is now. Best of all, Tracy Stevens will still be smart.

“I Married Joan” ran for three years and 98 episodes. The race is on.

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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