Brad Stevens’s stock on the rise as he returns to Indiana

BRAD STEVENS: He’s back home in Indiana
Jason Szenes/Getty Images/File
BRAD STEVENS: He’s back home in Indiana

The building will be packed with friends and family — everyone that Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he still talks to from back home in Indiana.

“That’s a lot of people,” he added.

So many, in fact, that to help accommodate them, his mother, Jan, purchased a block of tickets for Sunday’s game between the Celtics and Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.


It will mark her son’s first game there since he left Butler University in July to become the Celtics’ coach, and, even-keeled though he may be, it will still be an emotional homecoming.

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“Yeah, that will be hard,” Stevens said. “I’m going to see a lot of people I know in that building. I wasn’t there for five years. I was there for 33.”

And Stevens, who grew up as a diehard Pacers fan, will be returning with a team that has so far defied expectations, sitting atop the Atlantic Division.

Stevens has received considerable praise for the Celtics’ better-than-expected start, to the point that some columnists have opined that he may open the door for more college coaches to make a leap to the professional ranks.

When it comes to his coaching influences, Stevens counts many who served on Butler’s staff as key figures, but one of his staff members there said Stevens actually resembles another coach: Bob Knight.


Michael Lewis is the one who preaches that opinion, and he has an interesting perspective, as he played for Knight from 1997-2000, and then in 2011 became an assistant at Butler, where he worked under Stevens.

And, yes, Lewis knows that comparing the volcanic Knight and the level-headed Stevens sounds far-fetched, so allow him to explain:

“Their attention to detail, their preparation, the people they want involved in their program, the way they want them to act, the way they hold them accountable — it’s all the same,” said Lewis, Indiana’s all-time assists leader (545).

Stevens has heard this comparison before.

“He told me that a long time ago,” Stevens said. “I thought that was interesting. He used to say, ‘Butler’s culture is the most like IU since I was at IU.’ ”


Of course, Stevens and Knight are vastly different in many obvious ways.

For instance, unlike the explosive, expletive-spewing Knight, Stevens is known for his measured demeanor and is more likely to say “golly” or “son of a gun” or “gee whiz” than utter vulgarities within earshot.

But that the two share any similarities is not all that odd, as Stevens idolized the Hoosiers and Knight throughout his youth, even pretending to coach Indiana as early as the second grade when Stevens wrote X’s and O’s on a chalkboard in his family’s basement.

Then, when Stevens was 8, he sat in the upper tier above the Indiana bench with his father, Mark, during a game between the Hoosiers and bitter rival Purdue.

It was during that 1985 game that Knight hurled a red plastic chair across the court and stalked the sideline, boiling over, irate with the officiating.

Many Hoosiers fans in the crowd that night cheered their volatile coach, and Stevens was among them, as he pumped his fist and howled in approval.

“Brad was thrilled,” Mark Stevens recalled. “He thought it was pretty cool.”

Later, when Stevens was around 11, the family was on spring break when he watched the tape of Indiana’s thrilling 1987 NCAA championship win against Syracuse maybe 100 times, Mark estimated.

“I’d go down on a Saturday morning and most kids would be watching cartoons and he’d be watching the Hoosiers,” Mark said.

Stevens also attended many Hoosiers basketball games because his father, a former backup center on IU’s football team, had coveted season tickets.

Later, in high school, one of Knight’s former players, Phil Isenbarger, became an assistant coach on Stevens’s team.

Then, during the 2007-08 season, Stevens’s first as Butler’s head coach, his Bulldogs faced Knight’s Texas Tech Red Raiders in a tournament in Alaska. Butler won, 81-71.

“The best compliment I can give them is that I wish we played as smart as they do,” Knight said after that game.

For Stevens, it was a huge compliment.

“He was such a big figure,” Stevens said. “You knew that he was tough on guys, but his guys always seemed to play hard, they always played as a team, and they had a great reputation for representing the state and school well.”

Stevens said he hasn’t interacted with Knight too much, though he did introduce him during a 2011 event at Butler a few months after the Bulldogs had reached their second consecutive NCAA title game.

Knight asked Stevens to give a brief introduction, but of course Stevens gushed about how Knight had won more than 900 games, three NCAA titles, and an Olympic gold medal, among other accolades.

“And so I was in the middle of the introduction and I feel this big paw on my back,” Stevens said.

It was Knight.

“Let me tell you, I’ve never seen a better coaching job than this young guy did and his staff getting Butler to the position they were in by the end of the season,” Knight said later at the event.

(Stevens also kept a large photo of he and Knight from that event in his office at Butler.)

Growing up as a huge IU fan, Stevens said he saw Knight through rose-colored glasses, paying attention to only the good.

“Like everybody else, you hear some things that you don’t agree with that may not be the way you want do to it,” Stevens said, “but I know a lot of his former players and I know what those people think about him, including Michael [Lewis], including Phil [Isenbarger].

“Those guys, they speak highly of that experience. Obviously, we’re much more different in a lot of regards, but I think he did a lot of things there at that time where people felt good about the program in a lot of ways. Obviously there are different ways of leading and different ways of going about it, but he did it well.”

Stevens had some fiery coaches of his own, from Dave Sollman at Zionsville Community High School to Bill Fenlon at DePauw, the Division 3 college in Greencastle, Ind., where Stevens played.

Said Sollman: “He certainly didn’t learn his sideline demeanor from me. I was much more animated and loud and whistling and hollering.”

Said Fenlon: “I was a lot more volatile and reactionary. I don’t think Brad as a player always reacted well to that. I watch him coach and his demeanor is exactly like he wished my demeanor was . . . he’s almost the anti-me on the sidelines.”

As to Fenlon’s point, Stevens said, “I don’t think that’s true. I appreciate him saying that, but I don’t know.”

Actually, one of the biggest influences in how Stevens leads was a course he took during his sophomore year at DePauw.

“From my upbringing, from where I saw things, the loud, vocal, demanding voice in the room was the leader,” he said. “And then I started learning more about, and studying servant leadership.”

Stevens learned more about the subject during an internship at the Hartman Center for Civic Education and Leadership, where he studied the work of Robert K. Greenleaf, a 20th century proponent of servant leadership.

The principal value behind that leadership style could best be explained through an example involving Stevens and his teams at Butler.

When the Bulldogs’ bus would pull up to a hotel on the road, he’d be the first one to start unloading bags. His players, in turn, would help, as would others.

“It’s not for everybody,” said Stevens, who would put on an apron and serve pizza to elementary and junior high students at Butler basketball camps.

“I’m sure there are plenty of people who have led without that. But it’s a great way to lead. It keeps you grounded in what’s important.”

Indeed, during Celtics training camp, Stevens told reporters, “They all need to take the responsibility to lead by serving each other, by being a great teammate.”

It may be a different style, but it has worked for Stevens, and just as many in Indiana revered Knight, so too did another generation of Hoosiers do the same with Stevens, who in 2010 became the youngest coach at 33 to reach a Final Four since none other than the 32-year-old Knight in 1973.

“I grew up with Bobby Knight, my son grew up idolizing Brad Stevens,” said Pat Bruen, a senior adviser for US strategic pricing at Eli Lilly and Company who played against Stevens in Lilly’s corporate basketball league when Stevens worked there.

As for that infamous moment when Knight threw his chair, well, Stevens said he recently showed the YouTube clip to his 8-year-old son, Brady.

“He loved it,” Stevens said, smiling. “He must be no different than me.”

Baxter Holmes can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.