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Tara Sullivan

Her impact on the game, and her athletes, made Barbara Stevens a deserving Hall of Famer

Since 1986, Barbara Stevens's Bentley program has amassed 22 seasons of 25 wins or more and won a national championship in 2014.
Since 1986, Barbara Stevens's Bentley program has amassed 22 seasons of 25 wins or more and won a national championship in 2014.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Barbara Stevens expected her phone to ring at 3:10 p.m., just as it had the year before. Ten minutes was all they needed to let her know she hadn’t made the cut a year ago, and with the imposing quality of first-time names added to the 2020 ballot, Stevens had already accepted the same fate, fully expecting to be among the first calls made in the two-hour window set aside for notifications.

Only this time the phone didn’t ring.

Until it did.

And then, a little past 3:20, the voice of Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame CEO John Doleva informed Stevens that this time, she’d made it. Now, and forever more, alongside NBA icons Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, in the company of WNBA/NCAA greats Tamika Catchings and Kim Mulkey, on the same level as standout coaches Eddie Sutton and Rudy Tomjanovich, in the same sentence as late international basketball executive Patrick Baumann, sits Barbara Stevens, longtime yet little-known championship coach of Division 2 Bentley.

“When I saw the list of finalists and saw my name included with all of those greats of the game, I almost felt like, ‘Yikes, what am I doing there?’ ” Stevens said this past week from her Massachusetts home, her personal efforts of quarantining considerably brightened by the news of April 4.

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But make no mistake: Bardy, as she is known to family and friends, belongs.

“To see yourself with those people, for me, that’s not me," she said. "I’m not a name in the game. I’m not someone who was at that level. I’ve loved being in Division 2, I love it. We’re out of the spotlight, rarely interviewed by the Boston Globe.

“And that’s fine with me. That’s who I am.”

Indeed, humility is one of Stevens’s defining characteristics. But so, too, is excellence. And loyalty. And brilliance. And empathy.

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Who she is? Good luck finding enough words to cover it.

In a purely statistical sense, Barbara Stevens is one of five women’s basketball coaches to reach 1,000 career wins. She’s the owner of five National Coach of the Year awards, 15 regional ones, and the leader of a Bentley program that since 1986 has amassed 22 seasons of 25 wins or more, made 10 trips to the Final Four, and won a national championship in 2014.

Yet she’s so much more. Go back to 1976, when she began her career as an assistant at Clark, barely out of college herself but so surely on the right professional path that players lobbied for the promotion she would get just a year later. Go back to then, when young women who hadn’t even played in high school were on her roster, when teaching them to transition from the six-on-six game included showing them it was OK to go past half-court, when Title IX was only four years old and the landscape for female athletes was only just unfolding to what we know today.

Barbara Stevens was there at the beginning. And she’s still here now, with no end in sight.

Yet the arc of what she has done across 40-plus years isn’t merely reflective of one woman’s journey. She has moved in concert with the game itself, living proof that finding your place in the world and settling into it shouldn’t preclude you from earning the ultimate recognition. Winning is hard at every level, and impacting the lives of others in such a positive manner is a universal Hall of Fame skill.

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“She has evolved with the game, but she’s also had such an impact on the game, and the game’s evolution itself,” said Marge O’Brien, an outstanding player at Clark

from 1979-83. “At the end of the day, players change, personalities change, kids may change, but also at the end of the day, the job is about developing players, working with players, teaching them how to manage life through basketball.

"She found her niche, found a situation that was so right for her, where they are so supportive of her that she could work her magic, which is what she does.”

Magic. Tricks shrouded in secrecy until that final, headline moment. Maybe that’s perfect. That Stevens has worked her magic in such relative anonymity doesn’t change the fundamental truth that she is part of the fabric that now showcases professional women’s basketball worldwide, that matches NCAA Final Four drama with anything the men’s side can deliver, that delivers opportunity for female athletes where once upon a time it simply didn’t exist.

She did it by approaching every practice and every game with preparation and passion, her twin tenets.

Stevens in the huddle during a 2019 game against American International College.
Stevens in the huddle during a 2019 game against American International College.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff


“As diligent and hard-working as anybody I’ve ever known,” said C White, Bentley’s associate head coach and a former point guard under Stevens. “It takes her three hours to write out a practice, and she’ll rip that up 10 minutes before practice and change it to make it perfect. We get our first copy and we know not to print it out or make notes because we know another one is coming.”

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“You don’t truly understand the preparation until you’re on the other side,” echoed Christiana Bakolas, the point guard on that 2014 Bentley title team who moved immediately onto Stevens’s staff. “We had no idea as players, we were not allowed to see the time frames, and we had no clue what was coming.

"She’s so meticulous. Everything has a purpose. And you just have this intrinsic trust in what she’s presenting, that whatever drill she chose was the right one.”

Think back again, at Clark, when the man who coached the team prior to Stevens was so concerned about women enduring a two-hour practice that he built in two 15-minute water breaks. They were just the openings his first-year assistant needed.

“She would take us projects aside and work with us individually,” recalled Elyse Darefsky, whose organized basketball debut came at Clark. “I was raw. Her impact was immediate, even that young, even with so many of us who were only a year younger.”

There was a time during her undergraduate years at Bridgewater State that Stevens contemplated changing her major from health and phys ed to art. Ultimately, the advice of her father stuck, and she stayed where the job prospects were the best. She found a canvas anyway.

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“The teams I put on the floor, this is my masterpiece,” she said. “I once talked about it like I’m the director of the orchestra. My job is to make all of the instruments play in one beautiful tone.”

That she has. In a Hall of Fame way.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.