ZIONSVILLE, Ind. — Brad Stevens was living the life. He ran around his Zionsville neighborhood with a large group of friends, so large he never felt much like an only child. He filled long summer days with basketball pickup games and driveway shooting drills inspired by former Indiana University star Steve Alford.
Stevens wanted nothing more than a basketball in his hands and competition. His friends shared his passion. After the dinner dishes were cleared, the driveway floodlights came on so everyone could shoot baskets after dark.
“You’ve heard about Indiana basketball and baskets hanging off barn doors,” says Brian Flickinger, a childhood friend of Stevens. “We didn’t have barn doors, but it was very similar to that.”
That world was simply “the greatest,” says Stevens. It was also, say those who know him best, a perfect reflection of the values and skills he brings to Boston as the Celtics’ new coach.
Back in 2000, when Stevens joined the basketball staff at nearby Butler University — giving up a lucrative post-college job with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly to try college coaching at 23 — his small-town, old-fashioned values made him right at home.
Walk into historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the men’s basketball team plays its home games before capacity crowds of 10,000 fans and where Stevens spent most waking hours in his seven years as a Butler assistant and six years as head coach, and it brings to mind a simpler time in college sports. And Stevens likes to keep life as simple as possible, focused on family, friends, and basketball — much the way it was growing up.
“I’m boring,” he repeats apologetically when conversations turn more toward his life than his players. It’s his Midwestern-bred humility talking. It’s also a quality that everyone praises, from his best friends to his high school coach to his former Butler boss to his former players to his new boss, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
Humility may serve Stevens well as he guides the young Celtics through the rebuilding years ahead.
“He’s so good at building relationships, being genuine, wanting to get to know you, wanting what’s best for you that you really have no choice but to trust him and play as hard as you possibly can for him,” says Ronald Nored, a former Butler star and current South Alabama assistant coach.
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To steal quiet time for practice planning while at Butler, Stevens headed to the Broad Ripple Tavern, a short drive from his small, windowless office at Hinkle Fieldhouse. He always sat in the back room of the cavernous college hangout, behind a cluster of pool tables. Settling in with legal pads and a laptop, he went to work.
Stevens is a meticulous planner. “I thought we were the more prepared team 99 percent of the time,” says Nored. Practices at Butler followed precise, efficient agendas, timed to the minute. The sessions were fast-paced and full of information, physically and mentally challenging. Expect more of the same with the Celtics.
“I’m not going to keep them out there for four hours at a time,” says Stevens. “I like to be pretty streamlined, to maximize our time on the practice floor. I like to make sure I’m respectful of our players’ time.”
That kind of respect should help win over NBA players. And it’s a glimpse at how Stevens conducts his life, not just workouts.
When asked to describe Stevens, people here offer endless testimonials — about his character, integrity, values — and critics, if there are any, keep to themselves.
A skeptic might find it all a bit too tinged with Midwestern wholesomeness to be believed. But this is the man who, in the 24 hours between his introductory Celtics press conference and the start of his Orlando Summer League duties, dashed back to Indiana to ride in rural Connersville’s bicentennial parade. Why? Because he promised a former Butler player’s father that he would.
But it remains to be seen how such earnestness will play in the Celtics locker room. Zionsville, Connersville, and college basketball are a long way from Boston and the NBA. During his introductory press conference, after Stevens talked about fostering team unity and “getting the right players on the bus,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck cracked, “It’s not a bus in the NBA. It’s a jet.”
Stevens knows he’s entering a different world. Despite his small town upbringing, boyish looks, and fondness for words such as “awesome,” “super-duper” and “neat,” he doesn’t betray a trace of naivete in conversation.
True to his analytical, hyper-prepared reputation, Stevens did his research before taking the Celtics job. He knows what to expect. Still, there is no guarantee that his college coaching success will translate to the NBA grind, and even less guarantee that headstrong professionals like Rajon Rondo will respond to his coaching style once the hiring honeymoon ends.
After all, Boston fans need no reminder of the Celtics’ failed experiment bringing in Rick Pitino from the University of Kentucky.
Stevens, now the NBA’s youngest head coach at 36, recognizes he may need all of his six-year, $22 million contract to weather the rebuilding process and truly prove himself in the league.
“If you told me 13 years ago, when I left Lilly, that I was going to be the head coach of the Boston Celtics, I would’ve thought that was a bit of a crazy statement,” says Stevens. “But one of the awesome things about Butler was I saw a group of kids and coaches who would not set a ceiling for themselves, despite the fact that everyone was going to put a ceiling on them.
“That was inspiring and neat to be a part of. I learned you don’t put limitations on yourself.”
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The best gift Dave Sollman says he ever received came from Stevens. At the time, Sollman coached the Zionsville Community high school boys’ basketball team. Stevens had just finished his senior season on the team, setting the school’s career scoring mark while leading the way to the 1995 sectional championship. The present was a pair of men’s briefs with the rear end cut out.
“It was to represent all the times I chewed his rear end off when he played,” says Sollman. “I laughed. He laughed. I’ll tell you Brad’s demeanor, his calmness on the sideline, did not come from me. I was more of a hollerer. Maybe he learned how not to be on the sideline from me.”
To hear Sollman tell it, there wasn’t much reason to holler at Stevens. Over four years on varsity, Sollman says Stevens was “a dream to coach,” “a perfect type player,” and “a perfect gentleman who never talked back.”
Stevens recalls his abilities as a guard in high school then at Division 3 DePauw University a little more critically. Stevens describes himself as slow and “probably more of a riverboat gambler with the ball than I needed to be.” Still, he earned significant playing time his freshman and sophomore seasons at DePauw. Then, he saw his role dramatically diminish as a junior and senior.
“The coaching staff did what the coaching staff should have done and found better players,” says Stevens. “So, I had the opposite of the traditional college career path. But I’m really thankful it happened. It’s allowed me to have a great pulse on guys who are going through difficult times individually with regard to playing time. It showed me how important it is to be a great teammate. It kind of started me on this path to coaching.”
Despite reduced minutes at DePauw, Stevens never lost the intense competitive drive that was first evident in the neighborhood games he organized. “He was kind of the captain, always calling everybody,” says Flickinger. “I swear he has a photographic memory because he would dial everybody’s phone number without ever looking them up, six, seven, eight kids.”
His close friend and college teammate Matt Broughton remembers Stevens as a “basketball junkie” who could always “rattle off the best gyms to play at” for adult pickup games. Nored reports that it’s hard to beat Stevens, to get the last word in, when it comes to trash talking.
Away from basketball, Stevens makes almost any activity competitive. His wife can attest to that. “We took our first trip together a couple months after we started dating as sophomores in college and it was races in the pool, competitions in tennis, shuffleboard, running,” says Tracy Stevens. “Everything was a competition and I always lost. I’m better at losing. He’s not.”
Now, Brad and Tracy keep multiple games of “Words With Friends” going. But Brad often thinks so differently it can seem like he’s engaged in another type of contest.
“Brad will argue that Scrabble is not a spelling game and that it’s a numbers game, that there’s a complete numbers strategy to it,” says Broughton.
Numbers were always Stevens’s thing. After graduating from DePauw in 1999 with an economics degree, he spent most of his time at Lilly on performance metrics, breaking down reams of statistical information.
It was interesting, well-paying work, but it wasn’t anywhere near a basketball court. So, Stevens left Lilly for a volunteer coaching job at Butler, figuring he would get by on his savings and waiting tables at Applebee’s. One day before he was scheduled to start at Applebee’s, a paid position opened at Butler. He became the director of basketball operations for around $18,000 a year, a considerable pay cut.
His father, an orthopedic surgeon, “was pretty much in denial about the whole thing, but I knew this was coming,” says his mother Jan Stevens, a college lecturer. “My attitude had to be that of a supportive parent and think what’s a year of lost income at 23.”
After seven years as an assistant, the then-30-year-old Stevens was promoted to head coach. It wasn’t long before Stevens guided mid-major Butler to back-to-back NCAA national championship games, accumulating wins at a record pace and becoming one of the country’s best college coaches.
“He’s as good a communicator as I’ve ever been around, and I don’t mean just in coaching,” says Butler athletic director Barry Collier. “He can communicate one-on-one or in front of thousands, with toddlers and teenagers and adults and seniors. That might be the single greatest skill that he has . . . But I wasn’t thinking he’d be the most successful college basketball coach ever for his first six years when I hired him.”
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The Celtics’ offer came at an awkwardly opportune time for the Stevens family. Brad, Tracy, and their children Brady, 7, and Kinsley, 4, were between homes in the Indianapolis area, having placed most of their belongings in storage and moved in with Brad’s mother. Brad’s parents divorced in 2002 and his father lives in Arizona. It was tight quarters in the three-bedroom ranch, but the arrangement struck Brad and Tracy, an attorney and her husband’s agent, as the simplest and most sensible.
And so it was that on July 3 the Celtics brass — Ainge, Grousbeck, co-owner Steve Pagliuca, assistant general manager Mike Zarren — and Brad and Tracy huddled around a plastic-covered dining room table in Jan’s home. It was the only place that could guarantee privacy in an area where Brad ranks as an easily recognized sports celebrity.
After talking with the Celtics for a couple hours, Brad and Tracy came to see their visitors from Boston as a like-minded group. That made the family’s “leap of faith” from Zionsville to Boston easier.
“There were a lot of signs in our life that maybe it was time for a change, time to go,” says Tracy. “The fact that they offered a six-year contract was a big deal. It gave us the chance to really commit to living there, put down roots, become involved in the community.”
Now, the Stevens family is searching for a new home in the Boston suburbs. It’s both daunting and exhilarating.
“When you’ve worked in the same place for 13 years, when things go well, you know how to keep it going well,” says Stevens. “When things go bad, you know how to fix it. The biggest thing is that familiarity. This is stepping way outside of that . . . But you’ll never become as good as you want to be unless you step outside your comfort zone.”