First of three parts
No plot of American soil holds basketball more sacred than Indiana. When Brad Stevens was growing up there, Bob Knight ruled Indiana University, Reggie Miller was draining 3-pointers for the Pacers, and the state still had its legendary oneclass high school playoff system. It was Hoosier Hysteria at its finest. This is where the game took hold of the future coach of the Celtics.
Sophomore year. Sectional final, Zionsville Eagles vs. Lebanon Tigers. “That was my worst memory in sports,” Brad Stevens said. It was 20 years ago. “To this day,” the new Celtics coach said, “I don’t even want to talk about it.”
Brad Stevens and the Eagles lead, 44-31, entering the fourth quarter.
This is 1993, back when his high school, housed in an all-American suburb a half-hour northwest of Indianapolis, graduated classes of 160 or so, but Indiana’s fabled one-class system allowed schools of any size to compete for state championships, most famously tiny Milan High (total enrollment: 161) in 1954, a story immortalized in the film “Hoosiers.”
This is Indiana, where basketball’s founder, James Naismith, said the game “really had its origin” even though it was born in Massachusetts; where the motto, “In 49 other states, it’s just basketball, but this is Indiana,” isn’t hyperbole; where 12 of the 13 largest high school gyms in this country exist; where the soul of the game lives today.
And in 1993, in Indiana, any magical run to glory still began with winning the eight-team sectional, and, with 1:40 left, the Eagles still led, 59-51.
Then, aided by their turnover-forcing press defense, the Tigers roar back, scoring 8 straight, tying the score at 59 in the final seconds, firing a right baseline jumper as the buzzer wails . . .
The ball swishes through the net, and Lebanon fans spill onto the court.
Grief swallows the Eagles whole.
“We were right back on the court because we didn’t know what else to do with ourselves,” Stevens said.
He had an off night, with 11 points and too many turnovers. He accepts blame, still. The Zionsville Times Sentinel splashed a photo of Eagles coach Dave Sollman hanging his head on its front page. The caption: “A Sectional stunner.”
Next year, Eagles fans believe. They’ll place their faith in three returning starters from a 15-7 team that won the conference. Next year.
He joined the world amid a championship celebration. Early on Oct. 22, 1976, just hours after the Cincinnati Reds finished a World Series sweep of the New York Yankees, Brad Stevens was born in Greenville, S.C., to Jan and Mark, who both hailed from Ohio.
One of his first memories, he said, is of a basketball goal on his eighth birthday, four years after his family had moved to Zionsville.
The school bus dropped him off at the entrance to South Maxwell Court in the Colony Woods subdivision. One-10th of a mile separated him from home. The road gently fell, rose, and fell again before dead-ending at the cul-de-sac and their stone, two-story, single-family residence. About halfway there, it came into view: a wooden backboard sitting atop a free-standing post on the driveway’s left side.
That fall morning, his parents had played coy, giving him just a cupcake and a card, Mark recalled. But while Brad was in class at Pleasant View Elementary, they hired professionals to install the goal properly.
Once he saw it, he sprinted for home, this kid who spent mornings watching VHS tapes of college basketball games before afternoon kindergarten, who spent winter days playing on a miniature hoop in the basement, writing scores and X’s and O’s on a nearby chalkboard.
He sprinted as fast as his legs could carry him.
“He was excited as hell,” Mark said.
Floodlights allowed him to play into the night, though neighbors sometimes complained about the ruckus. His mother set a curfew — about 10 p.m. in the summer, Stevens recalled — and wouldn’t let him to return to the court until about 9 a.m.
Then, in the summer of 1990, a family moved into a brick home a half-mile away and built a backyard court. Duane Monk promised his son, Brandon, that it would be bigger and better than their old one in Terre Haute. It was 50 feet long and had glass backboards on free-standing posts, with free throw lines and 3-point lines. The cement was still settling in August when Stevens showed up. Others joined, too.
“It’s truly the ‘Field of Dreams’ thing for Indiana: ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” Brandon Monk said.
It pulled neighborhood kids into its orbit. They played all day, breaking to eat grilled-cheese sandwiches, mow lawns for cash, or play cards. Lights let them play well past dinnertime. Losers of one-on-one or H-O-R-S-E owed the victors a Mr. Misty slush from Dairy Queen, and Stevens was rarely one of those losers — mild-mannered off the court but transformed on it by an unyielding competitiveness that drove him not just to win but to avoid the pain of a loss.
“You weren’t going to walk off that court having gotten the better of him, that’s for sure,” said Ryan Hidinger, a friend.
Stevens and Monk became close friends. Each hated to lose more than they loved to win, a pair of “all-ball” kids who hunted for games, taking on top players in neighboring towns on summer nights.
“And you better believe,” Monk said, “Brad was doing his best to show everybody in that town that, ‘Hey, I’m just as good if not better than this guy.’ ”
Sollman believes that Stevens, whom he first played as a freshman after scouting every one of his games as an eighth-grader, was always as good as other players; but those players received more attention, more headlines, and that left Stevens fuming in their shadow.
“That was one of the things that pushed him, to make him a better player,” Sollman said, “to make people notice.”
Miles ahead of the game
Junior year. Zionsville is 14-6 entering sectional play vs. North Montgomery. The Eagles haven’t won a sectional title since 1986. Their fans believe that will change. Their team is talented and experienced, and it won’t be like last year, they believe, because fate can’t be that cruel.
Red Taylor, Stevens’s AAU coach on the Municipal Gardens team in Indianapolis, first spotted him as a fourth-grader and noticed how he always sprinted downcourt as soon as a teammate snatched a rebound, leading to a quick pass and layup before the other team had a clue.
He wasn’t faster, per se, but his mind was miles ahead, and Taylor realized then that Stevens’s basketball IQ was one of the best he’s ever seen at any age.
“He was just off the charts,” said Taylor, an AAU coach for four decades.
As a fifth-grader, Stevens joined Taylor’s team and played through high school.
Stevens’s high school/AAU teammates and coaches recall an offensive-minded player with a textbook shooting stroke, and a surprising craftiness around the rim despite his guard-like size. And Stevens, like his idol Reggie Miller, for whom he wore No. 31, could flop on drives to earn trips to the line.
But Stevens, like Miller, also kept his cool, especially late when games hung in the balance.
“He was calm, whether it was the last second of the game or the first second,” said Brandon Monk.
In the most tense moments, in fact, “your line of sight, your eyes, would go right to Brad,” Hidinger said. “You want to know what he’s thinking, what he’s saying.
“He was certainly a floor general, somebody that everybody knew would control the flow of the game. If something was going wrong, we didn’t have to worry about calling a timeout because Brad would just fix it.”
The Eagles trail, 35-32, with 4:33 left in the third quarter of their sectional opener when their center, Brian Flickinger, picks up his fourth foul. Then Mark Evans, another key player, hurts an ankle. Neither senior reenters the game. North Montgomery wins, 63-57. After the game, Stevens and Monk head straight to the court in Monk’s backyard and shoot for hours into the Midwestern winter night, going through the game and thinking about next year.
Is it OK to care this much? The discussion with Stevens wasn’t that direct, but Phil Isenbarger remembers that being the theme.
Isenbarger, a lawyer and member of Indiana University’s 1981 championship team, joined Zionsville as a volunteer assistant because he believed he owed the game that paid his way through college and part of law school.
Here he is in his spare time, scouting opponents backwards and forwards, delivering fiery speeches, yelling during games, even once stomping his foot clean through a chair because Stevens kept passing up open shots.
“The last thing he needed to be doing was coaching us,” Stevens said, “but he coached us like he was coaching at IU. It was unbelievable.”
If Stevens, who in high school was involved in track, baseball, student council, Spanish club, Powderpuff coaching, and the Future Problem Solvers program, ever wondered whether it was OK to care so much about basketball, when he was smart enough to thrive in most any field, then he need only look at Isenbarger.
“If there’s anything that I helped Brad with,” Isenbarger said, “it was giving him license to be that passionate about it.”
But because Stevens cared so much, losing meant his world being crushed.
“Defeat would wear on him,” said his mother, Jan. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Said his father, Mark: “There were a lot of nights after losses where we were trying to soothe him.”
Stevens might head to Steak ’n Shake or Waffle House with Monk and his dad to talk through a loss, but often, he and Monk spent nights waiting for the gym to empty so they could go shoot in a place that Stevens called his “sanctuary.”
“That’s where you feel whole again,” he said.
Sollman forbade his players to show up to the Zionsville Varsity Gym hours before games to shoot, believing they’d horse around or tire themselves out.
But Stevens still arrived an hour or so before junior varsity games, often using his connections with janitors to sneak into a place he loved so dearly that he still keeps a framed picture of it at home.
The Varsity Gym was the last remaining piece of the original high school after it was moved to the outskirts of Zionsville — and it was, Stevens said, “straight out of ‘Hoosiers,’ ” a classic Indiana brick bandbox that was quite similar to Butler University’s famed Hinkle Fieldhouse in nearby Indianapolis.
Built in the 1950s, the Varsity Gym had a capacity often listed at 3,500, but it held nearly 3,800 — more than the town’s population at one point. Beneath its raised maple hardwood court, a supporting ¾-inch plywood sub-floor left no dead spots, meaning the ball bounced the same all over.
“It was the best gym floor in the state to play on,” former Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner Gene Cato once said.
But it lacked air conditioning and broiled during summer pickup games. Fans packed the close-to-the-court bleachers on all four sides, making it a deafening barn on game nights, but during practices, there was just “The Sound.”
It came from the net, a loud thwock that echoed across the gym during practices.
“Hear that?” Sollman would say. “That means you shot it perfect.”
With his robotic form, Stevens had a green light to shoot, though his left thumb sometimes pushed the ball, altering its trajectory. (“Thumbing it,” Sollman called it.) But in the summer before Stevens’s senior year, he broke his left thumb, forcing him to lift and guide the ball with just his right hand.
“It helped my shot a lot,” he said.
And with the loss of five seniors from the previous season, the Eagles needed as much help as they could get.
Senior year. After a 10-10 regular season, Zionsville enters sectional play with little more going for it than experience in close games. Of those 20 games, nine were decided by single digits.
The Eagles continue that trend in the sectionals. In the third quarter of their opener against Southmont, Sollman tells Stevens that he’s tired of him passing the ball. “If you don’t shoot it, I’m going to kill you,” says Sollman, adding an expletive or two for emphasis. Stevens scores a career-high 36, and the Eagles win by 4 despite not leading until the final two minutes.
Then the Eagles face rival Lebanon, the favorite with home-court advantage as the sectional host, the team that cut out Zionsville hearts two years earlier.
The Tigers jump out to a 10-2 lead, but Zionsville claws back behind Stevens, who scores his team’s first 13 points. He finishes with 28, and Zionsville wins by 6, advancing to the sectional title game the next night against North Montgomery, the team that cut short the Eagles’ promising season one year ago.
Stevens, in his team’s pine-green jersey with white trim, scores the game’s first points on a putback. He grabs a rebound on one end and fires a 3-pointer from the right wing on the other. It rattles through.
On the Eagles’ next possession, Monk fakes a pass inside, then kicks to Stevens, who’s open on the right wing but a few feet deeper this time, NBA range. Swish. The Zionsville fans go wild, as do the radio broadcasters:
Brad Stevens 8, the Chargers zip!
Stevens sneaks behind the Chargers’ 2-3 zone defense and stops in the left corner. Monk pump-fakes, drives to draw the defense in, then dishes again to an open Stevens. Swish again. He’s 4 for 4 to open the game, the last three on 3-pointers, and he’s feeling it.
After another bucket underneath to make it 13-6, Stevens curls around a screen on the right side and again fires from deep. It’s good. Stevens 16, Chargers 8.
At halftime, he has 22 of Zionsville’s 27 points, but the Chargers lead by 1. Entering the fourth quarter, it’s tied at 39, and Stevens, facing a box-and-one defense while having another player shadowing him at all times, has run out of gas.
But Zionsville takes its first lead of the half, 47-45, when Chip Barnes, the quarterback on the football team, sinks a 16-foot jumper. He later hits another to put his team up, 51-47.
Stevens makes a late free throw to give Zionsville a 52-50 lead with 2.3 seconds left, but North Montgomery has the ball for a final shot. It calls a timeout, setting up a final play, and the ball goes to Stevens’s man, who fires a deep 3-pointer as the buzzer wails.
Stevens watches the ball hit the front of the rim, bounce high off the backboard, then fall harmlessly. He screams, throws his fists to the heavens, leaps, and runs toward his bench. Eagles fans pour onto the court in Lebanon where two years earlier the players had remained after the game, inconsolable, swallowed whole by grief.
Stevens is named Sectional MVP after scoring 33 points. He acknowledges that there was lingering doubt as to whether the team could win because of how close it had come before, but he adds, “It is my destiny to win this way,” according to the Times Sentinel, which publishes a team photo on Page One. Stevens takes a few strands of net from the rim’s front hooks — the hooks that his AAU coach told him to aim for when shooting.
On the outskirts of Zionsville, the team bus is met by a police cruiser that hits its sirens and lights and escorts the Eagles on a victory loop through town, heading down the red-brick main street past The Friendly Tavern, a popular hangout that serves beloved breaded pork tenderloins that stretch across a dinner plate.
As the players walk through a tunnel of fans high-fiving and hugging them at the Varsity Gym, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” plays over the speakers, the song the Eagles listened to before games.
One by one, players and coaches take the microphone and say a few words. Stevens is last and receives the loudest standing ovation. “First of all, I’m tired,” he half-jokes. He thanks everyone. With an electric razor, players shave Mark Stevens’s head, making good on his promise if they won.
The next step: college
Zionsville loses in the regional opener against Brownsburg, the last game of Brad Stevens’s high school career. He averaged 26.8 points per game that season, and his school records for career points (1,508), assists (444), and steals (156) remain intact.
Two years later, Indiana will install a four-class system, and high school basketball won’t have the same magic as before. Three years later, the Varsity Gym will host its final game. Five years later, it will be demolished to make room for the expansion of a library. It was 43 years old, the newspaper said.
Stevens dreams of playing for Bob Knight at Indiana, though he would gladly play for Purdue or nearby Butler, an up-and-coming team in Indianapolis. But none offer.
The only Division 1 scholarship offer he receives is from Bill Hodges, the coach at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., who is more famous for coaching Larry Bird at Indiana State.
Hodges, like Stevens, is from Zionsville, and believes that Stevens can play as a freshman for Mercer. He also believes that Stevens’s basketball IQ is on a par with, yes, Larry Bird’s.
But Mercer is too far from home, and Stevens chooses to attend DePauw, a Division 3 school one hour away in Greencastle, Ind. DePauw’s coaches rave about the incoming guard. Josh Burch, who is in the same recruiting class as Stevens, said he soon realizes that Stevens is “the most coveted recruit” on campus.
Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes