Celtics coach Brad Stevens is among a large NBA contingent in Johannesburg this week, as the league expands its global footprint with its first game on African soil. But for Stevens, the opportunity is much less about branding than it is about having an impact and soaking up an unfamiliar culture.
"When you're touring the village we were just at, you could care less," Stevens said by phone Friday. "It's more about how you're helping and how you're just learning about others and getting a chance to see their country and learn about their country."
Stevens and Celtics guard Evan Turner are part of Team World, which will play an exhibition Saturday against Team Africa, composed of NBA players who are first- and second-generation Africans.
Over the past few days, the NBA delegation has put on clinics for teenagers. And on Friday, Stevens, Turner, and their team visited an SOS Children's Village in Ennerdale, about 20 miles south of Johannesburg. The NBA has installed a basketball court and a library there.
The SOS villages are created for children who are orphaned, abandoned, or unable to be cared for. During Friday's visit, Stevens and Turner were part of a group that played an impromptu soccer game. Turner camped out in front of the goal until he scored, Stevens said with a chuckle.
When the team boarded its bus to return to its Johannesburg hotel, it was sent off with a performance that included dancing and drums.
"It's incredible, just the spirit," Stevens said. "It's a real loving spirit."
Added Turner: "I was just blown away by how appreciative and grateful and good-spirited the kids were."
Stevens said he was told Saturday's game at the 5,000-seat Ellis Park Arena sold out in 19 minutes. The visit has generated excitement in Johannesburg, but Stevens said the buzz is most obvious in the presence of those who already have strong ties in the region.
"It's absolutely awesome to be here and watch a kid's eyes when Hakeem Olajuwon walks by, or when Dikembe Mutombo is around, or Luol Deng," Stevens said, "and how inspiring they are to the kids that love basketball here in this area."
Before coming to Boston two years ago, Stevens had spent essentially his entire life in Indiana. But he is grateful that coaching has led to global experiences, from a trip to Western Europe with Butler to a trip to China with Team USA to his current time in South Africa.
"Basketball has given me so many opportunities, and it's something that's opened the world to me and allowed me to travel really all over the world," Stevens said. "The only time I've ever left the country and certainly across the Atlantic was for basketball, and it's really incredible to see how it impacts not only me, but everybody else in that room. And it's a common thread between all of us. It's something that we all love, that we all have a great deal of passion about, and an interest that we all share."
Amid the excitement about visiting Johannesburg, Stevens took a moment to look ahead to the upcoming Celtics season. On Monday, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said that Stevens's greatest challenge would be managing minutes on this suddenly deep roster. Stevens, for one, said that is a good problem to have.
"Every year I've been involved in basketball, and certainly in my two years in the NBA, all 15 guys, your time comes," Stevens said. "And you've just got to be ready for your time, whether it's the first day of training camp or it's the 30th of December."
Stevens and Ainge have both put an emphasis on adding players who are capable of playing and defending multiple positions, and Stevens said that will be especially useful now that they have such a deep team.
"The more versatility you have, the more you can really mix and match," he said. "The more set into a single position you may be, the more difficult it becomes, because you're competing with multiple people . . . We'll see how it all shakes out, but we've got a number of good, solid players that are anxious to get going."