CHICAGO — Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga had breakfast with coach Brad Stevens, discussed game plans for Thursday's game like any other morning before the game.
Thirty minutes later, Larranaga found out he would be the head coach for the matchup with the Chicago Bulls at United Center. Stevens had to address an issue more important than basketball.
Stevens abruptly left Chicago for the Indianapolis area to visit a former Butler player. While the team asked for privacy, it is believed Stevens's former center, Andrew Smith, who has been battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, had recently been hospitalized. Smith's family members used social media to express concern and ask for prayers for his grave condition.
"It's a difficult situation for Coach Stevens and the people close to him," Larranaga said. "So we told him, 'Don't worry about what's going on here and we'll try to keep the ship going straight.' "
Smith, 25, was a four-year player for Stevens at Butler, helping with the programs stunning rise to prominence as the Bulldogs reached two consecutive National Championship games.
Stevens was endeared to Smith from the beginning. Despite playing little during his freshman season, Smith came on to play a key role in Butler's 2010 NCAA Elite Eight win over Kansas State, which sent Butler to its first Final Four.
Smith finished his Butler career in 2013 and played for Oklahoma City's summer league team before an overseas stint in Lithuania. He was diagnosed with cancer in early 2014 and also suffered cardiac arrest in July of that year.
Stevens has spent time with Smith during his battle and the two have kept in constant touch. It is the first game Stevens has missed as Celtics coach. The Celtics lost, 101-92.
"He makes it very clear to our players on a day-to-day basis that family is the most important," Larranaga said. "I think our players do a great job of giving back to the community and the impact that they're able to have in those areas are so much more important than what happens on the court. It's just another example of the person that he is."
The fact that Stevens, 39, left the team to visit a former player was not lost on Celtics players, some of whom are younger than Smith.
"It's crazy, we're fortunate enough to be living our dream," said Celtics swingman Evan Turner, 27. "Most importantly, be healthy enough to do so with a rigorous job, regardless of the physical demands that it has. And just understand that he's 25, he's young, what his family is going through. This stuff is crazy, man.
"I'm glad to have the people I have in my life and be blessed. It's a great reminder. It's sad. I'm blown away by it."
Celtics center Tyler Zeller, who is Smith's age, said his family knows the former Butler center and was moved by Stevens's actions.
"He told us what was going on and we respect him very much," Zeller said. "He does a great job if something's going on with our family, he always tells us to come to him and talk to him. That goes for anybody. We're going totry to do as much as we can without him."
Stevens could have attempted to coach Thursday and then left for Indiana following the game since the club has Friday off. But the players understood the gravity of the situation when he informed them of his decision to leave Thursday afternoon.
"Obviously something changed because we just found out this morning, but it says a lot about him," Zeller said. "His players, his staff, he values very much. He felt like this was something he needed to do and that family is bigger than one game. You have to respect him a lot for that."
A night after players were fuming about the loss to the Pistons and issues with the playing rotation, the Celtics locker room was more solemn before Thursday's game. Players said they reflected on their situations and their good fortunes.
"Any time something like that happens, it makes you value life and everything you got, value the fact that we can laugh and have fun," Zeller said. "It does make you look at your situation and how blessed everybody in this locker room is. We have a great life. You've got to make sure we always realize that."
Turner said he was impressed with Stevens and the relationships he has developed with his players, and was moved by the coach's desire to be with his ailing former player.
"When I heard about it, I said what I'm worried about isn't even that bad," he said. "I'm thankful. I think Brad's a great guy in general, his character and what he believes in. It's unreal. I already had Brad on a high pedestal and what he's doing now I know the family really appreciates probably him being at the bedside. That's unreal."