Basketball coaches are a society of borrowers

matthew j. lee/globe staff

Brad Stevens is always looking to pick the brain of a fellow coach.

By Globe Columnist 

Basketball coaches are a collegial bunch. High school. College. Professional. It doesn’t matter. Brad Stevens, John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Norman Dale, and the guy who coached you in high school 50 years ago are all members of the same club.

They borrow from one another. And they tweak old plays that have been around since James Naismith and the peach basket.


I’ll never forget something Stevens said in Cleveland last October.

We were standing in the bowels of Quicken Loans Arena a few minutes before the launch of this Celtics season when somebody asked the coach about the unusual number of high school and college coaches who attended Celtic practices during the 2017 preseason.

“We have coaches in there every day,’’ said Stevens. “It’s great. I love it. It’s one of my favorite things.

“High school, college, summer league, whatever the case may be. They always have great perspective that we can use. They don’t see our team every day, so maybe they give you an idea or a tidbit that you can use.

“And I’ve always thought — and I got this from my boss at Butler — there’s not a monopoly of great coaches at any one level. It’s all over the map. I think that’s one of our responsibilities in coaching is to open our doors if people are interested in watching and talking about any of that stuff.’’

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/file

Brad Stevens opens up the Celtics’ preseason practices to basketball coaches at all levels. “They always have great perspective that we can use,” Stevens said.


The words took me back to my sophomore year of high school when our coach came to the first day of practice armed with a “new” full-court zone press he’d picked up from some big-shot program at one of the many summer clinics he attended. It was a 1-2-1-1 full-court zone press, designed to be employed feverishly and immediately after we scored. I remembered thinking our coach, John Fahey, got it from UCLA.

I called Fahey, now 79, at his home in New Hampshire to tell him what Stevens said about coaches, and to ask him about the 1-2-1-1.

“I picked up things anywhere I could,’’ said Fahey, who first coached at Groton in 1962 when he was 23 years old. “I used to go to clinics in the Catskills. I remember Dean Smith telling us, ‘All you young guys think you want to be a Division 1 head coach; well, I slept in my own bed only 23 days last year!’

“But I think I got the 1-2-1-1 from Ronnie Perry. I remember that because he was coaching at Catholic Memorial then, and before giving me the whole thing, he wanted to know where I was going to be coaching the next season.’’

Perfect. Sharing tips is one thing, but you don’t want to give your whole playbook to somebody you might see down the road.

I called Perry, who won multiple state championships at Catholic Memorial (the gym at CM is named after him) before he became athletic director at Holy Cross.

“That sounds about right,’’ said Perry, now 86. “I did a lot of coaching clinics around here and in New Hampshire. I remember seeing that press when I was refereeing a game one night and I loved it and went home and worked on it for a few days and we put it in.

“We ended up playing that team and we got ahead, 29-4, in the first half. They couldn’t get the ball over halfcourt. Later I ended up doing a clinic in Kansas and they put that press into the booklet for all the coaches coming in. I think I’ve still got that booklet.’’

All this stuff is rattling around inside my head this week because it’s high school basketball tournament season, and I’ve been following the Newton North Tigers in the Division 1 South sectionals. (North lost to Division 1 South top seed Mansfield, 70-50, Monday night in Taunton).

Late in Newton North’s quarterfinal win over Bridgewater-Raynham on Saturday, I heard a coach from the bench call for “Zipper.’’

Zipper? Can that still be around? It was one of Auerbach’s famous seven plays that the Celtics used for decades. Larry Bird scored a million points on Zipper even though everyone in the Garden knew what was coming (shooter flashes from down low, blows past pick at foul line, and cans turnaround jumper from the top of the key) when Bird called it out.

Back in the early 1980s, when paranoid Bill Fitch closed Celtic practices and picked fights with innocent custodians who were not spies for the Knicks, Kevin McHale would lighten things by saying, “Right, Bill. We wouldn’t want anyone to see us running these same seven plays we’ve been using for 100 years.’’

Dollars to doughnuts Auerbach did not invent Zipper. Maybe he got it at a clinic when he was a high school coach at St. Albans in Washington, D.C., in 1940.

Associated Press/1965 file

“Zipper” was one of Red Auerbach’s famous seven plays that the Celtics used for decades.

In the closing seconds of a 1-point Newton North-Bridgewater-Raynham tourney game, North coach Paul Connolly, a 20-year veteran of coaches clinics, called a timeout and drew up a play. When the huddle broke, I’m pretty sure I heard Newton’s Ethan Wright say, “I’ll make it.’’

The Princeton-bound Wright is a latter-day Jimmy Chitwood, straight out of “Hoosiers.” Seconds later, Wright won the game, draining a 3-pointer as he was fouled.

“Tournament time is fun, and it brings back memories for sure,’’ Stevens said.

“I spend my whole offseason going to clinics,’’ the Celtics coach added. “Even when we plan something as a family on vacation, I try to figure out where coaches are in that area and go and stop by and pick their brains on what they are doing.

“It could be at any level. I’ve always found, you can go to these practices and you may have something in mind that you’re looking for — like your high school coach and the 1-2-1-1 — or something may click.

“When we were at Butler, Todd [Lickliter] and I went to Cavs practice and they were doing a defensive drill. A side-to-side with multiple ball screen action so their defense would get more reps. And it became a base of what we did offensively.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute, that fits our guys perfectly from an offensive perspective. What a great way to work offense and defense,’ and then as you’re doing the drill, you start thinking about it more and you think, ‘What if we created a side-to-side motion with ball screens?’

“So you go to those things just to get ideas and get your mind moving.’’

There it is. One more thing to like about Brad Stevens. He’s not afraid to borrow from Red Auerbach, Norman Dale, Paul Connolly, Ronnie Perry, or John Fahey.

The good coaches are the ones who never think they have the whole thing figured out.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images/2013 file

While coaching at Butler, Stevens saw a defensive drill the Cavaliers were running at practice “and it became a base of what we did offensively.”

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist He can be reached at
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