Right about suppertime on July 3 and after most everybody scattered to celebrate Independence Day, the Boston Celtics and Butler University issued Twitter alerts seconds apart that stunned two realms in the basketball world and proved that at least somebody still can keep a secret.
In announcing they had stealthily hired Brad Stevens to replace traded Doc Rivers as their coach, the NBA’s Celtics succeeded where Butler’s national rivals failed these past several years: They lured away the college-basketball wunderkind, who once paid the Indianapolis university for the privilege to work for its basketball team, with a lengthy, lucrative offer.
When the Celtics introduced Stevens at a news conference two days later, both he and Boston boss Danny Ainge used the same phrase to describe the other party’s commitment in this bet that a college coach can revive an NBA franchise where so many others have failed.
Each called it a leap of faith.
Stevens leapt at the chance to coach the glorified franchise he watched win NBA titles all throughout the 1980s, when he was a child in an Indianapolis suburb who watched game videotapes mornings before he attended afternoon kindergarten classes and dreamed in his driveway of becoming the next Larry Bird, not the next Bill Fitch.
In making that leap, Stevens said goodbye to the only state in which he had ever lived. He also bade a tearful farewell to the players, administrators and secretaries who stayed behind at a formerly underdog college program he had joined as a volunteer grad-school assistant 13 years ago and eventually coached to two NCAA title games before he left for Boston last summer.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time-bad time,” Stevens said. “It was the right time. I was lucky enough that somebody believed in me to do this.”
That somebody was Ainge, a guard on those 1980s Celtics teams Stevens watched and the architect who pieced Boston back into champions in 2008 after acquiring stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. All three now are long gone and Ainge has stripped the franchise back down to its studs after sending Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn last summer in a deal that has helped shift the Eastern Conference’s balance of power, all in an attempt to build the Celtics back up once again with youth.
Included is a 37-year-old rookie NBA coach who will attempt to succeed in a brave, new world where Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Jerry Tarkanian, Mike Montgomery, Lon Kruger and other college coaches in the past 20 years all failed to survive.
Where others have failed
Pitino is the only man who coached two different schools to NCAA titles and already is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, but he lasted fewer than six seasons with the Celtics and New York Knicks. Calipari coached fewer than three seasons with New Jersey in the 1990s before he returned to his winning ways in the college game with Memphis and Kentucky. All the others — including Tarkanian’s 20-game experiment with San Antonio two decades ago — came and went rather quickly.
Ainge attended Butler’s 2010 NCAA title game, nudged a Duke fan seated next to him and pointed to a man on the sidelines he called the best coach in college basketball, and he didn’t mean Mike Krzyzewski.
Three years later, he guaranteed Stevens a six-year, $22 million deal to guide a team Ainge dismantled last summer by trading away Rivers, Garnett and Pierce for multiple draft picks. He said he did so because he believes in Stevens’ intellect, integrity, competitiveness, attention to detail, what he calls Stevens’ “humility” and combination of an old-soul people person who reread Celtics great Bill Russell’s book on leadership during his first flight to Boston. Plus there’s Stevens’ new-age statistical analytics mind.
Ainge also did so because he believes the Celtics are not the kind of dysfunctional organization that has been the NBA graveyard for so many college coaches before Stevens.
“Rick Pitino, John Calipari are fantastic basketball coaches,” Ainge said, naming two on the day he introduced Stevens. “They didn’t fail because they can’t coach. The failure was from an organizational standpoint, not giving them patience, being supportive, [making correct] personnel decisions. Those guys could easily succeed in the NBA. We have to do this all together. We have to give him the support.
“I do know he had some concerns about that because there have been some really good coaches who haven’t had the opportunity to succeed, in my opinion.”
A whole, new world
Those others signed with losing NBA teams on short-term contracts, at least relatively in terms of the rebuilding jobs that awaited them. None in their allotted time was able to adjust enough to the NBA’s longer games, shorter 24-second shot clock, athletes with massive contracts, egos and leverage or an 82-game regular season when the travel seems never-ending.
“It’s apples and oranges, a totally different game in so many ways,” said Toronto assistant coach Bill Bayno, an assistant to Calipari at Massachusetts and former UNLV head coach. “In college, you’re worried about academics, recruiting, player management. Here it’s all basketball. In college, you have to keep it simpler. Here you can get so much more complex if you have a veteran team. In college, you have to be a dictator because you have 18-, 19-year-old kids, a lot of them come from broken homes that don’t have dads.
“Here you can’t be a dictator. You’re more of a manager. I always remember what Chuck Daly [the former Detroit Pistons coach who died in 2009] said about the NBA: You have to get past mad. In college, you’ve got to get mad. That’s a huge adjustment. It’s just different. You’re not going to figure it out in two or three years, especially if your team is rebuilding.”
Ainge has given Stevens time to adjust: The NBA’s longest current coaching contract, even if Stevens is being paid about half of Rivers’ $7 million salary per year.
“A six-year contract speaks loud,” Ainge said in July. “We understand we’re investing in him as a person.”
In it for the long run
Ainge invested in a man Celtics veteran Courtney Lee calls “a thinker, a film junkie” who, at age 23, quit a $44,000 a year marketing job with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, enrolled in grad school at Butler and accepted an unpaid assistant’s job under new coach Thad Matta.
Prepared to wait tables at Applebee’s for the money, he unexpectedly was offered a $18,000 basketball operations job when a Butler assistant resigned after being arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and a year later Stevens was promoted to full-time assistant. With an analytical love for the daily “process,” he tackled his work like it was the corporate world, and now compares his concise scouting reports to an FDA review of Prozac.
Seven years later and at age 30, he replaced Todd Lickliter as Butler’s head coach in 2007 when he took the Iowa job. Two years after that, he became the youngest coach to lead his team to the Final Four since Bob Knight in 1973.
And now, here in 2013, Stevens was about one year younger than Pierce and five months younger than Garnett when all three worked the same floor during a preseason game in Brooklyn.
“I’ve done the young thing before,” Stevens said, noting he coached 23-year-olds when he was a 30-year-old head coach. “The age gap is not that different here. I don’t think young or age is an advantage or disadvantage. I’m going to make mistakes, some based on the fact I haven’t been through it before.”
He is adjusting to a pro game that has different rules, roughly 50 more offensive possessions a game than the one he knows so well and athletes he must lead who earn salaries three times more than he does.
“It’s a big difference, but a lot of it is still the same,” he said before the Celtics played the Wolves in a preseason game in Montreal last week. “The games are longer and the players bigger, longer, better. But at the end of the day, basketball is basketball. The NBA readiness will come as it comes and you just have to focus on what you do and how it best fits your personality.
“It’s funny because I found myself early on focused on being NBA-ready and I found myself in the last two weeks being me. I think I’m just better at that second part.”