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