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.”