Brad Stevens' story isn't storybook
Young Celtics coach's rise to NBA ranks was forged in a fair share of failure
BOSTON -- The narrative has been carefully crafted: a trim, orderly, storybook ascension of a folksy wonder boy with a youthful visage that belied the ample resume he constructed in shockingly quick fashion.
Brad Stevens joined the Boston Celtics with impeccable credentials. He earned them, advancing his basketball career by demonstrating uncommon poise, dignity and maturity for a 37-year old former Division III player.
His college teams at Butler reflected his personality: disciplined, unselfish, with an emphasis on fundamentals and defense. Stevens is a basketball analytics disciple, using cutting-edge statistics to further educate himself on the game he so fervently wishes to master.
According to his mother, Stevens began watching game film at age 6. When he was a 20-something director of basketball operations at Butler, a weighty title that paid a mere $18,000, he spent 14 hours a day logging, categorizing, then editing tapes of defensive tendencies.
"Defense," mused Joe Nixon, his former DePauw College teammate. "Brad never played any defense. He was only interested in scoring."
There it is -- the first chink in the narrative. Brad Steven didn't play defense. Brad Stevens was, ahem, a gunner?
"Let's just say defense wasn't his thing," said his friend Josh Burch, another college teammate.
Stevens has been cast as an unblemished college basketball icon, a throwback Indiana Hoosier who, on his first date with college sweetheart Tracy Wilhelmy, drove her 1 1/2 hours to watch a high school basketball game.
"I told him it was a bad idea," said Burch. "The joke's on me, I guess. He took her, and she married him."
Burch and Stevens were seniors together, captains and best friends. Stevens exhibited a high basketball IQ, Burch said, but pegging him as a flawless prodigy doesn't begin to explain how Stevens arrived at this pivotal crossroad in his career.
"Everyone says, 'Oh, Brad was destined for coaching,'" Burch said. "Honestly, it's not one of the top 10 things I thought he'd do. It's easy, in hindsight, to glamorize everything he went through.
"But it wasn't fun what happened to us at DePauw."
It certainly wasn't storybook.
The coach of the Boston Celtics wasn't a star, or "a coach on the floor," or a numbers savant. He was a reserve who averaged 5.4 points a game in his final college season, who struggled (and ultimately succeeded) in coming to grips with a reduced role.
"People want me to say Brad came to us with a basketball in one hand and a calculator in the other," said DePauw coach Bill Fenlon. "Honestly, he was just a kid trying to find his way."
Now Stevens must navigate the pitfalls of the NBA, a different beast than the insulated college bubbles of Butler and DePauw. Stevens has invested countless hours studying the pro game, a process that began years ago when former Butler stars Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack considered declaring for the NBA draft.
Their coach contacted nearly every general manager in the league for information that would assist him in forecasting his players' chances. One of those calls, to Danny Ainge, spawned a professional relationship that eventually led him to this strange new basketball world, where coaches must prove themselves to players, not the other way around.
"At the beginning of the year, there were some doubts," admitted Celtics veteran Gerald Wallace. "But Brad had a plan, and we saw some potential, so we said, 'Okay, let's try this out.'"
The "audition" of Brad Stevens is in its infancy. While his fan base implores him to follow the rules of tankology -- play hard and lose -- his players suit up every night aiming to win. The results have been mixed, but the effort from the coach has not been.
"He's invested," Wallace said. "But he's still got some college in him.
"One of the funnier things is when he draws up plays in the huddle during timeouts. He draws them like we have a 35-second clock."
After a rousing career at Zionsville (Ind.) Community High School, when he led the state with 32.3 points a game in sectional play, Stevens received scholarship offers from only one Division 1 program -- Mercer, coached by Bill Hodges, who rode Larry Bird all the way to the national championship game as coach of Indiana State.
Stevens chose Division III DePauw instead. There, he surmised, he could excel in the game he loved while preparing in a competitive academic setting for the inevitable life after basketball.
There were highlights, like his freshman year when he dropped 24 points on Thomas More College. He was second on the team in scoring as a sophomore, but the team posted its first losing season in 15 years. In his junior season the trend continued, and Fenlon knew he needed to make a change. He turned to younger, more talented players on his roster.
Stevens' minutes were reduced, a decision he couldn't fathom. He had already matched his career-high 24 points in a win over North Park that year. In the season opener he had 14 points and 6 boards in 18 minutes. What was so bad about that?
This was not a chink in the narrative. It was a sizable dent.
"The thing we always talk about is walking that line to be able to accept your role in order to be a great teammate," Fenlon said. "You don't have to like it or be satisfied with it, and you should come out every day trying to expand it.
"But, when it's time to be us against them, if you can't accept it, you're a bad teammate. You are pulling us in a direction we don't want to go."
For a very brief moment in his basketball career, Brad Stevens was that guy. He was confused, hurt, and even a little indignant that younger players, who couldn't score like he could, who didn't know the plays like he did, were allowed to make mistakes and eat up his minutes.
"You think it's your turn," Stevens explained. "It's an ego thing. I didn't handle it well as a junior."
For the first time in his life, quitting seemed like a viable option.
"I was about as down about basketball as I've ever been," Stevens said. 'I'd like to say it was just about the losing. I remember thinking, 'Do I want to keep doing this?'"
He had already lined up a job with the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly after graduation. His future was secure, but it was a future without basketball, a reality that left him strangely uneasy.
College makes you grow up. My experience at DePauw was about as beneficial as any experience I've had. I've reflected back on it a lot. Because of what I went through, I know what (players) 9 through 13 on a team are going through.” -- Brad Stevens
He loved, the game -- lived it, really, from the time his father surprised him as an 8-year-old by erecting a basketball hoop in the driveway while he was in math class. He dreamed of playing in the Olympics like former Indiana star Steve Alford. The NBA was a foreign, mystical basketball universe, save those great Celtics-Lakers battles of the '80s.
"I was watching Bird and Magic like everyone else," Stevens said. "I guess I'm supposed to say I was watching Danny Ainge."
He never strived for the NBA, but he thought he'd thrive at DePauw. And now he was benched alongside Burch. They talked for hours about their predicament. If basketball wasn't fun anymore, what was the point?
"I decided, 'Better finish this,'" Stevens said. "If I don't, I'm going to regret it."
Stevens started 11 games in his senior season, but the key minutes were reserved for freshmen and sophomores. Stevens snatched his own personal victories wherever he could.
During one particularly contentious practice, Burch and Stevens anchored a second team that pulverized the starters. As the two took turns burying jumpers, they chortled, "You young guys tired today? You want some more? Should we go again?"
When Fenlon finally blew the whistle, Burch and Stevens exchanged high fives and wide grins.
"That," Stevens explained, "was our game."
As Fenlon motioned the two seniors to follow him into his office, Burch was beaming.
"I was expecting him to say, 'Great job today, guys. Expect to play tomorrow night,'" Burch said. "Instead we got, 'What the hell was that?'"
"Today wasn't a very good day," Fenlon told them. "We've got to get better.'"
"Josh and I looked at him like he was crazy," Stevens recalled. "We said, 'What are you talking about? We killed those guys.'
"That's when Bill said, 'You guys are supposed to be leading us, helping us get better. Playing well in practice is a good thing, but they've got to get better, too.'
"What he was saying without saying it was, 'Those guys are better than you. You've got to help lift them up, not tear them down.'"
Fenlon understood he was dealing with two extremely intelligent, dedicated and competitive players who could make or break his team depending on their demeanor. He said Stevens "sulked some, but he was only 20 years old. He was trying."
Burch was initially incredulous at his coach's message, which, he argued, was "counterintuitive to everything we had ever been taught as athletes."
"We were taught to give your all and beat whoever is in front of you," Burch explained. "We wanted nothing more than to hand it to those cocky freshmen who had stolen our minutes. So we do that, and then find out it's not what Coach is looking for.
"There was some bitterness, and a lot of anger. But it wore off in time. It would have been easy for us to send a bad vibe.
"But even though Brad and I may not have agreed to what was happening, we weren't going to let our feelings seep into the locker room."
At the time, Stevens tried to endure the remainder of his career. Now he views it as a turning point.
"College makes you grow up," Stevens said. "My experience at DePauw was about as beneficial as any experience I've had.
"I've reflected back on it a lot. Because of what I went through, I know what [players] 9 through 13 on a team are going through.
"It stinks if you look at it the wrong way. If you look at it the right way, you can impact others. You have a chance to show your true colors through adverse times. You can make a conscious decision to change things."
"It's been an unbelievable talking point."
You know the Stevens arc by now. He spurned Eli Lilly, took a low-level position at Butler and learned the value of analytics from Todd Lickliter. Stevens compiled hundreds of clips on tape decks, transformed them into 8-minute edits, then cringed when Lickliter came in, watched the film and said, "This would be more effective if this clip was before that clip."
Stevens would nod and retreat to his cubicle to re-jigger the edit, which was a 14- to 16-hour proposition.
"I had no idea how cumbersome it was to change the order of the clips," Lickliter said. "I didn't know because Brad never told me.
"He made it look easy. After a while, I thought, 'Well, Brad can do anything.'"
When he got his chance at coaching his own team, Stevens echoed the message he learned at DePauw of putting the team first.
"I told our players at Butler, 'I hate to break it to you, but you aren't playing beyond here. That's reality. So why are you so concerned with yourself?'" Stevens said. "It's a hard lesson, but I told them, 'How you handle your role on this team will be remembered by your coaches and your teammates. It will define you.'"
Fourteen years after Brad Stevens left DePauw -- with the Coaches Award tucked under his arm -- Joe Nixon, one of those cocky freshmen who proved to be one of the best players in DePauw history, views Stevens' contributions in a new light.
"At the time I was just a freshman fighting for minutes," Nixon said. "I didn't really care what Brad was going through.
"But, looking back, I can see how hard it must have been. If Brad was struggling with it, he never let on. He was always positive, supportive."
Burch is curious how his friend's experiences will translate to the NBA. When Stevens asked Wallace to come off the bench for the betterment of the team, it would seem a perfect time to share his own experiences at DePauw.
"No," Wallace said. "Never heard about DePauw."
The Celtics players, Wallace said, are willing to be patient as their coach develops his system.
"No one expects him to be perfect," Wallace said.
The Celtics traded away two future Hall of Famers so the rebuilding process could begin, and gave their earnest coach a six-year contract to grow with his team.
The narrative suggests Brad Stevens has come through his own basketball disappointments unscathed.
Yet the more genuine truth is those experiences linger underneath his neatly pressed suits and his perfectly coifed hair and his expressionless demeanor, even as Jeff Green launches a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Miami.
Stevens is not a perfectly packaged, made-for-TV prodigy. As his former college coach explains, "That's too simple."
It also sells Brad Stevens short. He not only endured his failures, he used them to thrive going forward.
The folksy wonder boy has carved out his own compelling narrative, chinks and all.
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