The Brad Stevens Origin Story (Part 1)

This is the first in a six-part series on the origins of Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

You know the beats of Brad Stevens’ storybook Indiana childhood — watching basketball games on VHS before kindergarten, running home from elementary school to find a wooden backboard fixed to a post in his driveway, playing full-court pick-up well into the night in his neighbor’s backyard and fantasizing about a Hoosiers-esque single-class state championship.

You’ve heard of his rise from Eli Lilly pharmaceutical marketing associate to unpaid college assistant, to 30-year-old head coach of Butler University, where he penned a pair of Cinderella stories that ended in NCAA title heartbreak, and, eventually, to Boston Celtics wunderkind.

This is the story connecting the fabric of those two dream sequences, when the gunslinging star of Zionsville High’s last sectional champion found himself riding the pine for DePauw University four years later — when, unbeknownst to him and those who knew him best, Brad Stevens received an education outside the economics classroom that set his coaching career in motion.

Stevens will tell you he wasn’t much of a player. Humility, empathy, those were his calling cards, even then, when he was Zionsville’s point guard. But don’t let him fool you. He was a legend, at least at the suburban Indianapolis high school with a graduating class of less than 200 students.

“He was a star coming out of high school,” said Mike Howland, Stevens’ teammate at DePauw. “He scored a million points. He was ridiculous. His high school numbers were off the charts.”

A million might be pushing it, but Stevens was a scorer extraordinaire. He averaged 26.8 points as a senior and netted 97 points in three games on the Eagles’ way to their first sectional title in nearly a decade — an achievement that would escape the program for another quarter-century.

“If I’ll remember anything about him,” said Mark Evans, Zionsville’s 6-foot-5 starting swingman who was a class year ahead of Stevens, “it always amazed me how good of a shooter he was.”

“Brad had a scorer’s mentality,” added Brandon Monk, who served as Stevens’ backcourt mate at Zionsville and graduated a year behind him. “He took a lot of shots. He was a great shooter, but Brad was a really good scorer. I bet he was bigger in high school than he is now. He was strong, and he was very good in the paint. He was a very good post-up player for a guard. He was crafty. At times, probably after his junior year, he got a little fancy with the ball in his hand.”

In the opening game of Stevens’ senior season, Monk registered a (still) single-game school record 17 assists against Southmont High, all but a couple of which went to Stevens. “And I’m sure at the time he was still screaming at me not to pass to anybody but him,” said Monk.

Stevens rode that mindset to 1,508 career points, a record that stood at Zionsville until last week, when Purdue commit Isaiah Thompson eclipsed it in the final game of his junior season.

“It’s about time,” said Stevens. “Have you seen me play? Thank goodness.”

There he goes with the humility again. He also graduated with career records in assists (444) and steals (156) — marks that still stand — and a 3-point standard (138) that stood for 10 years.

“He was our leader by far,” said Evans, the starting small forward for Zionsville through Stevens’ junior year. “Of course, being a point guard, by default you kind of take that, but he took charge of games and knew how to pick a defense apart and was just a solid player all the way around.”

In addition to that sweet shooting stroke, another aspect of Stevens’ game set him apart — one you might suspect having watched him outsmart coaches with exponentially more experience.

“As we grew up as kids, to think through high school, he was so smart,” added Evans, now an executive at a bank near his hometown. “I don’t even have to say this. Just his basketball IQ. He wasn’t the most athletic basketball player, but his basketball IQ is far and above anybody else.”

Stevens knew what every player should know — feed 6-foot-9 Brian Flickinger for 1,000 points, too, because he’s a half a foot taller than most other suburban Indiana foes — but it was more than that. He saw plays two steps ahead of everyone else, even before he crossed half-court.

“That was the strategy of what he did,” said Evans. “He scored a lot of points, but he wasn’t selfish about it. He just was an elite scorer because he needed to be on the teams he was on.”

Zionsville wasn’t so much Hoosiers as it was Pleasantville. Instead of farmers, Sorghum fields and dirt-patch courts, there were doctors, subdivisions and that full court in Monk’s backyard that’s chronicled along with Stevens every few years — the one that, in Indiana, “was kind of like bees to honey,” says Monk, who moved near Stevens in the summer before seventh grade.

“It wasn’t long before all the kids in the neighborhood on their bikes were coming over,” said Monk, “and obviously Brad was one of those.” There were somewhere between six and eight regulars, all from old-fashioned Midwestern families, living in the sort of place where children roam without worry, where the boys keep each other out of trouble, where 99 percent of students graduate high school, where the athletes treat academics like a competition, too.

“There was definitely a race as to who was the top of each class,” said Monk. “We all kind of had that Norman Rockwell throwback experience of the family setting. We were all good kids. Not to say, hey, we didn’t get into trouble — probably more in college than high school — but by and large our crew was all athletes, we all wanted to play sports in high school.”

They played everything from baseball to cards, but there was basketball, too. Always basketball. It was there, in that subdivision across from the the high school, that Stevens’ love for the game was untethered. There was a core four — Stevens, Monk, Evans and Flickinger — and the guards often challenged the bigs. “That was some of our funnest moments,” said the 5-11 Monk, “when Brad and I would take on those two giants and see how many times we could beat them.”

Their thirst for hoop took them on long drives to Indiana’s basketball temples in search of pickup games. “Brad’s obviously the star,” said Monk. “I’m kind of just the guy who passes to Brad, but I remember basically getting kicked out of Carmel’s open gym going forward, because they got tired of us walking in there and beating them.” They’re pretty sure Jess McKinney, their rival at Hamilton Heights and later a college teammate of Stevens at DePauw, still owes them a pizza.

In 1993, Stevens’ sophomore season, the core four led Zionsville within a heartbreaking buzzer beater of a sectional title. Losses like that often led Stevens and Monk and their fathers to Steak ‘n Shake, where the dads would talk to their exhausted sons about “the journey, what it means to be in team sports,” conversations that “centered around family, team,” often past midnight. “My guess,” said Monk, “is Brad and I were soaking up a lot during those conversations.”

This is the Brad Stevens we think we know, the milkshake-loving Midwesterner. “After we’d play in high school, we weren’t necessarily going out,” said Monk. “We weren’t going out to parties.”

And here’s the side of Stevens we don’t see: “I would absolutely tell you, deep within, there’s an amazing competitive fire,” said Monk. “Probably some of our most competitive moments weren’t necessarily on the basketball court.” They came playing Euchre or Ping Pong. “There’s just that same level of competitive drive and will to win. He was very much a guy who could get on fire.”

Stevens and Monk were both born leaders, and with that comes a competitiveness that can border on confrontation. They knew what buttons to push, the way only 16-year-olds who spend their days playing basketball together and their nights sitting across a card table from each other can. Said Monk, “There were probably a couple moments that I probably shouldn’t share.”

Stevens was unflappable, though — something you still see in his stoicism on the sidelines.

“He never was a hothead,” said Evans. “He never thought that he was the best player around, even when he becomes Zionsville’s all-time leading scorer. You never saw that from him. He was very humble, and I think probably would do anything for anybody when it came down to it.”

But man was he a competitor, and his friends, his teammates, they were drawn to that fire.

“Growing up where we did, Zionsville didn’t have all the talent, but he had that underdog mentality, where overcoming those challenges and adversity I think led to an incredible mental toughness and strength that takes you to another level beyond, ‘Hey, I’ve got super-good shooting skills and a super-good IQ,’” said Monk. “There’s not a lot of people that I’ve seen who you just know inherently they’re special in terms of a certain drive. And you always want to link up to them, because they’re going to win, and they’re going to have a lot of success.”

It is these characteristics that led to the interest from DePauw. Because DePauw is a top-tier liberal arts college, coach Bill Fenlon seeks certain recruits. Instead of churning out NBA talent, he’s sending handfuls of players to Stanford Business School and Goldman Sachs. Stevens, a First Team Academic All-State selection, graduated seventh in his Zionsville’s Class of 1995.

“So, Brad was not only a really good high school player, he also really fit the academic profile,” said Fenlon. “He’s a smart guy now, and he was a smart kid then, and I think smart enough to know that he was looking for the full opportunity. He didn’t over-identify as a basketball player. He identified as a basketball player, but that wasn’t driving his college decision, and I like that.”

Stevens dreamed of playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana University but received one Division I scholarship offer — from Georgia’s Mercer University, coached by Bill Hodges, a Zionsville grad most famous for stewarding Larry Bird at Indiana State University — but Stevens opted for the opportunity and comfort of DePauw’s Management Fellows Program roughly an hour from home.

There, said future teammate Josh Burch, “Brad was certainly the most heralded of the recruits.”

The star had risen.

Part 2: Brad Stevens, rookie college freshman
Part 3: Brad Stevens, starter and sixth man
Part 4: Brad Stevens, senior reserve
Part 5: Brad Stevens, grad student of the game
Part 6: Brad Stevens, basketball lifer

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