This is the third in a six-part series on the origins of Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Brad Stevens settled into a sometimes-starter, sometimes-sixth-man role on the court during his sophomore and junior seasons at DePauw — and a leadership role off the floor at the college.
As a player, Stevens was the team’s second-leading scorer both seasons, taking more shots per minute than anybody else on the team, and his turnover numbers again exceeded his assists.
“He had a little bit of a gunslinging mentality as a player, which I always liked, because I was similar in that aspect,” said DePauw teammate Mike Howland. “He knew the game really well, and he did what the game told him to, but he wasn’t scared to take chances. I remember that. He’d try to thread a needle, he’d make some fancy passes — he had some flash to his game.”
“He was certainly offensive-minded, first and foremost,” added Josh Burch, another DePauw teammate. “He definitely had a flare for creative play. He was only 6-foot-1, but he was surprisingly crafty down on the post, and was definitely willing and eager to put a little mustard on any of his offensive plays. A lot of that is probably from his high school days, when he was the man on the team and had the green light and was counted on to do a lot of the scoring.”
That didn’t translate to wins. The Tigers finished 12-13 both years, the first sub-.500 seasons of DePauw coach Bill Fenlon’s career and the school’s first losing seasons since the early 1980s.
“Those were the worst seasons we had in like 25 years,” said Fenlon, his wit dry. “We just weren’t very good, and he was playing. The problem is that his sophomore and junior year, we needed him to be our third- or fourth-best player, and unfortunately he was our first-best player.”
The team’s struggles weren’t for a lack of effort. Stevens took the game as seriously as something you love deserves. Even outside of practice, he constantly got guys together to play. It was then that his college teammates began to understand the intellect he applied to the game.
“He really saw the game, I think, from a different lens than most players,” said Howland. “He could see things. He wasn’t the most gifted athlete or anything like that, nor are most of us at the Division III level, but I thought he saw the game better than most, which is what made him a very good player. He was mentally ahead of it more than just his physical attributes.”
“There were certainly signs that he knows the game of basketball and he thinks about the game in ways that are different from you or me or most anyone who’s a basketball fan or even played basketball,” added DePauw teammate Josh Burch. “I think that is somewhat not debatable.”
Off the court, Stevens was flashing his leadership skills, too. He was a dean’s list student and joined Alpha Tau Omega, a fraternity of which he eventually became president. Nobody would give up a legendary Brad Stevens beer pong story, as hard as I tried, because nobody has a bad word to say about Stevens. Howland wished he had one to lord over him, and Burch, well — “Not one that I’ll have put in print, but like anyone else, he had a good time in college.”
“He was in a fraternity, he had fun, but he wasn’t that guy,” Fenlon said of Stevens. “He wasn’t the guy who overdid it. He’s kind of Mr. Moderation, which I think describes his personality now. I think he was a very serious student and probably a little bit gifted in that area.”
There were parties, probably, and studies, definitely, but there was hoop, too. Always hoop.
“When you’re a 19-, 20-year-old kid, you’re just trying to play,” said Fenlon. “You’re trying to get out on the court, and you’re competing for minutes and dealing with the ups and downs and the girlfriends and the classes, and you’re just banging away.” It’s that mid-college, in-the-moment mentality, same as all of us, riding the wave, no idea what you’re going to do with your life.
Stevens was a diehard Hoosiers fan, and Burch, a Michigan native, pulled for the Wolverines. The two of them took a trip to the old Hoosier Dome for a round of NCAA tournament games in March 1996. They were in the stands for 13th-seeded Princeton’s historic upset of defending national champion UCLA. It was times like these when they would talk about life, their hopes and dreams, and about basketball, how they wanted to stay connected to the game forever.
“But to say as a 20- or 21-year-old that I saw him even becoming a coach, I don’t think that ever even came up when we discussed our post-college plans,” said Burch, now a New York City businessman. “We both loved basketball, and we’d always be involved with the game, whether it was as a fan or whatever, but I can’t say that he ever discussed him going into coaching.”
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