This is the fifth in a six-part series on the origins of Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Brad Stevens reached a fork in the road in 2000. Following his graduation from DePauw, he had a cush post-grad job at Eli Lilly, a billion-dollar pharmaceutical company that wasn’t going anywhere. But basketball never stopped kept calling, and Stevens wanted to go somewhere.
“I laugh,” said Mark Evans, a childhood friend and Zionsville High teammate of Stevens’, “because that fork in the road, I went right and I’m a banker, but then he goes off to the left.”
Again, you know the beats of that left-hand turn. Stevens was volunteering on a high school staff and working a Butler clinic when then-Bulldogs coach Thad Matta offered him an unpaid assistant job. He left his $44,000 salary at Eli Lilly to join Matta’s staff for free and was about to start working at Applebee’s to make ends meet when he got hired full-time by Butler’s basketball ops. From there, he worked his way up to Butler assistant, head coach and you know the rest.
This part of the story, this is about good fortune, about the alternate universe in which we never found out who Brad Stevens was, about where Stevens was when preparation met opportunity.
“You knew he was going to be great at something,” said Mike Howland, Stevens’ successor in DePauw’s backcourt. “He had that in him. He was the president of his fraternity and captain of our team, so he had leadership roles there on campus, so you saw that at an early age. You just didn’t know at that very moment that it was going to be in the coaching world. You knew he was going to be great. You just didn’t know what it was going to be when he was a senior in college.”
Stevens was hedging his bet. In much the same way now-Virginia coach Tony Bennett did on his father Dick’s 2000 Final Four staff at Wisconsin, Stevens planned to take advantage of an NCAA loophole that allowed Butler to carry an extra assistant by calling him a graduate team manager. Stevens would pursue his MBA, and if coaching didn’t pan out, return to Eli Lilly.
As legend has it, just before Stevens was about to begin his part-time job at Applebee’s in September 2000, he got a call from Matta offering an $18,000 director of basketball operations position because Butler assistant Jamal Meeks was arrested for allegedly soliciting a prostitute while on a recruiting trip. Stevens accepted and never did wear that restaurant chain flair.
Nobody in Stevens’ circles, at least among those I spoke to, had any inkling Stevens would get into coaching, at least not until he got the itch being away from the game at Eli Lilly. But once he got his foot in the door at Butler, once he embarked on that path, there was no stopping him.
“It was clear from the time he picked up a video recorder as a volunteer assistant at Butler that he was committed to it,” said Josh Burch, another DePauw teammate, “and anyone who’s in the coaching ranks will tell you the best part is getting started, so if you can weather those tough spots where it’s not glamorous and you’re not the celebrated coach of a small program and you’re doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff and you still have a passion and a love for it, then obviously that’s the key or at least a building block for having a successful coaching year.”
Stevens didn’t just weather those tough spots. He made the clouds his chariot and walked upon the wings of the wind. He couldn’t believe the schemes he was seeing at the Division I level, didn’t even grasp them at first, but he never stopped asking questions. That coaching staff at Butler, one that produced five Division I coaches, thrived on minutiae, and Stevens couldn’t get enough. Dribble handoffs? Loved them. Pick-and-roll coverages? Shoot them into his veins.
So, when Matta left for Xavier the following year and Butler assistant Todd Lickliter took over the reins, Stevens continued to climb the staff ranks. Even then, though, there were no guarantees.
Then an assistant, Stevens was scouting a regional tournament at Indiana’s New Castle High School, home to Hoosiers legend Steve Alford and the world’s largest prep gymnasium, where he came across his college coach, DePauw’s Bill Fenlon, and naturally the two got to talking.
“He’s like, ‘Yeah, coach, I’m going to do this for a little while, but eventually maybe I’ll just try to get a job like yours,” said Fenlon, a Division III lifer. “And at the time that made perfect sense.”
A month later, in April 2007, Lickliter accepted the head coaching job at Iowa. The Butler job opening came down to Stevens and fellow assistant Matthew Graves. Graves is two years older than Stevens and had been around the Butler program since 1993, when he started as a player.
Butler athletic director Barry Collier chose Stevens.
“It’s a crazy business, man,” said Fenlon. “Obviously, when you have the opportunity, you’ve got to seize it and do something with it, but if Todd Lickliter stays at Butler, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Brad Stevens right now. When you are a mid-major assistant, you are not a candidate for any job other than the one that you’re at.”
Graves is Exhibit A. He stayed on as an assistant under Stevens and worked alongside him until 2013, when he accepted the head coaching job at South Alabama four months before the Celtics pursued Stevens to replace Doc Rivers. Graves lost the South Alabama job last month.
While Graves embodies another fork-in-the-road possibility, he’s also representative of another one of Stevens’ great strengths — building a team of brilliant basketball minds around him. In addition to keeping Graves on staff, Stevens hired former DePauw assistant Micah Shrewsberry and later Michael Lewis, a pair of guys he knew from their days as Indianapolis-area prep stars.
Brandon Monk, who was teammates with Stevens in high school and Shrewsberry at Hanover College, remembers those early Butler days fondly, especially one fishing trip to Alaska.
“It was the first time I noticed Brad had really become an incredible student of breaking down offenses and defenses,” said Monk. “So much of Butler’s success was finding the niche in the other team and really taking that away and being able to articulate to every one of those players, ‘Hey, here’s the strength of your guy. Here’s what you’re going to try to take away.’ They were good at man-on-man defense, but they were phenomenal as a team defensive unit, and I think you’ll see that translate in Boston. He’s got Kyrie [Irving] playing defense — and well.”
There are a handful of Stevens staples. Attention to detail is one. Process orientation is another — the idea that you reach the mountaintop by embracing each step along the way; that if you win one possession, you can win the next, and eventually they’ll add up to one win, two wins, enough wins to get you into the tournament, where the process begins again. Combine those two philosophies, and you have another — an understanding that there’s always more to learn.
Monk’s father, who you’ll remember from the Steak ‘n Shake sermons about team-building with Stevens and his dad back in high school, was a retired gym rat by this time. He would sit and watch Butler practices from the sidelines. Stevens, who had taken the Bulldogs to the national title game and was considered one of the game’s brightest young minds, would ask Monk’s dad afterwards, “Hey, what’d you see out there?” He was constantly curious, constantly learning.
“He’s just an amazing leader,” said Monk. And not just because he grinds 80 hours a week, although there are surely those weeks, but because he delegates. “You’ve got to do things better,” Monk added of Stevens’ credo, “do things smarter, you’ve got to rely on a team.” Part of what makes Brad Stevens so brilliant is the people he surrounds himself with. Team over ego.
That left-hand turn from Eli Lilly led Stevens to Butler, where Lickliter gave him a book written by Bill Russell. In “Russell Rules,” the legend wrote of Celtics Pride, “It began with a collective determination never to embarrass ourselves,” a quote that formed the basis for a mission statement Stevens helped write called The Butler Way, which “demands commitment, denies selfishness, accepts reality, yet seeks improvement everyday while putting the team above self.”
Here, everything Stevens had learned in high school and college was coming together. The player became the coach. The student became the teacher. Brad Stevens found his purpose.
Part 6: Brad Stevens, basketball lifer
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