The Brad Stevens Origin Story (Part 6)

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

Part 1: Brad Stevens, high school superstar
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

Before the Celtics visited the Nets last March, Josh Burch walked into Brad Stevens’ office in the visitors’ locker room at Barclays Center. The former DePauw University men’s basketball co-captains often get together when Stevens comes through the city Burch now calls home. Inside, Stevens was scanning the scouting report and game notes with one eye on his laptop.

“Dude, you’ve gotta get in here,” Stevens told Burch. “This is a great game.”

On the screen was a Division III tournament semifinal between Williams and Augustana colleges. The Ephs erased a 15-point deficit to take a two-point lead early in the second half.

“I’m just thinking, What are you doing. It’s an hour and a half before the game, and you’re like getting pumped up about a Division III semifinal?” said Burch. “He truly is a basketball junkie.”

When the two talked on the phone last month, Stevens wove Indiana’s high school basketball tournament into the conversation. He recited the schedule. Burch is from Michigan, but Stevens was fired up, because Zionsville reached the regionals for the first time since his senior year.

“It’s pretty funny,” said Burch, flashing back to 1996, “because it’s the exact same as when we were hanging out on a road trip sophomore year in college and reliving the high school days.”

We’ve revisited the time Stevens spent as a high school star, when his unflappability was already apparent; as a rookie freshman, when the talent gap closed and his basketball IQ took over; as a starter and sixth man in his mid-college years, when the gunslinger was born again in the freedom the court provided; as a senior reserve, when he learned the importance of team over ego; and as a post-graduate assistant, when his love for the game gave way to a life in it — when it all came together in a coaching philosophy that values the importance of each role.

“That’s what I found ironic about the way he played,” said Mike Howland, the former Division III All-American who Stevens mentored at DePauw. “I know he caused Coach Fenlon some headaches. I’m sure Coach Fenlon was pulling his hair out on some of the things Brad did on the floor, because he really was a gunslinger. He wasn’t a conservative player. I guess he has that buttoned-up image, but at the same time he’s a guy who’s not afraid to take chances. And I still see that in him as a coach when I study him and I watch what they do. He’s not necessarily a by-the-book guy. If he believes in something, he’s going to do it, whether it’s keeping a guy on the floor in foul trouble, and I think that mentality he had as a player, he uses that still.”

Stevens has evolved, for sure, because he seeks input from anyone willing to give it. In many ways, though, he’s the same kid he was when he was sending basketball advice back from DePauw to Brandon Monk, his former Zionsville High School teammate. It is this that separates him from most everyone else in his position — the Brad Stevens who never loses touch.

He’s constantly asking Monk, who got his MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, when he’s moving back to Boston. He was in Mark Evans’ wedding party and still makes sure his high school teammate’s family gets Celtics tickets whenever they’re in town. He calls Howland, now an assistant at Winthrop, to offer coaching advice. DePauw coach Bill Fenlon will fire off a text while watching the Celtics on TV, and Stevens will respond right after the game. I sent Stevens a note to tell him how much everyone appreciated his ability to stay connected despite being in a position that offers an easy excuse for not keeping in touch. He responded eight minutes later.

Brad Stevens is authentic. He will bring you into his circle, and he isn’t afraid to get vulnerable — to get real. It is this that makes his teammates, his coaches and his players so loyal to him.

“The conversations are as if it were just 20 years ago,” said Monk, who was both surprised and not at all surprised when Stevens dropped everything to attend his grandfather’s funeral. “He’s stayed true to himself through the journey. I don’t think he does any of those things other than from a genuine place. Those are things he’d do if he was the janitor at Zionsville High School.”

“I know if I called him tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, I need your help,’ he’d be there,” added Evans.

“I think anybody who knows Brad can reach him whenever they want to,” said Howland.

“I think it could be real easy for someone who’s achieved what he’s achieved at the age that he’s achieved it to be at a different point in life where you’re not so communicative either because you don’t have the time or just because it’s too difficult to maintain a lot of these relationships,” said Burch. “I don’t know a lot of people who have achieved what he’s achieved, so I can’t speak to that, but I know that he’s one of the most grounded people I know, and he is literally not one bit different in any way than he was 20 years ago. That’s not just for ex-players at Butler or the NBA or coaches that he coached under. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find anybody say anything bad about the guy, because he treats people so well. And there’s no real need to look at it more than that. That’s who he is. That’s who he’s always been.

“He can meet someone once or someone who’s a friend for life, and he really truly treats people the right way,” added Burch, “and I think that’s such a great part of his personality, but also probably enables him to be as successful as he is, because he knows how to treat people.”

“One of the reasons I don’t text him more is because I know he’s going to respond,” said Fenlon. “I kind of have a sense for the craziness that is his life, and the way he stays connected to people that matter to him is a real testament to the kind of person he is. He’s still best friends with his college teammates. Those guys go on vacation together. He keeps up with our team. If we have a good win, he’s checking. He’ll shoot me a text message, and you think that’s a little thing, but that’s not easy to do when you’re him. The fact that he values that stuff, to me, says everything that you would want to know about somebody you would want to play for.

“Even though the NBA is a bottom-line business, he’s not really a bottom-line guy. He’s a relationship guy. He loves the competition. He’s incredibly competitive, but I think somewhere in there, he feels like developing the relationships and keeping the relationships has a direct impact on what your success level is going to be like. And to me you see that with the way players talk about him. How many players have you ever heard badmouth the guy? People absolutely love to play for this guy, and that’s why. Even guys who are getting traded and moved and cut, somehow he’s figured out a way to make those guys feel valued. And I think the reason they feel valued is because they actually are valued. It’s not lip service. He actually means it.

“To me, that’s the thing,” Fenlon continued. “Watching how he’s evolved from a kid to a young guy to an incredibly successful professional and how that stuff has been cornerstone stuff with his personal philosophy and professional philosophy is something that’s meant a lot to me.”

This extends from Stevens’ professional life — where he counts sustaining cultural success, mental health and work-life balance among his greatest values — to his personal life, where his friends call him a great dad and husband, fortunate to have a wife, Tracy, every bit as grounded as he is. That she serves as his agent seems to summarize this aspect of their lives together.

“My guess is that he would tell you there’s a bigger purpose in life than basketball,” said Monk. “What he’s doing right now is leading up to a lot of those things. I think he has bigger things, not in terms of leaving or doing a different career, but just in terms of life is bigger than that.”

Fair warning from Stevens’ friends, though: Don’t get distracted by the sentimentality.

“The guy on the surface is so cool and collected, but he’s such a competitor,” said Burch. “And it just ripples into all parts of his life. That’s just what drives him, and he’s able to channel it in a way where you may not look at him on the sidelines and say, ‘Wow, he’s really fiery,’ but be careful how you judge someone like that, because you never really know what makes him tick.”

“He’d like coaching himself, because he was a competitor,” added Howland. “He really was.”

Beneath it all is the gunslinger.

“Our players know what they do best, and when those moments present themselves in a game, I don’t want them thinking about if it’s a good shot or not,” said Stevens. “I want them feeling great about making it. Everyone always talks about mechanics, shot prep, etc. Those things are important. But not near as important as a kid who steps into his shot with confidence. Certainly there are times where you have to have individual conversations about shot selection, but I approach those carefully because it’s very important that our players shoot the ball with belief.”

Always the gunslinger.

“I think winning is the thing,” said Fenlon. “When you’re younger and you’re actually playing, your emotions run a little bit higher. If you’re asking me if I’ve ever seen Brad Stevens pissed off, yeah, I have. But he was a pretty young dude at the time. And to think Brad doesn’t get pissed off now is probably not accurate. At the same time, he knows what his role is, and he’s not going to deviate. Being pissed off, there’s a certain amount of selfishness that’s attached to that, and he’s not going to deviate from what he sees as his role on the team and in the organization.

“He’s not going to give way to any amount of selfishness, because that’s what all of his stuff is based on,” his college coach concluded. “Everything he preaches is based on unselfishness, and that’s why you don’t see a lot of deviation off that line he likes to walk. He’s not going to get too jazzed, and he’s not going to get too down. He’s going to try to win the next possession, the next game, because he believes it. He believes that’s the way you go about it. You don’t know that when you’re 19 or 20. That’s shit you figure out over time. He’s spent a lot of time. He’s done a lot of research. He’s talked to a lot of people. He didn’t come at his personal philosophy overnight or lightly, and I think a lot of things, including his time as a player, served to inform that stuff. That’s what life is all about. You take it all, mix it up, and see what you come up with.”

What he came up with was a résumé as deserving of Coach of the Year honors as any in the NBA this year. And at age 41 this is only the beginning. This is the origin story of Brad Stevens.

Bonus: Brad Stevens, grilled cheese origins

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