Jim Boeheim on Brad Stevens and USA Basketball

I grew up a Syracuse basketball fan — wore the high socks in honor of Lawrence Moten and everything. I lived in Sadler Hall across from the Carrier Dome during the 1999-2000 season, when the Orangemen started 19-0 and rose to No. 1 in the nation on the backs of Etan Thomas and Jason Hart. Needless to say, it was cool to talk shop with Jim Boeheim this week for a story I’m working on about USA Basketball. While I had him on the phone, I figured I’d ask him about Brad Stevens, and like most everyone in the coaching profession, he gushed for a few minutes.

Boeheim remembers well the first time he faced Stevens. En route to its his Final Four, Stevens’ Butler squad delivered Boeheim’s top-seeded Syracuse team a knockout blow in the 2010 West Regional semifinals in Salt Lake City. Boeheim better understood how that upset came to pass when the they worked together at USA Basketball, for which Stevens served as an assistant at the 2010 Men’s U18 National Team training camp and for the 2011 World University Games.

“He’s great,” said Boeheim, a Hall of Famers since 2005. “Obviously, we helped him get on his way. He started out beating us in Utah, but he’s a great guy — very level-headed, smart basketball guy. They say college guys couldn’t make the transition [to the NBA], but I think the right college coaches can make the transition, guys who see the game, think the game and understand the game. And Brad Stevens just really understands the game. He’s just fundamentally solid. I’ve worked with him at USA Basketball when he was at Butler, and he just understands the game and knows what needs to get done. He commands respect of players with his demeanor and his knowledge of the game. He’s a great coach, a really great coach.”

Stevens hasn’t worked directly with USA Basketball since. He was considered among the leading candidates to land the men’s national team coaching gig when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski announced he was stepping down following the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Managing director Jerry Colangelo tabbed Gregg Popovich to serve from 2017-20 instead.

“First of all, it’s flattering to even be mentioned,” Stevens said of the USA Basketball opportunity at the time. “Secondly, if they approached you, you say ‘Yes’ before they get the question out of their mouth. Thirdly, I would hire somebody else, because I think there’s a lot better coaches than I am. But I’ve been fortunate to be on a USA Basketball staff, I know those guys. …

“The key is getting the right guys on the team. They’ve done a great job of that. And then Mike has done a great job, along with his staff — Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams and Nate McMillan and Jim Boeheim, all those guys that have been on their staff — of making it about the team. Kudos to all that have done that because it’s really been a fun ride for all of us to watch.”

Once Popovich accepted the job, it seemed inevitable that Stevens would land a spot on his bench, given the Spurs coach’s reverence for his Celtics counterpart. Stevens did not serve as an assistant at the national team’s minicamp in Las Vegas last month, although C’s assistant Jay Larranaga did and reported back with a notebook full of ideas. Popovich asked every coach to come prepared with a favorite drill, and Larranaga arrived with one Stevens loves to run.

“We’re definitely stealing that,” Popovich reportedly told Larranaga, “so tell Brad, thanks.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Stevens land on Popovich’s staff for the Tokyo Olympics. The Spurs coach will be 71 years old then, and 2020 could reportedly be his swan song with both the Spurs and USA Basketball. Stevens will still be in his early forties and seems like the logical successor to Popovich for a position that would provide the Celtics with unfettered access to superstar talent. Count Boeheim, who has coached with USA Basketball since 1989 and served as chair of the Junior National Team Committee since 2005, among those in Stevens’ corner.

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