Brad Stevens has done something not even his idol, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, has been able to accomplish. Five seasons into the job, his teams have improved every year.
Stevens’ Celtics now are arguably ready to compete for a championship. Vegas currently has them as the No. 2 favorite — behind, of course, the Golden State Warriors.
Popovich far eclipses Stevens in the Larry Brown Trophy department — his teams have won five championships, while Stevens is still in search of his first in the NBA — but the 41-year-old appears to be in pro basketball for the long haul.
Stevens arrived on Causeway Street on July 3, 2013, after putting together a special career at Butler University, the Indianapolis mid-major (FYI - he hates the term). Having recently passed his five-year anniversary in Boston, he sat down for nearly an hour to reflect on a range of topics — from childhood to adulthood to, of course, the Celtics.
That interview follows. Portions were edited for clarity.
Q. We’ve heard a lot of stories about you and Butler University. Talk about life before Butler — growing up in Indiana, your parents, how they’ve molded you.
A. Well, my parent are divorced, first of all. My parents got divorced when I was about 22. My dad is remarried. He’s in Indy. My mom is remarried living in Florida. I see them not as much as I would like but certainly regularly enough because they come to some games throughout the year and everything else.
Dad was an athlete in high school — baseball and football. He played football at Indiana University and was a big part of my upbringing athletically, taking me to games and coaching my Little League teams. He was a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. So, you know, every time a kid would break a wrist or break an ankle or whatever, they would just show up at our door, and he would take them in on a Sunday and put them in a cast or whatever.
My mom was a high school teacher at one point, but a professor in college most of my life. She taught everything from shorthand and keyboarding to typing to introduction to computer science.
Both are really prideful in the work that they do. Both, I thought in a warm way, demanded a work ethic and demanded to learn about how to put yourself second and go to work and try to be as good as you can and put your signature on something. I was really lucky to be raised that way.
Q. You were working when a volunteer position in basketball comes up at Butler. Basketball obviously was an important part of your life; Indiana and basketball go together. Did you sort of fall into that frenzy?
A. Yeah, I think that the first sport you’re drawn to that in that state is basketball, then obviously football. But it’s a big part of the fabric of the state. The saying is, “In 49 states. it’s just basketball versus Indiana.” As a kid, you embrace that. That was part of the community. It’s what you did on Friday and Saturday nights — go to the high school games. When the state high school tournament came around, it was as magical as going to a college or pro game.
So I played high school there, I played college there (at DePauw University), then was fortunate enough to hook on with Butler and Coach Thad Matta as a volunteer after leaving Eli Lilly.
I was 22 years old. I had been working as a marketing associate. I was fortunate enough to be hired before my senior year started, so I accepted a job at Lilly. I had done an internship there. It was a Fortune 500 company. A lot of parents of kids who I’d grown up with worked there and lived comfortable lives, and I thought that sounded pretty good.
Then, once I got in the middle of it, I decided I really wanted to give basketball a shot. A lot of things played into it, but competing was a huge part — having a scoreboard and being a part of a team were probably the two biggest things that drew me back in.
Q. Your girlfriend and now wife, Tracy, obviously played a big role. It seems like she was a bastion of strength for you, when you were making the decision to jump from corporate America to a volunteer assistant job?
A. Well, that was something she was really supportive of, and at the time she was working at a not-for-profit in Indianapolis but also dabbling with the idea of going to law school. I think the idea of me going into coaching and her going back to school, those kind of fit at the time.
The silver lining for her was that she went back to Cleveland, where she’s from, to go to law school for the first two years at Case Western. It was at the same time that her mom was fighting cancer, so she got to live at home with her mom in two of the last years of her life, which was really, I think in retrospect, a special part of these decisions.
So I worked typical young-coach hours, and she was working her butt off in law school, and we would drive and meet halfway, or I’d go there for a weekend, or she would come to Indy for a game and a long weekend. We just kind of made it work. But it was, looking back on it, not easy.
Q. Your connection to Butler is special. Can you explain “The Butler Way” — a term used before you became head coach?
A. The school administration, athletic administration, coaches, students and student athletes are particularly aligned in that what we envision as a great student experience and a great student athlete experience ties into the right things. I was really lucky to work for people who valued us just as much when we were not in the NCAA tournament as we were when we were at the Final Fours. It was a tremendous experience.
It was a tremendous learning experience, but I think it’s that alignment, based on what Butler would refer to as a shared set of values. I think every great organization has a way to it, a vibe about it that’s based on a foundation of a culture that has been built over time, and that was no different at Butler.
It may not have always been defined the same way. Tony Hinkle was there and coached every sport and was a person that obviously is in the Naismith Hall of Fame and one of the biggest names in basketball in Indiana. Then Barry Collier, when he took over in 1989, Butler had had some tough years. About midway through his tenure as coach, he put down the values and a vision based on a meeting he’d had with Dick Bennett. Ironically those values are the same ones that (Bennett’s son) Tony Bennett has at the University of Virginia now.
That meeting kind of led to a way of looking at it not only as, I’m going to coach guys from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but we’re going to make sure that we’re recruiting and prioritizing the right things outside of that.
Q. When I think of your Butler career, I think of national title games and Gordon Hayward. Can you tell a story about Hayward as a teenager?
A. The thing about Gordon was that he was a very good tennis player. He committed to Butler on June 1, before his senior year, and never played any basketball that summer. He only played tennis, and he got ready to try to win a state championship in tennis. Actually, I think he went far his senior year, certainly had a great senior year. I don’t know where he ended up in the tournament, but he did not win the state title.
Gordon started off his senior basketball season pretty slow. He was very good. You could tell he had a ton of potential, but it wasn’t what he was when March hit, when the state tournament started. He went to a different level, and all of a sudden he looked like the best player in the state, no questions asked. You could tell that we had something special coming to Butler.
Q. When you’re watching a kid like Hayward, what are looking for in projecting a possible college star?
A. Gordon put it together. He grew into his body. He was 6-foot-1 as a freshman in high school. During his junior year, I saw him play five, six or seven times by the time he committed to us on June 1. He was always growing, and then he does things athletically in workouts or in games that makes you say, wow, there’s a huge amount of potential there — more so from an athletic standpoint than necessarily a skill standpoint.
He’s a good shooter, he’s a smart player. But he wasn’t a great shooter at that time. But by March of his senior year, when there is extra pressure and there is standing-room-only gyms in that state tournament, and he is putting teams -- a really good team -- on his back against the best of the best in that state, and beating them all on the way to the state championship, that’s when you knew he had some of these physical tools and the savvy to be good.
But he also had the guts and toughness and all the things the great ones can separate themselves with.
Q. What about at Butler, before he leaves for the NBA, when he helps get to back-to-back NCAA tourney championship games?
A. He was a pretty skinny guy, so we worried about how he would handle the physicality of the game, and those questions were answered quickly. He did situations at the end of his third or fourth practice in college. We put seven seconds on the clock, full court; or two seconds on the side; or one second on the baseline, out of bounds, whatever. And in all four situations that we did, Gordon played through contact and made a play that got us a great shot on every one of them.
Whether it was him making the shot or getting someone else a shot, he was a guy that was unfazed by the physicality of a late-game play. That was another indicator he was going to be — he was going to continue to be — this guy that we thought, and had a chance to play in the NBA.
Q. Pro sports is almost 365 days a year for athletes and coaches. Today, you’re driving your son and his friend to a basketball camp a few hours from home, but I’m guessing there are Celtics assistants working on defending the Golden State Warriors as we speak. How do you find the balance with being a pro coach and the expectations that come with it?
A. It’s way easier in the pros. Every pro coach will tell you — and I get asked all the time by college coaches — the season is certainly long, but you know exactly what the schedule is when it comes out. So, we know when we’re going to be home, we know when we’re not. We know when our long home stands are, and we know when we need to really take a deep breath and get away and spend time with our family during the season. And you make that time.
I’ve never been the guy who stayed at the office until 2 a.m., woke up at 5 a.m., went back and never saw my family. I love to wake up with my kids. I love to see them off to school. My daughter still walks to school, and I walk with her on a lot of days. Then I’ll be back at night — as long as we’re home for dinner.
There’s always work you can do. I think one of the things I learned early in coaching is you don’t do much else. You do your job and you prioritize your family. Then, in the summer, it’s just easier in the pros. You’ve got a small, quiet time after summer league. A group of guys starts trickling back in. I may visit a town or two where guys are, but for the most part, I would say I hang out with my family and kind of take a deep breath and get ready for the next season.
Q. What about the college grind?
A. In college you’re recruiting, you’re on somebody else’s call, you have to be ready to do a visit at the drop of a dime. It’s just a different challenge, but there are great advantages to both, certainly.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of Bill Burt’s interview with Brad Stevens.