There are many reasons why you should always be kind to people serving you at places like Applebee’s, because one day, they may be the head basketball coach of the Boston Celtics.
The shock and awe of the announcement by NBA royalty, the Boston Celtics, that thirty-six-year-old Brad Stevens had been hired away from Butler University has generated the usual extremes of “he’ll suck” or “what a great choice”. In six seasons as the basketball boss of the Butler Bulldogs, Brad Stevens has been the held as the shining white knight of everything good about college sports. He’s captained a second-tier team, in a second-tier conferences (mid-major Horizon League and Atlantic 10) with second-tiered players he’s convinced to stay for all four years of college, scandal-free to consecutive appearances in the NCAA Championship game in the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Brad Stevens is a freak, by today’s competitive sports standards. He’s nice guy, with a nice wife, Tracy (more on her, later), calm demeanor, who just loves basketball and coaches his butt off in a world of AAU sleaze, and megalomaniacal multi-millionaire tyrant coaches. So why would a good ole boy from rural Indiana want to leave such a great situation to join the League Of Overpaid-Egomaniacs known as the NBA? The answer is thirteen-years-old and few people have taken the time to see it.
In the summer of 2000, Brad Stevens and his long-time girlfriend, Tracy Wilhemy, were two twenty-three-year-old recent college graduates knee-deep in their first real jobs and Tracy was headed to law school. Stevens had graduated from DePauw University in Indiana where he was a four-year letterman in basketball, his favorite sport, and was employed at Eli-Lilly, a major pharmaceutical firm outside Indianapolis. In college, he’d volunteered as a camp counselor for Butler University and loved every low to non-paying minute of it. A spot came open in Butler’s basketball office and Brad Stevens was the first name thrown around. Everyone liked the baby-faced hard-working kid from Zionsville who hit killer jumpers for DePauw and always said yes sir and no sir. Even moreso they liked his brainy, pretty, tough-as-nails girlfriend. Brad Stevens shuffled over to Tracy’s place and told her about the gig. Without hesitation, Tracy said “take it”. So Brad Stevens went against every good idea the rest of the world had for him. He lunch-pailed at Butler for next to nothing, wage-wise. He called a friend who was going to let him crash in his basement. He got hired by the local Applebee’s chain to make extra money so he and Tracy could get married later down the road. Then luck said hello to the young couple. A spot on new head coach Todd Lickliter’s coaching staff came available and Brad Stevens wasn’t going to have to argue with anyone about two for twenty coupons. He was a basketball coach.
If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt playing the mercurial Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, then you know how Beane and his minions changed the game of baseball through statistical analysis and advanced scouting techniques. Brad Stevens did the same for college basketball. Knowing small school Butler has no shot at McDonald’s All-American superstars like LeBron James, he broke down film, and got in rented Ford Tauruses and rode around the Midwest looking for gutsy kids, like him, but taller, faster, and hungrier. He perfected “The Butler Way”, a coaching and playing style emphasizing defense, efficient shooting, opponents’ weaknesses, extreme conditioning, and more defense. Seriously, if you ever watch Butler basketball highlights on YouTube, you’ll get tired going to the fridge later because you’ll swear there are two Butler Bulldog hoopters in your jock. By 2006, when Todd Lickliter bolted to Iowa, Brad Stevens was the unanimous choice to the new Bulldogs coach, despite being months shy of his 30th birthday.
We ask, a lot, of why bad things happen to good people, rarely do we stop and enjoy the revelation of good things happening to good people. Brad Stevens isn’t guaranteed nothing in taking the head coaching gig with the Boston Celtics. Their roster is in more flux than it has been in over a decade. Most NBA experts expect the perennial playoff powers to lose a lot more than they’ll win in the 2013-2014 season. But Brad and Tracy Stevens (they married in 2003. Tracy’s a lawyer and they have two kids, a boy and a girl) know that without taking the risk they took exactly thirteen years ago, then Brad wouldn’t have even been in the position to be running the Celtics, winners of an NBA record 17 Championships. Taking Butler to 2 straight NCAA titles against odds so large, Hollywood wouldn’t haven’t written the script, gave them attention and respect. This new risk may pay off even greater. Brad Stevens has a six-year contract worth 22 million dollars. More than that, he’s got a shot to prove more people wrong, and Tracy right.