Those proverbial fireworks Wyc Grousbeck likes to talk about – the green-and-white kind -- lit up the sky above TD Garden a day before the Fourth of July last summer.
When word came year ago Thursday that the Celtics had hired Brad Stevens as head coach, didn’t the news seem to come out of nowhere?
Danny Ainge was a stealth master in convincing the Butler wunderkind, positioned to eventually have any coaching job he wanted in college basketball, to come to Boston and the professional ranks as Doc Rivers’s replacement.
It was unexpected, and it was inspired, one of those moves that makes you go, “Whoa, what a brilliant idea,” then sends you off to think of possibilities that you’d never even have known to consider before.
For me, the news didn’t just come out of nowhere. The word took even longer than that to arrive, for at the time I was roughly 120 miles east of nowhere, in lovely, secluded Eastport, Maine, a skimmed rock away from Canada, a seven-hour trip from Boston, and an infinitely greater distance away in terms of technology.
Save for the library, the bakery, and a few other random wi-fi hotspots – I’ve found that the parking lot next to the bank is a good spot to check your fantasy baseball results -- the internet is pretty much a sporadic rumor in Eastport.
Which is how it should be. It’s a getaway from sports radio blather and Twitter trolls and the pathetic Red Sox and all of that. But it also means you’re going to have some catching up to do when you point the compass west again.
So it was that last year, during our Fourth of July Eastport escape to visit lifelong friends – family, really – of my wife’s, that I missed out on two Boston sports blockbusters:
The Bruins’ trade of Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars.
And the Celtics’ hiring of Stevens.
I didn’t find out about the Seguin deal until later, as we closed in on the metropolis of Bangor. But the news of the Stevens hiring actually arrived in a most modern way while we were still in Eastport: a text from a buddy showed up on my phone, in serendipitous unity with a random spot of wi-fi.
Not that the text offered the detail I needed.
“Brad Stevens!” it read.
Two words, one name, and initially for me, zero clue.
“Brad Stevens? Yes. I like him too. Outstanding coach. Looks like an earnest freshman on his first day on campus. If Hayward’s shot is recalibrated by quarter-inch or that lefty post player could make a five-footer, he’d have pulled off one of the great feats in college bask … WAIT. HOLY $*#*#*@, AINGE HIRED BRAD STEVENS TO REPLACE DOC?”
The realization that Ainge went for the bright young college coach rather than some Adelman-level NBA retread left your head spinning. It was bold and brilliant and thoroughly a Danny Ainge thing to do, one of those reasons that anyone with any context and awareness of the difficulty of building or rebuilding an NBA team appreciates the job he has done with the Celtics.
He leaves no avenue unexplored, and he’ll build his own road if necessary.
Stevens was clearly a rising coaching star – one who had already risen, really, having made two national title games and posting a .772 winning percentage in eight years at Butler. He seemed in line to get any coaching job of his choosing down the road.
It’s just that everyone figured it would be a college coaching job.
Hiring a college coach to take over an NBA team is risky business – the last time the Celtics went down that route, Rick Pitino ended up making the negativity in this town seem entirely justified, even quaint. He was a slippery, ego-maniacal punch-line, better suited to the college game, where coaches are chronically revered by the likes of Dick Vitale and a roster mistake can be corrected with the revoking of scholarship rather than requiring the expertise of a salary-cap guru. (Though some programs probably do require one.)
In a year on the job, Stevens has proven the opposite of Pitino. He communicates with plain-spoken candor, which busts right through an NBA player's b.s. detector. His knowledge, work ethic, and innovative touches helped him win over a roster of veterans who could have easily taken divergent paths early in the season.
He made some mistakes in Year 1, but he does not require the reminder from us; he keeps a list of them himself. And his biggest mistake may have been adapting too fast and well; had the Celtics lost a few more along the way, they probably would have ended up with a higher draft pick. But no, Stevens had to coach Jordan Crawford into playing like a capable point guard for a couple of weeks.
Hiring Stevens – along with trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, of course – brought to an end the New Big Three era and signaled a new direction. That direction remains as fluid as the plot of a Choose Your Own Adventure book; the Kevin Love rumors will not fade. But a glimpse at the current roster, with newcomers Marcus Smart and James Young joining recent first-round picks Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, sure suggests a youth movement is underway. Maybe they’re just assets. But while they’re here, I trust Stevens to mold them into a team.
I can’t think of a better coach anywhere to lead this rebuild – yes, even you, Jason Kidd -- and it’s a credit to Ainge for thinking of Stevens, the presumed college lifer, when it came time to replace Rivers, the quintessential professional coach.
Stevens is familiar with the generation of players coming into the NBA, and with a six-year deal, he has the security that most coaches in a rebuilding situation do not. I trust that he had input on Smart and Young, that he is working in unison with Ainge to select the right players for that next great Celtics team, his team.
No, those fireworks the owner promised haven’t happened yet. But a year ago, they came out of nowhere, finding even those of us who situated east of nowhere. In terms of impact on the franchise, there isn’t much Danny Ainge can do over the next few weeks that would trump his master move last summer: convincing Brad Stevens to leave Butler.
Hell, I’ll admit it: Any fear – and there was hardly any at all -- that Stevens would struggle to adjust to the pro game was quickly boxed out by the worry that he’d return to an irresistible college gig before his work here is done.
Stay put for a few more years, Coach K – maybe another decade, if you could.
Doc was here 10 years, which might as well be 100 years in NBA terms. Here’s hoping Stevens has such a run. And if it’s not too much to ask -- or too far in the future to consider – here’s to building on Doc’s banner count, as well. Stevens left college to coach the best. Someday, he will.