Brad Stevens, one of the most successful college basketball coaches of the last decade, is taking his talents to the NBA. One question arising from that stunning move Wednesday night was: can the architect of Butler’s rise from mid-major to major player engineer a rebirth with the NBA’s most storied franchise, the Boston Celtics?
Yet another question managed to immediately overshadow that basic one. Is a move from college ball to the pros a step up … or a step back?
How you answer it places you firmly on one side of a raging debate. Which version of the game is “better” – college or the NBA?
On the surface, it’s no debate. The NBA is better in every measurable way – it’s the pros. The idea isn’t even entertained in any other sport, any other form of entertainment, and not many other walks of life.
You can’t tell that to a certain segment of America that is slavishly loyal to the college game. And that all came out at the moment the news broke of Stevens’ move to the Celtics.
Embedded in all of that, understandably, was a cold recitation of facts. The only coach to win an NBA title in his first job there out of college was … John Kundla of the 1948-49 Minneapolis Lakers, who had come off of a year at the College of St. Thomas in Minnesota (and four years fighting in World War II).
That’s it. The biggest names of recent years – P.J. Carlesimo, Lon Kruger, Leonard Hamilton, Jerry Tarkanian, Tim Floyd, John Calipari and, notably in this case of Stevens’ hire, Rick Pitino – combined for seven playoff appearances, two series wins and a .391 win percentage in 28 seasons.
Is it fair to condemn Stevens prematurely because of that track record?
Is it fair to say that the odds, and history, are against him?
It’s sure not unfair.
Yet as the reaction to the hiring poured in, a running theme, from fans to media close to the college game was that Stevens, coming from the pure, clean-cut, fundamentally-sound, respectful-of-authority world of college ball, has the challenge of his life dealing with the greedy, selfish, ego-bloated culture of the NBA.
To many of them, Stevens isn’t getting a promotion. He’s getting a prison sentence. Just one with a big paycheck to hold him until he can return to where he belongs, after the eventual firing.
The condescension, arrogance and hypocrisy of it all were unnerving, at best. Insulting, at worst.
Basketball remains the only sport in which the pro game is perceived to be highly inferior in many circles. The reasons given usually tap into the ugliest and oldest stereotypes known to humanity, certainly to American society.
The roots of it often come down to who is seen to have the power. In the NBA, in many minds, it’s not the middle-aged white men holding the present and future of their vulnerable, dependent, usually poor black players in their hands.
“It’s a players’ league,’’ as the saying goes, and when the comparison to college arises, the saying is not complimentary. The failures of the Pitinos and Caliparis of the world, then, are not their own, but the results of the evils of those damned pros who don’t know their place.
Does any of this apply to Stevens? He’s given no sign so far that he’s dragged an inflated view of himself, or the superiority draped on him by others, along with him.
That, it appears, is necessary for navigating the real, actual minefields of the NBA – namely, the depleted roster he inherits, the demands of management and fans, the legacy of the Celtics name and yes, grown-up players with grown-up motivations and far more leverage than the crooked college system ever afforded them.
Or, as none other than Phil Jackson tweeted about Stevens Thursday: “He has the demeanor of a composed leader. Hope he’s got the hide of a rhino for (the) NBA grind.”
It is a grind, especially for a first-timer. Decades of precedent prove that. But it’s not a ticket to basketball hell.
Don’t let any of the college game’s loyalists tell you otherwise.