- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

In between games, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was able to take in some of the hysteria in Richmond last Saturday. Stevens watched part of the game between Virginia and VCU in a sold-out Siegel Center, a roaring gym filled with intrastate rivals. The atmosphere — a small gym filled with a unified, boisterous crowd producing an emphatic happening — is the pulse of college basketball.

Stevens oversaw the Celtics the prior night during a win against the Los Angeles Lakers. He was preparing for back-to-back games against the Wizards starting on Sunday. That stretch of three games in four nights only happens in college during a tournament setting. It’s standard in the NBA.

When Butler played VCU in the 2011 Final Four, making the tournament end among the most unexpected in tournament history, parallels between Stevens and Rams coach Shaka Smart were laid out. Born six months apart, guiding small schools onto a massive stage, amicable and interesting, Smart and Stevens captured college basketball. Their success also produced options, which generated rumors. Where would they go next?

Like college coaches do, they each pledged allegiance to their school. Stevens had signed a long-term deal with Butler in 2010, following a prior extension in 2009. After reportedly being chased by multiple larger schools — from Illinois to UCLA — Stevens shocked most when he accepted the offer to take over the Celtics in 2013.

Meanwhile, Smart signed his extension, an eight-year deal which was inked in April 2011. He continues building his brand in Richmond, with his “Havoc” defense and sold-out home court. The Rams have made the NCAA Tournament three consecutive times since the unexpected Final Four appearance. Smart, who has been at VCU for 5 seasons, is now the name attached to rumors of openings — now or in the future — at blue blood college basketball schools. Though, he says of considering other opportunities, “There hasn’t really been a lot of that.”

Over the last 18 months, Stevens‘ world has taken a dramatic shift, from how he manages a basketball game to the infrastructure around him. Smart remains the catalyst in Richmond. He’s become so revered there a car jammed into the traffic surrounding Siegel Center on Saturday had a Virginia license plate that read, “SHAKAU” with a Rams logo in the center. In many ways, their worlds have split.

Lessons to be taught

Smart hopes the repetition of five points sticks with players who come through his program.

“Those five things are appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, teamship and accountability,” Smart said.

Saturday was the perfect microcosm of his college basketball bubble. Students filled in behind each basket at least an hour before the game began. The Rams had beaten Virginia last season and the Cavaliers were in the top 10. It was the marquee game of the day in the area. The Cavaliers handled VCU’s defense with ease in a 74-57 win.

Slumped and near-silent in the press conference afterward were two VCU players, Briante Weber and Melvin Johnson. Their dejection is not the kind belonging to most pro athletes after a single game. It’s the irritation of young men learning how to manage in the public eye.

Developing this side of his players is part of Smart’s job. As is managing other aspects of their lives. They talked about what occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. For various reasons, nine members of his roster were raised without fathers. Smart — who recently explained to CBS Sports that his father was rarely in his life — has to mold. He takes lessons from his mother in how to do so.

“She probably taught me about 75 percent of what I know,” Smart said. “Taught me about gratitude and appreciation. Taught me about leadership. Taught me about decision-making. She taught me about team dynamics.”

Stevens is managing players such as the notoriously hard-headed Rajon Rondo. Contract situations and trade rumors dominate talk in the NBA. Though, Stevens said, that element of development is something still offered by his Celtics coaching staff.

“We have a lot of young guys on our team and just like at Butler, we have guys from all different kinds of backgrounds,” Stevens said. “You hope that they know, A, that you’re coaching them, [and] B, you’re there if they need anything and not just as a coach, but as an organization.

“We’ve really put a huge priority on player development and off-court availability of our staff for them. It’s really important that we take that part of coaching seriously, no matter you’re coaching high school, college or the pros. I mean, at the end of the day, this is about people first.”

Changes to be made

The hardest part, Stevens said, was leaving the school. Which is different than the transition to the NBA.

Multiple things on the floor are different. Managing a 48-minute game split into quarters. The shot clock being cut down to 24 seconds. Travel, staff, contracts. Even the basketball strategy Stevens used at Butler had to be altered more than he initially thought it would be.

“There’s a lot more isolation opportunities in the pros, a lot less continuity or movement or motion-type actions,” Stevens said. “Then, defenses have to be a little different. You can be a little bit less complex in college if you’re all on one page and if your team really hones in on and gets good at it. Here, you’ve got to be able to change on the fly a little bit because good players can expose you after a while.”

Stevens went through that during the home-and-home set against the Wizards, which the teams split. Sunday, the Celtics led by 25 points midway through the third quarter. Wizards coach Randy Wittman pivoted and went to a small lineup. Stevens sent out at least five different lineups in an attempt to counter. None worked. The Wizards were within a point late in the fourth quarter before losing.

When he thinks back, Stevens thinks of the environment at Hinkle Fieldhouse. He also thinks about the players : “Those are the guys that make or break this,” he said — and those he worked with. Stevens tries to stay in contact with coaches, friends and players from his time at Butler. He spent 13 years there developing his coaching career and life.

“There’s always going to be a part of you that misses that,” Stevens said.

There is one thing he does not miss from college.

“I don’t miss VCU,” Stevens said. “I can tell you that. Because the last time I was in there, we didn’t have a prayer.”

Futures to consider

Smart said his family likes it in Richmond. He enjoys working with his players. Signing the extension was an easy decision.

“Just trying to build a program, make it better each day,” Smart said.

If VCU makes the NCAA tournament this season — and that’s in question after a 5-3 start — Smart will again be part of the offseason rumor mill. Barring a collapse, he will most likely be embedded in it. He’ll have to look at his thriving program, all the relationships and consider the options. Smart said like anyone, he consults with family and loved ones when important decisions are to be made. What would Stevens tell him?

“Do what you want,” Stevens said. “Continue to invest in the people you’re with, and one of the things I’ve tried to do is maintain contact with all the people that I coached or worked with. Especially the players.

“At every level, they’re the ones responsible for ultimately, whether your team is any good. Obviously, there’s a lot of things that can break up a team. Good players make good teams and good players are the ones that win together.

“I don’t get too caught up in the speculation because I think that, hey, he’s going to do what he wants to do, everybody’s going to do what they want to do. I don’t really judge that one way or another. I’ve always admired him. He’s a good friend of mine. Whatever he chooses to do, it will be right for he and his family. He’s invested a lot in VCU. I know they’ve invested a lot in him. That’s a really hard call.”

Smart’s team is on a long break after the Virginia game. It has finals to contend with before resuming non-conference play.

Done with the Wizards, the Celtics remained on the road. They play the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday night, before playing at home Friday and cranking out four more games next week.

The 2011 Final Four in Houston was where Smart and Stevens became intertwined in the public eye. Three years later, even the basketball they use is different.

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