What’s it like to play for Brad Stevens?

Former Butler Bulldogs Shelvin Mack and Emerson Kampen talk about their experiences.

Butler's head coach Brad Stevens stands with player Gordon Hayward during practice for their NCAA men's Final Four basketball game in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 2, 2010.    REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
2010: Brad Stevens stands with Gordon Hayward during practice for their NCAA men's Final Four game in Indianapolis, Indiana. –REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Before Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward were Celtics, they were Bulldogs.

Stevens spent 12 seasons — six as an assistant and six as the head coach — at Butler University before getting hired by the Celtics in 2013, while Hayward spent two seasons playing for Stevens before declaring for the 2010 NBA Draft.

Fellow former Bulldogs Shelvin Mack, who is currently a free agent, and Emerson Kampen, who has returned to Butler as an assistant men’s basketball coach, told Boston.com that, although it’s been some time since Hayward and Stevens last worked together, not much has changed since the group’s time in Indiana.

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“He’s still the same ol’ coach Stevens,” Mack said.

So what exactly about Stevens is the same? Although his former players have noticed he doesn’t wear a tie as often as he did at Butler, there are still a few things…

His demeanor. 

“He’s cool, calm, and collected,” Mack said. “You never see him cussing at his players, panicking, or making any outrageous gestures. He doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him. As a leader of your team, the captain can’t be frustrated out there. He has to hold his composure, and he does a great job of doing that.”

“He very rarely got upset,” Kampen added. “His poise in practice, in games, all that stuff is unbelievable. It allows him to think the game.”

While at Butler, however, there once was a timeout where Stevens was visibly upset to the point that he broke his clipboard during the huddle. Staying true to form, however, he immediately apologized following the outburst.

His communication skills.

“He’s a people person,” Mack said. “It’s not always about basketball. A lot of coaches don’t know how to talk with their players and connect with them outside of basketball. But with Brad, you can talk about families, friends, other situations, and that just makes him a great coach. When you build that relationship, you start to grow and you start to trust him more, and he’s able to get more out of each player every game. I think that’s what works for him.”

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His basketball mind.

Stevens is known for his attention to detail, his after-timeout plays, and his ability to maximize a player’s potential (e.g. Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner) in his system.

“As a player, all you ask for is for the coach to put you in the best situation to win, and coach Stevens is the best in the business at doing that,” Kampen said.

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Mack and Kampen’s comments echo what Celtics players and NBA analysts have said about Stevens. The foundation of his success hasn’t changed all too much since Butler. He’s still poised, he’s still personable, and he’s still extremely intelligent.

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“What you see is what you get,” said Todd Lickliter, Butler’s head coach while Stevens was an assistant. “He’s very trustworthy. He’s fun. I mean, he’s got a great sense of humor and relates to people well. But I think the biggest thing with him is there aren’t any games or pretenses. Who you see is who he is. He’s professional and sincere, and I think that’s a reason why he’s so well liked and respected.”

Other Butler nuggets from Mack and Kampen:

1. When Mack — as a prospective student-athlete — first saw Stevens on campus, he didn’t realize he was the coach.

“I thought he was one of the players on the team,” Mack said. “A.J. Graves.”

2. Stevens embodied “The Butler Way,” and added his own mantra to it.

Established by athletic director Barry Collier, “The Butler Way,” according to the school’s website, “demands commitment, denies selfishness, [and] accepts reality, yet seeks improvement every day while putting the team above self.”

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Stevens appended his own personal touch: “Control the controllables.”

“It meant having accountability, looking at yourself first, realizing the things you can do and you can’t do, and then controlling the controllables,” Mack said. “Every day, you can wake up and work hard. It might not always go your way, but you can control your attitude. He would always tell you, ‘Control the controllables, and you’ll be OK.’

3. Stevens was “the one guy that would always show up for the 6 a.m. workout,” Kampen said.

4. The team would get dessert if they were playing for a championship.

Players would always get to enjoy an after-dinner treat before a championship game, whether it be during a preseason tournament, their conference (Horizon League, at the time) tournament, or, of course, the NCAA tournament.

“We only got dessert if you were playing for a championship,” Kampen said. “Any time we were playing for a championship, we’d get dessert the night before.”

Kampen said he liked the tradition because it signified, well, significance.

“I thought it was cool. It obviously wasn’t necessarily a great motivator — you weren’t trying to play in a championship game for dessert — but ordering dessert off the restaurant menu just meant you were playing for something special.”

5. The team would play hangman before practices during the NCAA tournament.

Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who was also an assistant for three seasons at Butler, was the best at stumping the room, according to Mack.

“He’s a jokester,” Mack said. “He was always coming up with something nobody’s got, keep everybody laughing.”

6. Stevens is why Kampen (and possibly others) want to pursue coaching.

“As a player, it was so enjoyable to show up to practice every day because of who he was and how he coached,” Kampen said. “I’m in coaching now because of him.”

A pair of former Bulldogs has also made the transition. Ronald Nored ’12 was recently hired as an assistant coach by the Charlotte Hornets, and Alex Barlow ’15 is the associate head coach of the Celtics’ G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

Mack said he, too, is interested in becoming a coach at the conclusion of the NBA career. He is currently in the process of finishing his degree at Butler.

7. There’s a competitor inside of Stevens.

Mack and Kampen said Stevens would often play HORSE with his players or scrimmage with the other coaches during lunch.

“He loves to compete — and he talks a lot of a smack,” Mack said. “He’ll be like, ‘You think you can shoot with me? Psh.’ Little stuff like that.”

Both players conceded Stevens has a pretty solid shot.

“He’s a good mid-range shooter,” Kampen said. “I’ll give him that, he’s a really good mid-range jump shooter. I don’t think his range is out to the NBA line. He’s going to struggle shooting with those guys at the NBA line, but there’s no doubt he’s a good 17-foot jump-shooter. He’s smart, so he sticks to his strengths.”

If you want to beat Stevens, Mack said the key is to make him drive to the basket because he “just wants to catch and shoot.”

“You got to make him put it on the floor a few times,” Mack said.

But it’s unlikely Stevens will let that happen.

“He’s never going to play you on your terms,” Kampen said. “He’s only going to play you on his terms. He knows his strengths and weaknesses.”

8. Some food for thought… 

“It’s crazy to think they both have kind of relied on each other,” Kampen said of the Stevens-Hayward tandem. “Coach Stevens quit his job at Eli Lilly, and the next thing you know, he recruits [Gordon] who grows to be 6-foot-8 and be the ninth pick in the draft. Then, [coach Stevens] goes on to be the Celtics coach and Gordon goes on to be an NBA All-Star, and now they’re back together.

“Like, without each other, would either one of them be where they are?” he continued. “Probably not. I think that’s really cool and special. I think it’s a big reason why they are together now . . . In coaching, there’s always somebody that kind of is the first guy to do it, like how [Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski] has Christian Laettner. Coach Stevens’s guy was Gordon — and now they’re reunited.”

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