WALTHAM, Mass. – While sitting with the Boston Celtics’ owner, Steve Pagliuca, during the 2010 NCAA men’s basketball championship game, General Manager Danny Ainge watched with admiration the style of Butler Coach Brad Stevens.
“As I sat there,” Ainge recalled, “I said to Steve, ‘This is the best coach in college basketball.’ He was a guy I had targeted for a long time as a potential great coach.”
Ainge followed that belief with a huge leap of faith this past week, signing Stevens, 36, to a six-year contract reportedly worth $22 million to replace Doc Rivers as Celtics coach.
Ainge and the Celtics introduced Stevens on Friday at the team’s training facility.
“I am absolutely humbled to be sitting in this room and looking around me with the banners that hang,” Stevens said, referring to the Celtics’ 17 NBA championship banners.
And if there was any doubt what Boston’s goal is, the scoreboard and shot clock all had one number lit up: 18.
Rivers, who coached Boston for nine years, won Banner No. 17 in 2008. He coached a contender in recent seasons but moved on last week to the Los Angeles Clippers.
His replacement has never played or coached in the NBA.
Can a college coach take the Celtics to another championship? Other college coaches have failed in the NBA, including Rick Pitino and John Calipari. Pitino’s 102-146 record in Boston is still a sore subject for Celtics fans.
The reason why Ainge thinks Stevens can succeed is interesting.
“One difference is his humility,” Ainge said.
Ainge’s subtle point is Stevens’ style is not about ego. He is a team-builder.
Stevens knows he will have to win over some veteran players, namely point guard Rajon Rondo. Stevens has already begun.
“As far as Rondo, I’ll say this, there is no bigger fan of Rajon Rondo than me,” Stevens said. “I talked on the phone with him (Thursday).
“I have so much respect for how he sees the basketball court, how he plays the game, his instinctual feel, his intelligence. I’m looking forward to sitting down and learning from him.”
That seems to be Stevens’ style.
“He’s a great communicator,” Ainge said. “I believe coaching at any level, you have to sell your players and they have to buy into what you’re selling.
“I’m very confident Brad can sell, and sell as well as anybody. We’re investing in a guy because he has great integrity, great character, great work ethic, great intellect.”
And apparently he knows how to coach. In six seasons with Butler, his only head coaching job, he led the small school to a 166-49 record and two trips to the NCAA championship game.
Ainge met him in routine conversations he often has with college coaches about prospects for the NBA draft.
“I always valued his input,” Ainge said. “He was a guy I trusted. I liked his feel and understanding of players, both the character and talents of players.”
So when Ainge let Rivers go to the Clippers, “my first phone call was to Brad Stevens.”
The call came “with the understanding that he hasn’t experienced the NBA yet. We’ll surround him with people who have experienced the NBA.”
Assistant coaches Jay Larranaga and Jamie Young are expected to stay on the Boston staff.
Stevens’ six-year deal not only demonstrated Ainge’s commitment to his new coach — “that contract speaks volumes,” Stevens said — it assured him that the Celtics will be patient.
Boston is rebuilding. The Celtics, besides letting Rivers go (and getting a first-round draft pick in return), traded iconic players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for players and more draft picks.
The Celtics have nine first-round draft picks over the next five years.
“We’ve been through this rebuilding type of process before,” Ainge said. “We all know what we’re about to embark on.”
And now Ainge has the coach he wants to lead the process.
“We could have Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Jerry West coach our team, and there are going to be some of the same challenges,” Ainge said. “Brad has the poise, the humility and the intelligence to handle all that. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: