Brad Stevens has been a head basketball coach since 2007. Over that span, he’s developed a few key philosophies—beliefs that have been honed through the years and helped his teams, first at Butler University and now with the Boston Celtics, repeatedly outperform expectations.
On defense, his teams hound the ball. On offense, they move it constantly and hunt for three-pointers. Also: “I try not to schedule too many meetings,” Stevens said recently. “That’s one of the things I learned in corporate America—that you can spend your days having meetings and never actually have time to work.”
This isn’t a lesson Stevens picked up secondhand. Basketball may have always been his dream, but for one nine-month stint, following his college graduation and before he became a wunderkind basketball coach and the leader of the team many experts peg as the greatest threat to the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, it wasn’t his job. Stevens, it turns out, was once just another drudge in khakis trying to navigate his way through a cubicle-confined 9-to-5 job.
“It was more like 7 to 4:30,” Stevens, now 41, recalled of his brief spell with Fortune 500 pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. “The hours were a little flexible, but you definitely put them in.”
Stevens grew up in Zionsville, Indiana, a midsized town 20 miles north of Ely Lilly’s 12-story corporate headquarters in Indianapolis. Throughout his childhood, Stevens had witnessed dozens of neighbors build new houses and then retire thanks to 30-year careers at Eli Lilly, one of Indiana’s largest employers.
Stevens’ first hands-on experience with the company came during a summer internship prior to his senior year at DePauw College. As a senior, Stevens, along with a number of his classmates, had been relegated to a reserve role on the basketball team (which, not so coincidentally, played its home games in the Lilly Center). His coach, Bill Fenlon, felt that after two straight losing seasons, the group would be better served building around a newer batch of recruits.
The demotion shook Stevens. At one point, he considered quitting. He was a former high school star—he averaged 26.8 points per game as a senior at Zionsville Community High School and had rejected a Division I offer from Mercer to attend and play Division III basketball for Fenlon. Now, he was being benched?
Around that time, Stevens experienced his first taste of what life in a corporate office might look like. Not surprisingly, he impressed those above him.
“Sometimes you have interns come through in the summer and struggle, but he always seemed prepared and confident,” said Pat Bruen, a former Eli Lilly senior director for strategic pricing. “He didn’t get flustered even if he was dealing with something he didn’t know. He was a hard-working, serious kid. Basically a younger version of what you see now.”
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Stevens returned to DePauw’s leafy Greencastle, Indiana, campus that fall with an offer to join Eli Lilly full time the following year. For Indiana kids not blessed with Larry Bird’s jumper, this was the dream. Or at least one version of it.
“He toyed around with a few other job ideas that year, but I think all along he knew he was going to take that offer,” Matt Broughton, a friend and Stevens’ former college teammate, said. “Around here Lilly has a great reputation. If you get that sort of opportunity right after college, it’s a no-brainer.”
Still, Stevens was torn. Was that really the life he wanted? He spoke to Fenlon, who told him there is no harm in trying out corporate life. He reminded Stevens that he was only 23 and could always leave if he didn’t like the job.
“You have a great degree”—economics, along with a membership in DePauw’s prestigious Management Fellows program—”and this will be a great experience,” Fenlon recalled saying. “No matter what happens you’ll be fine.”
Stevens accepted the offer. (“It would have been a mistake not to,” he said.) It paid about $44,000 a year. He and two friends moved into a three-bedroom, $1,200-a-month duplex in Broad Ripple Village, one of Indianapolis’ seven designated cultural districts. The trio shared a living room wall with a family next door and furnished the place with hand-me-down furniture.
There was a kitchen from Stevens’ old house. Brian Flickinger, one of Stevens’ roommates, supplied some couches from his mom’s basement. On weekday mornings, the trio would stagger their wake-up times so they could share the house’s lone shower.
“The place was a dump,” Flickinger said. “It was, like, one step above a college dorm. We did have a vacuum cleaner, though.”
At Lilly, Stevens’ proficiency with numbers—a tool he’d utilize later on in his coaching career—was immediately put to use.
“The job was twofold,” he said. “I was in charge of metrics and incentives for account executives in marketing, and then I was put in charge of setting up national meetings for the group of people that account executives called.”
In other words, his days were mostly spent staring at rows of numbers dotting his computer screen.
“He had a lot of spreadsheets,” Flickinger said. “We’d be sitting at home watching basketball and he’d have his laptop open going over them.”
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Occasionally Stevens’ superiors would free him from his cubicle (which, fortunately for him, did face the window). He took one trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he stood in front of a PowerPoint presentation and addressed nearly 400 Eli Lilly sales representatives about employee compensation. There was another trip to Minnesota and another to La Jolla, California. But usually, Stevens would return to his apartment early in the evening and spend his nights with his friends.
There were regular trips to Old Pro’s Table sports bar, where they’d down pitchers of draft beer and plates of cheeseburgers, play Ms. Pac-Man and watch Reggie Miller and the Pacers run circles around helpless opponents. Other nights, they’d stay in and play Texas Hold’em and Seven Card Draw. “I enjoyed playing cards with my friends,” Stevens said.
Sometimes, they’d drive eight miles south and watch the Indianapolis Indians, who were then the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. They hosted a party that New Year’s Eve to welcome in the new century.
“I remember Brad celebrating by wearing those funny ‘Year 2000′ glasses,” Jon Klinginsmith, Stevens’ third roommate and DePauw classmate, said.
But Stevens spent most of his time outside the office playing basketball. And coaching basketball. And studying basketball. He served as a volunteer assistant coach at nearby Carmel High School and also helped out a local AAU team.
On nights when he wasn’t coaching or scouting high school kids, he’d call up Broughton and Flickinger, pick them up in his run-down maroon Toyota Camry—”That thing was not new,” Broughton recalled—and drive over to Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, or the Carmel gym, or some random court that he’d heard about from a friend. “Brad,” said Broughton, “knew every open gym in the area.”
Stevens also signed up for Lilly’s corporate basketball league. He had a choice between playing in the non-competitive or the competitive division. He chose the latter, which featured a number of one-time college players, as well as former NBA guard Scott Haffner.
Stevens’ ability to score was a welcomed addition to the league. But when it came to his playing style, well, “one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about his teams (as a coach) is how they’re not necessarily a reflection of him as a player,” Broughton said while laughing. “And Brad would be the first to tell you that.” In other words, Stevens was a shoot-first, pass-second, defense-not-even-third type of player. His Lilly teammates sometimes felt obligated to remind him there were other talented players on the floor.
“He was definitely a gunner,” Bruen, also a regular participant in the Lilly games, recalled. “There were a few times we had to tell him to start passing.”
But Stevens could never quite surrender himself to a life that didn’t revolve around basketball. In April 2000, Butler head basketball coach Barry Collier left for a job at the University of Nebraska. Butler promoted an assistant named Thad Matta to take his place. Stevens had met Matta the previous summer while working for a youth basketball camp—Stevens coached and also handed out pizza and water. The two stayed in touch throughout the year. After Matta’s promotion, Stevens reached out to him and said he was interested in coaching full time. Matta offered Stevens a job as a volunteer assistant. The position was unpaid.
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Stevens wrestled with the decision. He consulted with friends and family. He polled colleagues and superiors. While resting on the sideline following a Lilly corporate league game, he told them that he was leaning toward leaving.
“None of us were surprised,” Broughton said. “Money’s never been the thing that motivates him.” Stevens left Lilly late in the spring, moved out of his apartment—”The only thing we were worried about was whether we’d have a roommate that could pay rent,” Klinginsmith said—and began searching for side gigs to help pay the bills.
He interviewed for a bunch of jobs waiting tables. “I couldn’t get any of them,” Stevens said. “I think everybody looked at me and wondered why I left Lilly. They assumed there was something wrong.”
Eventually, he did find one food-service establishment that deemed him hirable: Applebee’s. He showed up that fall for his first day of training. That same day, Stevens said he received a call from Matta. He’d fired an assistant coach and wanted to know if Stevens was interested in becoming the team’s director of basketball operations, a full-time position that paid $18,000 a year.
Stevens accepted the job, spending seven seasons moving up the Butler bench before he was named head coach in 2007, despite being only 30 years old. He led Butler to the school’s only appearances in the national championship game in 2010 and 2011 before being hired to coach the Celtics in 2013.
Over the past five years, he has grown into one of the top minds and tacticians in the NBA. Every now and then, he refers back to his years poring over spreadsheets of pharmaceutical data. Mostly, though, Stevens prefers to leave his cubicle days behind him.
“I don’t talk much about those years,” he said, even if those who experienced it with him still do.