Three days before Christmas 2013, Brad Stevens’ family piled into a suite at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the Boston Celtics’ first visit to Indiana since Stevens made the NBA leap from nearby Butler University five months earlier.
As Stevens tells the story, the Pacers were “really good and we were not,” and, “we got beat by 100.” It was a 27-point loss but surely didn’t feel that close. While many in the suite were there to support Stevens, others were not and the cheering for the Pacers’ lopsided win didn’t go over well with everybody, especially Stevens’ then-7-year-old son, Brady.
“There were so many people rooting for Indiana in that suite and my son turned to my wife [Tracy] and said, ‘I thought they were our friends?’” Stevens recalled recently with a proud smile. "From that point on, I haven’t been able to get him to root for an Indiana team other than Butler.”
Six years on the job now, Stevens has noted how going back to Indiana isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it used to be in the early days on the gig (though he certainly enjoys seeing the familiar faces). The Stevens family has roots in Boston now and Brady Stevens has already celebrated five local championships (two Red Sox, three Patriots). But with the Celtics and Pacers lined up for a first-round playoff battle, Stevens has braced himself for the inevitable trips down memory lane.
Boston visits Indiana Friday night with home-court advantage in the impending opening-round series likely hanging in the balance. The game ought to offer a nice preview of the atmosphere that awaits later this month.
Stevens is on record as noting that home-court matters in the playoffs and, well, he should know. After all, he’s been present for many of the Pacers’ and Celtics’ biggest home playoff games over the past couple decades.
“My dad [Mark] would cover a [Pacers] game or two a year as a doctor, so I’d get to go, and go in the locker room. That was in the early 80s, mid-80s. And I was at a lot of the playoffs games, certainly in the 90s with the Knicks.”
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The recollection turns Stevens momentarily nostalgic, remembering those early days when basketball wasn’t a job but a passion.
“I’ve always said the best weekends were where you'd go to a high school game in Indiana on Friday night, and you could be sitting with 5,000 people, then you’d go to an [Indiana University] game on Saturday and there’s 17,000 people, and then you go to a Pacers game on Sunday and watch the national TV game where they’re playing whoever — the Bulls with [Michael] Jordan or the Knicks in the heyday,” said Stevens. "Those were the best weekends for a basketball nut, ever.”
Stevens fondly recalls watching the Pacers surge to the fringe of the 1995 NBA Finals. That was the year of Reggie Miller's eight points in nine seconds against the Knicks in the East semis, but Stevens was inside Market Square Arena for Indiana’s thrilling Game 4 win over the Orlando Magic in the East Finals.
That was the night the “Dunking Dutchman” Rik Smits produced one of the more memorable playoff finishes, leaning into a free-throw line jumper at the buzzer during Indiana’s stunning 94-93 triumph that evened the series at two. The Magic went on to win the series in seven games but Stevens got a taste of what playoff basketball in Indiana could be like.
Stevens, who was in high school for most of that Pacers heyday, wore No. 31 at nearby Zionsville because of Reggie Miller.
“Any of us that were IU fans, we were all about [Steve] Alford and the '87 [national] championship. And we were all pissed at the Pacers that they drafted Reggie instead of Steve Alford [in the 1987 NBA draft],” said Stevens. "I’ve told Steve this to his face, we forgot about Steve really quickly. And we all wore Reggie Miller jerseys the rest of our lives.
"No, those are all good memories.”
Stevens is going to get dragged down memory lane a bunch over the next few weeks, but he has a job to do. He’s already joked about how his friends back home are unabashed Pacers supporters and often remind him of the challenge ahead.
Stevens thinks a few family members will bravely wear green in Indiana. He’d prefer Boston take care of business at the end of the regular season and afford his Celtics the benefit of opening in Boston, where the green will be much more plentiful.
Ultimately, for the Celtics to accomplish their biggest goals this season, they’re going to have to win on the road. And while Stevens fondly recalls those childhood trips to watch the Pacers in the playoffs, his job now requests that he fill other Indiana kids with some bad playoff memories.
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