For many years at the Kokomo Tribune, our April 1 edition carried an outlandish front page story that jumped to an inside page before revealing the “gotcha” line. The reader had been had. The story was a hoax. April Fools Day!
One of my favorite stories was published in 1962. After Kokomo won the boys state basketball championship one year earlier, the ’62 team went to the Final Four only to lose 74-73 to East Chicago.
Kokomo fans were certain star Jim Ligon was fouled on a last second shot in that heart-breaking loss. So, a couple of weeks later when April 1 rolled around the Tribune announced on Page 1 that IHSAA film showed Ligon was indeed fouled and the situation was going to be rectified. Ligon was going to be awarded free throws at the south end of Butler (Hinkle) Fieldhouse with only coaches, game and IHSAA officials watching. Needless to say, Ligon never shot the free throws and Kokomo did not win its second state championship. The cruelest of hoaxes was laid out in the story’s final paragraph on Page 4.
Wednesday afternoon when I heard the news that Brad Stevens was leaving Butler for the Boston Celtics, my first thought was of those old April Fools Day stories. Surely, this was a joke. Surely it was an errant e-mail, text or tweet run amok.
In 40 years of working in the news business, never was I as surprised by a breaking sports story as the “Brad Stevens decision.” Never has a coaching change anywhere landed a punch in the gut like this one. Not even Bob Knight’s dismissal compared to this. Hey, we all knew that was going to happen sooner or later, right?
I feel badly not only for Butler fans, but for college basketball in general. This team and this Butler/Stevens story was embraced not only by Bulldog fans, but by fans of all sports across our country. Now, his exit makes it like reading a great novel that ends mid-sentence on page 136.
This amazing feel-good story can’t be over, can it?
Here’s a guy who in 1999 as a well-paid employee of Eli Lilly, popped in the front door one day and told his wife Tracy, “I think I’ll quit my job and go to work as coordinator of basketball operations at Butler. Oh hon’ by the way, there’s no salary. I’m just helping out you know.”
And Tracy says, “Sure, sounds like fun. Love ya.”
Are you kidding me? Who are these people in real life?
Apparently, it’s the Stevens. And wow, did they make it work. In April of 2007, Stevens was named head coach and in six seasons, all the Bulldogs did was capture four conference championships (with a record of 84-22) and play in two NCAA championship games. Stevens’ 166 wins were the most by any Division I coach in his first six seasons, all this at a mid-major school that had no business playing before national audiences.
But it wasn’t just victories and championships that endeared Stevens to Hoosier basketball fans. It was the way he went about his job. His players went to class (even on the day of the NCAA championship game in 2011) and they graduated. Discipline issues seemed almost non-existent. He and his players said and did all the right things. Butler won with old fashioned team basketball and did it all with class. Never was there a hint of rules being broken or players getting special treatment.
The low-key Stevens was John Wooden-Tony Hinkle-Norman Dale all rolled into one. And each time he turned down a high-profile, higher-paying college job the likes of Oregon, Illinois and UCLA, Hoosiers smiled. We knew by staying at Butler he was showing his love of our state and its players and in his own way, perhaps thanking the university for that first coaching opportunity 14 years ago. We also knew Stevens wasn’t in the business merely to chase the bigger paycheck. It was comforting knowing he was our guy and no one was getting him — at any price. It gave Hoosiers one more reason to puff up our chests about Indiana’s ownership of the game.
Of course the Celtics changed all that.
I can’t help thinking Stevens will endure some long, lonely days ahead dealing with extremely wealthy, often spoiled players and their agents. Skeptical Boston fans that frankly couldn’t care less about his Butler success, will be in riot-mode if the Celtics don’t win big next season — that won’t be pleasant.
I’m trying to believe that it wasn’t the reported six-year, $22 million contract that made him choose to cross the state line. I’m also trying to believe that as a kid shooting hoops in Zionsville, he dreamed of some day coaching the Celtics. If that’s the case, how can we not be happy for him?
But Stevens has broken a few million Hoosier hearts this week and he’s going to have to understand that we’re just getting off the floor from that punch in the gut. Give us some time.
Dave Kitchell is the former sports editor of the Kokomo Tribune. He can be reached through the sports department.