In a Cutthroat Profession, Celtics' Brad Stevens Sees Value in Vulnerability

Gerald Narciso@@geraldnarcisoFreelance contributorFebruary 12, 2021

Head coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics looks on against the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

When Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens speaks of people within the NBA changing the stigma around mental health, he now mentions Bill Bayno's name alongside the likes of Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan.

Bayno, an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers, resigned Monday after taking a leave of absence, citing mental health. It had been a rough period for the 58-year-old Bayno, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Both of his parents died in the past two years, and he also lost multiple close friends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The day after the announcement, Stevens was in his Salt Lake City hotel room prior to the Celtics-Jazz game later that evening, speaking candidly about his admiration for the longtime NBA assistant.

"For Bill to step up and say, 'I got to prioritize me right now,' that's enormous," Stevens said in a phone interview with B/R. "And that takes so much more self-confidence and humility and all of the things that you want in a coach."

As one of the league's most recognizable head coaches, Stevens is a strong advocate for mental health. He believes that Bayno should return to the sidelines if he wants to and is physically and mentally ready. He doesn't think his resignation should hurt his future job prospects and that any person in a front office who would judge him "isn't in the position they should be in."

He also denounced any notion that coaches who are open about their mental health like Bayno won't be able to connect with players.

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"I'd say it's the other way around," Stevens said. "There's an authenticity that the player knows is there."

While being open with mental health struggles has become somewhat of a safe space among NBA players, prioritizing and empathizing with coaches and their mental health has not been as normalized publicly. But behind the scenes, there are resources in place to support coaches, according to Stevens.

"Well, we talked about [mental health] a lot within the coaches; our Coaches Association has always made themselves available and been focused on that," said Stevens, 44, who noted the Celtics have held several organizational-wide education sessions around mental health in recent years and are even in the middle of doing a class for the whole organization.

"[We're] making sure that we're on top of this," he added.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

NBA coaches face intense pressure to win. In what many would argue is a players-first league, the coach is all too often the fall guy when things go south. According to a 2019 study from onlinegambling.ca, in the past 20 years, the NBA has the highest coaching turnover rate among the four major North American professional sports leagues. This season, there are nine new coaches in the NBA. A five-game losing streak could mean the dreaded "hot seat" and a consistent topic of discussion on sports radio and First Take.

"We realize when we signed up for this that there's going to be like an inordinate amount of praise and an inordinate amount of scrutiny," Stevens said, adding that the pressures are amplified during a pandemic.

"This time is really hard on everybody," he added.

By their competitive natures, coaches can be obsessive about wins and losses. There are long hours dissecting film or perfecting game plans in the practice facility office, the team plane and hotel rooms. For assistant coaches, the stakes are just as high, and endless hours could be spent preparing scouting reports.

The time commitment can cut into a coach's sleep and workout schedules and lead to unhealthy eating patterns as well. The constant travel, workload and stress can spill over into their family lives. Balance is sometimes lost.

In 2017, Steve Clifford, then the head coach of the Hornets, took a leave of absence to deal with health issues caused by sleep deprivation. The following year, Tyronn Lue took a similar leave from the Cavaliers to address anxiety issues. Stevens, who worked briefly in pharmaceutical sales after graduating college for a company that sold antidepressants, knows the traps of coaching and has methods to combat them.

"You could easily go sit in your room and pore over film all day," he said. "That's just not healthy."

During his 85 days inside the Orlando bubble last season, he maintained a daily workout and walking routine to help break up the monotony of the day. He would watch movies and call home to connect with his wife and two kids. Prioritizing a work-life balance had been something he implemented years earlier.

Stevens recalls the Celtics rolling into the Bay Area during a West Coast road trip a few seasons ago, when the Warriors were at their peak dominance. Boston was on a two-game losing streak, and the logical coach's solution to turn that around was to watch more film and intensify the game preparation. 

"I was like, 'I've watched Steph Curry and Klay Thompson play one million times,'" he recalled telling his assistant coaches. "Like, I watched them in college play. I don't need to watch one more Golden State game to know what we need to do."

Stevens and his coaching staff rented bikes that afternoon in San Francisco, riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. The next night, they defeated the Warriors.

"And it turns out that that other film session was not as important as us all taking care of ourselves," Stevens said.

As much as he supports mental health and is open to contributing to the discussion, Stevens is also rightly fiercely protective of the privacy of his players, staff and peers. He refuses to give specific examples of any mental health struggles within his locker room, citing confidentiality. He has plenty of coaching confidants (both in the NBA and not) who he can talk hoops or life with. Although he won't name them, either.

"I just call them because I enjoy talking to them, and it's almost like a 10-minute therapy session for me," Stevens said with a laugh.

As a coach with the fifth-longest tenure in the NBA, Stevens understands the inevitable ups and downs of his profession. He understands that his success is measured in wins and losses and that his Celtics are expected to compete for the Eastern Conference title. He knows job security can be fragile.

When he thinks of Bayno or other coaches in the league who might be suffering in silence, he is reminded to be easy on himself too. And that everybody goes through something.

"In the NBA, there's a great understanding [within the NBA coaching community] that this is really hard and you need to be there for each other," Stevens said.