By John Denton
Jan. 26, 2017
BOSTON – The first time that Frank Vogel and Brad Stevens talked in-depth about basketball and scribbled out a few Xs and Os, it was in, of all places, the dirt at a children’s park in suburban Indianapolis.
At that time in 2011, Vogel was just becoming the head coach of the Indiana Pacers and Stevens was about to make history as the youngest coach in college basketball to reach two Final Fours as the highly successful mentor of nearby Butler University.
They had met just briefly once before the playground encounter, but both carried a mutual respect for the other from afar. Vogel was at the park that day with daughters Alexa and Arianna, while Stevens had son Brady with him. But in between swing pushes, they squeezed in some hard-core basketball talk.
``The first time we met he visited with (former Pacers head coach Jim) O’Brien for some chalk talk and I was there and `OB’ asked me to come in, so I did. We didn’t see each other for a couple of years after that until he had just had his second baby,’’ Vogel remembered. ``He was with his first child at the park and I was there with my daughters. He came up and I thought, `I know that guy. Who is that again? Oh yeah, it’s Coach Brad and he’s a really good coach.’ We talked a lot that day and that’s when we forged a friendship.
``As much as I can admire anything, that’s how much I admire the job that he did at Butler,’’ Vogel continued about Stevens. ``And then who he is as a coach, who he is as a person, I have the highest level of respect for Brad.’’
Still friends who communicate about a variety of subjects, Vogel and Stevens get to match strategies on the NBA level as head coaches of the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics, respectively. When Stevens was about to leave Butler for the NBA and the Celtics in 2013, one of the first people that he talked to was Vogel, who got his start in the NBA in Boston as a video coordinator. As if a six-year, $22 million contract weren’t persuasive enough of a reason to make the leap from college, Vogel convinced Stevens that he’d be a big success in the NBA.
Like Vogel, Stevens vividly remembers that playground encounter in Indy. He said he learned a lot about basketball from watching Vogel’s Pacers years ago and he admitted recently that he watches the Magic a little closer than most foes because of his affinity for Orlando’s coach.
``Our little kids were playing on the swing sets. We lived in the same general area of Indianapolis, and I just like Frank,’’ Stevens recalled of the impromptu playground meeting. ``He’s a good guy and a good coach and I’m happy for he and his family to be (in Orlando).’’
Vogel’s first season in Orlando has seen its fair share of struggles as the Magic (18-29) limp into Friday’s game in Boston riding a two-game losing streak a month-long dry spell. Stevens’ Celtics (27-18) have overcome some struggles of their own of late and pulled to within 3 ½ games of the top spot in the East following Wednesday’s defeat of high-powered Houston.
Vogel is trying to coax his Magic out of their slump, telling them that they are still very much alive in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. In part because eight of the 12 teams ahead of them in the standings entered Thursday on losing streaks, the Magic are just five games out of the final playoff spot in the East.
``Everybody is counting us out,’’ Vogel said, repeating a rallying cry he is using to try and motivate his squad. ``OK, everybody is counting us out, so we can’t write ourselves off. We can’t quit on it, we’ve got to keep grinding and keep driving, stay in it, keep going and see what we can make happen.
``We’ve got a group that can get this job done – even with where we’re at in the standings,’’ he stressed. ``We can get the job done, but we have to keep grinding.’’
Friday’s game in Boston begins a difficult three-game road trip that could go a long way in deciding the Magic’s fate this season. In playing the Celtics (117-87 on Dec. 7), Toronto Raptors (109-79 on Dec. 18) and Minnesota Timberwolves (123-107 on Nov. 9), the Magic will be facing three teams that whipped them soundly at the Amway Center already. To be fair, Orlando’s result against Boston should almost come with an asterisk attached considering that it was just coming off a nine-day road trip, while the Celtics had the previous night off to rest up.
Stevens, 40, has evolved as one of the NBA’s brightest young coaches by building the Celtics back into winners with his aggressive style of leadership. His Boston teams are known for a physical style of defense and for their forward-thinking approach as it relates to taking loads of 3-point shots.
Vogel, 43, knew after seeing the shocking success that Stevens had at tiny Butler that his style of coaching would translate to the NBA. During the NBA lockout at the start of the 2011-12 season, Vogel would often attend Butler’s practices and he saw a coach who knew his way around the Xs and Os of the game.
``There’s a lot of different ways to be successful in college basketball. Most of it stems from talent and having the ability to recruit,’’ Vogel said. ``That wasn’t what Brad did at Butler in terms of his success there. It was done with elite-level coaching, Xs and Os, game-planning and scheming. So even before he got to the NBA everybody knew that he wasn’t just a guy who was going out and getting the top-level talent. He knew what he was doing from a coaching standpoint and that just carried on as soon as he got in the league.’’
Just as Stevens had excited fans in basketball-crazed Indianapolis with back-to-back runs to the National Championship Games in 2010 and ’11, Vogel guided the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and ‘14. If not for the greatness of LeBron James, Vogel truly believes he would be the owner of a NBA championship ring now.
One would have a hard time trying to convince Stevens otherwise as well because of the strong feelings he has for the talent of his coaching friend.
``Obviously, you watch (the Magic) because you’re getting ready for (the next) game … but I also watch these guys a little more closely because I really enjoy Frank,’’ Stevens said back in December when he was in Orlando. ``It’s fun to watch his teams play, how they defend and how tough they are and how they get better. He’s really good.’’
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