For the first time in a long time this late in the season, the Boston Celtics hold first place in the NBA's Eastern Conference.

That's right. The Boston Celtics.

So, how did Celtics coach Brad Stevens respond to taking the lead from the reigning NBA champion, the Cleveland Cavaliers?

"It doesn't mean a whole lot right now," Stevens said at practice yesterday.

"The whole idea is to make progress and get better every day and try and stay in the moment. You do that whether you are in last place or trying to build up or whether you are in position for fighting for [playoff] seeding. Ultimately, we have been able to grow and get a little bit better but I still think we can play a lot better and that's where my focus is."

Simple. Yet, brilliant.

(Reminds me of the equally valuable wisdom Stevens dropped a few months ago.)

Back in 2013, when the Celtics hired Stevens, I knew they were making a great decision.

Sure, it was a risk. Stevens was only 36 years old, and unproven in the NBA. But he had already accomplished some amazing things.

For example, you might remember his remarkable performance as head coach of the Butler Bulldogs.

In the 2010-11 season, Stevens led Gordon Hayward (currently an NBA all-star playing for the Utah Jazz) and the Bulldogs to an 18-game winning streak, ultimately just falling short to the Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA championship game. (The Bulldogs lost 61-59, when Hayward barely missed a last-second heave which would have gone down as the greatest shot in college basketball history if it went down.)

Then, against all odds, Stevens led the Bulldogs to the NCAA championship again the following year (this time losing to the University of Connecticut).

Out of nowhere, this young coach had led a team that had never been to a Final Four to the national championship game, two years in a row.

I was impressed.

But I was even more impressed after Stevens made the jump to the NBA. And it had nothing to do with the Celtics' record.

What Real Leadership Looks Like

Last year, Stevens chose to step away from coaching. It was only for a regular season game, but that's still something you rarely hear from a professional basketball coach (barring emergencies), especially if that coach is young and early in his career.

Why did Stevens miss the game?

He traveled to Indiana, because he wanted to be there for one of his former players, who was battling cancer.

Andrew Smith, who played for Stevens at Butler, had been fighting the disease for two years. And although he had made significant progress, he had recently suffered a setback...and Stevens wanted to be there for moral support. (Sadly, Smith passed away just a few days later.)

As reported by SB Nation:

Stevens, who had visited him in the early stages of the disease, wanted to be with him in a moment of need. It's not a choice a lot of coaches would have made in the middle of the season, but Stevens considers his current and former players family. The Celtics know that firsthand and were respectful of their coach's decision.

"His players, his staff, he values very much," center Tyler Zeller told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn before the game. "He felt like this was something he needed to do and that family is bigger than one game. You have to respect him a lot for that."

"It just speaks volumes, and I'm blown away by it," said Celtics player Evan Turner. "I'm lucky to play for him."

This is what it looks like when someone practices what he preaches, when he truly puts others' interests ahead of his own. Here, trust and loyalty aren't just sound bytes for an interview. They're a way of life.

Published on: Mar 29, 2017
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