Indiana natives Micah Shrewsberry and Brad Stevens share an unbreakable basketball bond

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Former Butler University and Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens could see early on that there was something different about Notre Dame coach Micah Shrewsberry when it came to the game.

Word bounced around Indianapolis area high school basketball circles the way it worked back in the days before cell phones and social media and an ease of access to everyone. 

There were no texts to tap out. No posts to Twitter or to Facebook or to the ‘Gram or to anywhere else. No direct messages or instant messages or any kind of messages other than picking up the phone — often attached to a wall — with a call placed from one basketball buddy to another. 

Someone then would call someone else and so on until later that night, everyone would arrive at a designated time to a designated place and hoop. An open gym up at Carmel High School one night. Maybe down at Bishop Chatard the next. If the weather was nice — for some, the hotter and more humid the better — it would be an outdoor park over in Zionsville. Game sites hopscotched around town. Regardless of where, the same core of prep players showed. Everyone knew everyone. 

That was a mid-1990s summer for a shooting guard from Zionsville High School who would go on to finish his prep career as the school record holder for points, assists, steals and 3-point field goals and a quietly-confident point guard who helped drive Cathedral High School to be one of the area’s top teams. 

That was how Brad Stevens (Zionsville) and Micah Shrewsberry (Cathedral) met and developed a friendship that remains today with the 46-year-old Stevens now president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics and the 46-year-old Shrewsberry now the 18th head coach in Notre Dame men’s basketball program history. 

Notes:How's the future going to come together for Notre Dame men's basketball program?

The Indianapolis natives had little in common. But they had basketball, and if you call anywhere in Indiana home and you have basketball, you have a bond that’s borderline unbreakable. 

That was Shrewsberry. That was Stevens. That was then. This is now. 

“That’s the special part about basketball,” Stevens said by cell phone last week. “It’s all the relationships all the way down the line, from high school teammates to AAU teammates to college teammates to people you just play five-on-five with. 

“Bill Bradley once said that you can tell more about playing in a three-on-three game with somebody in 20 minutes than you can learn in an interview, or something to that effect. I think that’s so true.” 

What Stevens learned about Shrewsberry took time to formulate. They often would be paired against one another in those open gyms. Stevens was more concerned with getting his teammates involved, getting the ball to where it needed to go (in the basket) and getting the win, than watching Shrewsberry work. 

When Zionsville wasn’t playing but Cathedral was, Stevens could sit and watch and drill down on Shrewsberry the player. The way he ran the team, the way he ran everything. The way he seemed to work two, three moves ahead of everyone. Stevens was impressed, and filed that intel away for another day. 

“He was kind of an orchestrator,” Stevens said. “When you thought about pure point guards and move the ball and get people in the right spots and lead from the point of attack, he was that. 

Noie:Shrewsberry basically went wire to wire as top choice for Notre Dame men's basketball coach

Micah Shrewberry, right, spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics and coach Brad Stevens.

The NBA road leads back to college

Shrewsberry and Stevens went on to play their prep careers at their respective schools before going off to college. Stevens went to DePauw; Shrewsberry went to Hanover. Both played at that Division III level. Both embarked on different paths into coaching. Shrewsberry started as an assistant at Division III Wabash; Stevens’ first job was in administrative role at Butler. 

Both wound up back together at Butler in 2007. Stevens was the head coach, Shrewsberry the assistant. It was the start of a decade of working together, coaching together, game-planning together, winning and losing together. Growing together. Learning together. Being together. 

You seldom saw one without the other in a gym. Even away from it. 

“Brad is a great mentor; he’s a great friend,” Shrewsberry said. “What I learned during that time was the genius of who he is, how he treats people. How you communicate with players, how you get the best out of your players. How you mold a team. 

“Who he is as a person is more of how I try to be.” 

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As a head coach, Stevens knew early on that he needed Shrewsberry and his knowledge, his insight, his vision next to him. First, it was at Butler. Then, in a move that stunned the basketball world in the summer of 2013, it was off to the Celtics. If Stevens was going to make that massive leap, so would Shrewsberry, who spent six seasons in the NBA. It was Stevens as the head coach and Shrewsberry as his lead assistant often seated immediately to his left on the Boston bench. 

He was way more than that. 

Shrewsberry helped orchestrate the Boston defense. He dabbled in some offensive sets. In the offseason, he served as summer-league head coach. One of the first people young players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and former Notre Dame and Marian High School standout Demetrius Jackson got to know when they became Celtics wasn’t Stevens, but Shrewsberry. 

“When he was here, especially with his college background, I thought it made a lot of sense for him to work with the college guys we drafted,” said Stevens. “He was used to that age group. He could help them. He was great with making sure guys understood it’s a long journey.” 

While those young guys embarked on their individual journeys, Shrewsberry always believed he and his family were on a different one. It didn’t include the 82-game grind of the NBA and then two-plus months of high-level playoff basketball while chasing the franchise’s 18th world championship. After six seasons in Boston, Shrewsberry — and Stevens — knew that it was time to return to college. 

Shrewsberry had to leave if he wanted to continue to grow — to learn how to become a head coach at the high-major Division I level. His only experience was the three seasons he spent as the first full-time head coach at IU South Bend. That wasn’t nearly enough. He needed more. 

Going back to college meant leaving behind Stevens and his family, who’d become like family. Their houses were miles apart in a Boston suburb. Their wives spent a ton of time together. Their kids were together all the time. If the Stevens car didn’t have the Shrewsberry’s four kids in it, the Shrewsberry’s car had the Stevens’ two kids in it. That’s how the two families rolled — as one. 

“It was a really special relationship with them,” Stevens said. “It was hard to see them go, but it really was clear that he wanted to go back and coach in college.” 

Two seasons back in college basketball and working for Matt Painter at Purdue helped Micah Shrewsberry understand what it's like to be a head coach - with your own program - at the Division I level.

What's it all going to look like?

In 2019, Shrewsberry returned for a second assistant coaching tour at Purdue under Matt Painter, a move that Stevens believes was critical in helping groom Shrewsberry to become a high-major head coach. 

If Shrewsberry wanted to learn, he’d learn a ton under Painter. 

“It made sense,” Stevens said. “If you want to be a head coach, I think Matt is the best to go back and work with. He really empowers his staff. He's been great with helping people take that next step. Micah going back for those two years was huge.” 

Shrewsberry learned how to run a program. He learned how to balance recruiting and roster development and game-planning and everything else head coaches have to handle. He devised defenses. He offered some offensive sets. He grew as a person and as a college coach. He was ready to run a program. His program. 

“That,” Stevens said, “was just a perfect setup for his success at Penn State.” 

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Everywhere that basketball took Shrewsberry — to Purdue for two years, then to Penn State for two — Stevens remained a call away. The two often talked and/or texted, especially after a game that might not have gone Shrewsberry’s way. It's easy to get with a friend after a win, but your true friends, they’ll get with you and listen to you long into the night after a loss. 

No matter how busy Stevens was in Boston, he’d take the time to talk with the guy he calls Shrews on the phone after a loss. Especially after a loss. 

“He’s probably tired of me,” Shrewsberry said. “The biggest thing is, he’s a friend; he’s there for you.” 

Stevens was there for Shrewsberry as the hiring process at Notre Dame fast-tracked his friend back to Indiana last month. He’s still there for Shrewsberry, but knows there’s so much on his plate in South Bend that the two likely won’t talk as often until he settles in. 

“Having a 30-minute shoot-the-breeze phone call with a friend is hard to squeeze in,” Stevens said. “You don’t feel like 24 hours is enough time in a day (but) he knows we’re always available if he needs us. I told him, hey, call me if you want, but I know what you’re going through.” 

That would be weathering a tornado of tasks. Taking over a new job is tough enough in figuring out where your family will live, where your kids will go to school, where everything is around campus and how it all works.  

For Shrewsberry, it’s multi-fold. He has to hire a coaching/support staff. He has to reconstruct an Irish roster that currently carries four returning players and one incoming freshman. He has to recruit. He has to solidify the schedule for 2023-24. He has to establish a culture. He has to get to know Notre Dame. 

He might catch his breath come August. Stevens is certain that when it comes time to have everything ready, Shrewsberry will have it ready. 

“He’ll be really smart in how they go about not only building out the roster for next year but also building out for the future,” Stevens said. “I have no doubt that they’ll fill it with a group that will be ultra-competitive and good. He’s got an idea that greatness and excellence is really measured in sustainability. 

“He’ll build Notre Dame to be sustainable.” 

Shrewsberry will do it his way, something that he’s been building toward since those summer nights of pickup at Cathedral, even if he didn’t know it. Notre Dame might be competitive again in the Atlantic Coast Conference sooner than later. Notre Dame might win a lot sooner than later. People might be interested in the Irish sooner than later. 

It all might take everyone by surprise. It won’t surprise Stevens. Nothing about Shrewsberry has since their basketball paths crossed. Shrewsberry as a head coach at Notre Dame remains a great unknown. Not to Stevens. 

Just wait, he said. You’ll see. Soon. 

“When you go back and watch the two of us play, you’d have said, well, he’s the coach,” Stevens said. “He knows the game. He knows people. He’s super sharp. He’s so much smarter than I am.”  

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.